Four months ago, a blistering report released by a State Department Advisory Commission led by former Ambassador Edward Djerjerian called for "an immediate end to the absurd and dangerous underfunding of public diplomacy in a time of peril." The commission argued that winning a war of ideas would require more than empty rhetoric or war-defending propaganda and called for increases in funding, seamless interagency cooperation, and a long-term commitment to seeing through much needed reforms. Unfortunately, the president’s new budget request fails to meet this challenge, reflecting a "business-as-usual" attitude and a humble 3.8 percent increase in funding. On Capitol Hill last week the new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Margaret Tutwiler, acknowledged that America’s image abroad would take "many years of hard, focused work" to restore – but she defended the weak request.

In the past few months senior administration officials including Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Rice have publicly called for a war of ideas to complement America’s military efforts to defeat global terrorism. However, any effort to wage a war of ideas must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is no good public diplomacy for bad public policy. Radical fundamentalist madrassas stoking the fires of anti-Americanism have no shortage of ammunition to draw upon: a failed roadmap to peace in the Middle East; an ill-defined war on terrorism; inflammatory rhetoric about U.S. power; questions about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and a quasi-imperial occupation with no clear end in sight.

But even good news in the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan will not be enough to lift America’s sagging image abroad. The war of ideas is about more than convincing the world to go along with the administration’s failed policies. In the context of the war in Iraq, a war of ideas will be seen by those outside of the United States for exactly what it is: an attempt by the Bush administration to divert attention away from its lack of success on the ground.

Public diplomacy begins with a set of sound ideas. The intellectual battleground for the war of ideas should pit political freedom against autocratic rule, economic opportunity against elite corruption, and integration with the world against ever-growing isolation. American values of political freedom, self-government, and free markets could be an effective antidote to the three major deficits identified in the 2002 Arab Human Development Report – governance, women’s empowerment, and access to knowledge.

The starting point is a truly international initiative. Promoting democracy is a goal valued not only by the United States but also by its allies. Undersecretary Tutwiler, under the auspices of the G-8, should call a high-level meeting focused on public diplomacy. Moderate Muslim nations, including Turkey and Indonesia, should be critical players in determining the agenda and building a strategy.

There should be three pillars:

  • Promoting Alternative Media Sources. The United States needs to internationalize its efforts to develop alternative media sources in the Muslim world. Investments in radio and satellite television are critical, but these instruments need not be purely American (i.e. Radio Sawa and the Pentagon’s Iraqi Media Network). They should be shaped and supported by our allies, as well as the people in the region.
  • Investing in Local Ideas. Multilateral efforts should engage audiences and activists on the ground in Muslim countries to counter the radicals’ rhetoric= Investing in the establishment of think-tanks, local universities, and programs for youth is a critical part of a long-term strategy for countering fundamentalism in the societies in which it is taking root.
  • Strengthening Educational Exchange Programs. Higher education is a powerful export of the United States and its allies and it should be employed as a tool to counter the rise of fundamentalism. But America need not accept the entire burden. Facilitating educational exchanges for moderate Muslims in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Australia, and even in new Muslim democracies should be an equal priority.

As a start, the recommendations of the Djerejian Commission must be swiftly and fully implemented. Fundamental changes in process, organization, staffing, and funding are clearly required. Short of a new, credible effort to promote shared global values of freedom and opportunity, public diplomacy will continue to conflate what Americans stand for with what the propaganda purveyors hope the world will come to believe.

Michael Pan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. Jeremy Weinstein is a research fellow at the Center for Global Development.

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