Public Diplomacy, Citizen Diplomacy

Public diplomacy has become a buzzword over the past few years, particularly with regard to outreach to public opinion vis à vis the U.S. in the Arab World. President Obama’s inaugural address and subsequent interview with Al Arabiya are notable examples of how seriously the new administration is taking the matter.

But what about the Arab world’s public diplomacy vis à vis American opinion of it? If the English-language Website of the League of Arab States — better known as the Arab League — is any indication, it doesn’t seem to be a very high priority.

The U.S. seems to be carrying the water on both sides of this divide, responsible for addressing both post-9/11 American backlash against the Muslim world, as well as the broader Arab/Muslim backlash against the U.S. Nothing wrong there, but it seems to me that public diplomacy would be more effective if it were operating as a two-way street.

Since I’m on the subject, I’ll also mention a recurring thought I’ve been having lately about the public diplomacy discussion, namely the absence of citizen diplomacy from a lot of it. One fleeting personal experience can often offset media-constructed images, and Americans, like most people around the world, are pretty decent and generous folks. I can’t count the number of times over my eight years now in France where I’ve heard very harsh critics of American foreign policy suddenly soften their tone with a personal recollection of having traveled in America.

Just this weekend, someone told me a story of being bumped from a flight at JFK in NY, with not a penny to his name. (Ah, the good old days of Lonely Planet travel.) Just when he had resigned himself to sleeping in the airport, a stranger in the same boat brought him to a distant aunt’s apartment in Queens for the night, paying for the cabride there and back to the airport the following day. Twenty years later, this man hadn’t forgotten that simple gesture, and he never will. And I suspect that, while he might one day find himself criticizing America, he will never harden towards Americans.

I’m not arguing for a new “Peace Corps” initiative, since the challenge seems no longer to save the world so much as to reaquaint ourselves with it, and vice versa. Something more along the lines of George Mitchell’s listening tour, as part of a broader citizen exchange program. Not easy, perhaps, at a time of bel-tightening, but useful and necessary.