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The Medium is the Message

Turns out Karen Hughes isn't bad at public diplomacy after all

In early January, more than 150 executives from America's top communications firms gathered in Washington, D.C. for a landmark summit at the State Department on how companies can help improve America's image abroad. The summit capped nearly two years of State engaging the private sector to boost its public diplomacy efforts, a dramatic change from the 1990s and early 2000s, when a withering public diplomacy apparatus too rarely worked with private industry.

The summit was but one of many new initiatives developed by Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes. Since taking the position as America's chief communicator two years ago, Hughes has reinvigorated public diplomacy, government policies designed to understand and shape foreign opinion. Unfortunately, however, even as she remakes the nuts and bolts of public diplomacy, Hughes refuses to stand back and let her policies, rather than her own image, take center stage.

When she took the job, many commentators doubted Hughes, a longtime Bush advisor who had spent little time abroad as an adult and who shared few political beliefs with the generally liberal Foreign Service. Yet in a short period of time, Hughes has remade how American public diplomacy operates--and in an era when America's global stature has never been lower, Hughes's efforts could prove critical. Rather than allow individual embassies and State Department bureaus to respond on their own to criticism of the United States, a policy that often lagged behind today's 24-hour news cycle, Hughes has created a rapid response team inside State's Bureau of Public Affairs. This team follows newscasts around the world and offers a set of talking points every day to respond to breaking international news and, in particular, rebut negative media stories about the United States in the Muslim world.

State's public affairs officers and Foreign Service officials then carry out this message. According to The Washington Post, Hughes has pushed State to add public diplomacy skills to the criteria used for evaluating ambassadors' performances. And she has overseen a reorganization at Foggy Bottom that has embedded relatively senior public diplomacy officers in every regional bureau at the State Department and has created public diplomacy hubs in places like Dubai, so the United States can respond more quickly to events in the Middle East.

Hughes also appears to have proven a forceful advocate for greater funding to carry out her vision. Spending on public diplomacy in the Middle East rose roughly 25 percent between 2004 and 2006, while spending on such efforts in South Asia grew nearly 40 percent during that time. Scholarly exchange programs like the Fulbright initiative have been revived, with the number of scholarships up more than 50 percent over the past decade. Cultural diplomacy, like overseas tours by U.S. artists and musicians, was a critical part of American public diplomacy during the Cold War, since these exchanges created person-to-person contacts with communist nations and also helped overcome Soviet Bloc propaganda about the United States. Spending on this kind of programming had plummeted in the past decade, but between 2000 and 2006, it tripled. Last year, State created the Global Cultural Initiative, a new effort to coordinate all the government-backed art, music, and literature programs abroad. And by this winter, even some of Hughes's harshest initial critics inside Foggy Bottom and in the community of public diplomacy scholars privately were admitting she'd been successful.

Despite her close ties to the president, Hughes even seems to recognize that unless the United States admits that many of Bush's policies have been unwise, America can never win a global public opinion battle. So she has supported putting U.S. diplomats on Al Jazeera, which despite its frequently anti-American reporting remains a critical Middle East media outlet. Al Jazeera "reaches a wide audience, and I feel that if we're not appearing on that station, we're missing an opportunity," Hughes told the House Committee on International Relations in 2005. She even has admitted that the war in Iraq has done great damage to America's global image.

Too bad, then, that Hughes threatens all her efforts by doing the one thing no diplomat should ever do: Making herself the story. Though she speaks no foreign languages, has a limited understanding of the world, and offers a folksy Texan persona that translates poorly into Arabic or Indonesian, Hughes is convinced that she must travel the world as an ambassador of American public diplomacy.

The results, to put it mildly, have been poor. On her first "listening tour," in autumn 2005, Hughes offered rote responses to questions about U.S. foreign policy, often descending into platitudes emphasizing herself as a mother and a caring listener without engaging her audiences. "I look forward to shaking each of your hands and having you give me a hug!" Hughes enthused in Turkey, according to The New York Times. Responses ranged from polite applause to outright hostility toward Hughes. "Audiences asked tough questions, and Hughes gave them non-answers," reported the Los Angeles Times. Even the conservative Weekly Standard mocked Hughes, reporting that she repeated the same messages of motherhood over and over.

Yet Hughes apparently did not learn from the first listening tour debacle. In 2006 and 2007, she was at it again. She swept through the Philippines and China. She embarked on another international "listening tour." She penned a high-profile op-ed in USA Today in which she seemed to blame other nations for not understanding the United States' policies--though placing blame is a major no-no in public diplomacy. Turns out, apparently, that the master messager still does not realize that she's her own worst message.

By Joshua Kurlantzick