Public Diplomacy: Lessons from King and Mandela

Charles Wolf Jr & Brian Rosen. Policy Review. Volume 133. October/November 2005.

America has an image problem. While the problem is serious, it is complicated by more variation than is usual ascribed to it. For example, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey of June 2005, the “U.S. image [is] up slightly, but still [is] negative.” This variation is further reflected by the fact that in two of the world’s potentially most important triangular relationships—namely, those between China, Japan, and the U.S. and between India, Pakistan, and the U.S.—it is the United States that is regarded as most friendly by the other two members of each triad.

America’s image problem is especially acute in the Middle East and among predominantly Muslim populations. Recent polls highlight the depth and breadth of the animus. In 1002, Gallup conducted a poll of nearly 10,000 residents in nine Muslim countries. By an average of more than 2:1, respondents reported an unfavorable view of the United States. The prevalence of an unfavorable view in Iran is unsurprising because that country has had an adversarial relation with the United States for more than 20 years. More troubling are the results from ostensible allies. Only 16 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia, supposedly one of America’s long-standing allies in the region, held a favorable view, while 64 percent reported an unfavorable view. Results from Kuwait were even more disconcerting. In a country that the United States waged war to liberate a decade earlier, only slightly more than a quarter of those polled expressed a favorable view of the United States.

This displeasure cannot be easily dismissed as vague and loose views held by those in remote lands whose attitudes and behavior are immaterial to the U.S. It may not foreshadow calamitous outcomes for the U.S., but it hardly provides reassurance that such outcomes will not ensue. As President George W. Bush plainly stated the task, “We have to do a better job of telling our story.” That is the job of public diplomacy.

The term “public diplomacy” was first used in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, a career foreign service diplomat and subsequently dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in connection with establishment at the Fletcher School of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy. The Department of State now defines “public diplomacy” as “government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries.” But it can perhaps best be understood by contrasting its principal characteristics with those of “official diplomacy.” First, public diplomacy is transparent and widely disseminated, whereas official diplomacy is (apart from occasional leaks) opaque and its dissemination narrowly confined. Second, public diplomacy is transmitted by governments to wider, or in some cases selected, “publics” (for example, those in the Middle East or in the Muslim world), whereas official diplomacy is transmitted by governments to other governments. Third, the themes and issues with which official diplomacy is concerned relate to the behavior and policies of governments, whereas the themes and issues with which public diplomacy is concerned relate to the attitudes and behaviors of publics.

Of course, these publics may be influenced by explaining to them the sometimes-misunderstood policies and behavior of the U.S. government. Additionally, to the extent that the behavior and policies of foreign governments are affected by the behavior and attitudes of their citizens, public diplomacy may affect governments by influencing their citizens.

In this article, we consider how to inform and persuade foreign publics that the ideals that Americans cherish—such as pluralism, freedom, and democracy—are fundamental human values that will resonate and should be pursued in their own countries. Associated with this consideration are two questions that are rarely addressed in most discussions of public diplomacy: Should the U.S. government be the only, or even the main, transmitter of public diplomacy’s content rather than sharing this function with such other potential transmitters as nongovernmental (nonprofit) organizations and responsible business, labor, and academic entities? Should public diplomacy transmissions and transactions be viewed and conducted to encourage dialogue or “multilogue” (for example, through call-ins, debates, structured “cross-fires”) rather than as a monologue through one-way transmission by the U.S.?

Private Goods and Public Goods

Four linked propositions—each of questionable validity—have, implicitly or explicitly, motivated the U.S. to energize and improve its “public diplomacy.” Partly reflecting these propositions, Newton Minow has forcefully advocated the need for this improvement:

  • Prevalence of anti-Americanism abroad—especially but not exclusively in the Middle East and among Muslims more generally—is partly due to the inability of “the United States government to get its message of freedom and democracy out to the one billion Muslims in the world … [and] to explain itself to the world.”
  • Lack of success in conveying the U.S. message has ensued despite the fact that “our film, television, and computer software industries dominate these markets worldwide.”
  • A potential remedy for the failure of our public diplomacy may be found in the “American marketing talent [for] … successfully selling Madonna’s music, Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola, Michael Jordan’s shoes and McDonald’s hamburgers around the world.”
  • Linking these propositions, it might be inferred that America’s “marketing talent” should enable our public diplomacy—”the process of explaining and advocating American values to the world,” as a Rand paper succinctly characterized it—to be more effective in combating anti-Americanism and promoting more positive views of the United States.

The preceding argument suffers from three fundamental flaws. The first arises from the conflation of private goods and public (or collective) goods, and the inference that what works in marketing the former will be effective in marketing the latter. In fact, marketing efforts and marketing skills attuned to and grandly successful in promoting private goods may be illadapted to promoting public goods.

Madonna’s music and McDonald’s hamburgers are private goods whose marketing can describe and evoke a personal experience. Individual consumers can readily connect with these products by seeing, listening, feeling, tasting, and smelling and asking whether one’s personal responses are positive or negative. Where private goods are under scrutiny, each consumer can decide for herself apart from what others decide or prefer. Empirical validation is accessible at low cost.

Public goods, such as democracy, tolerance, the rule of law and, more generally, American values and the “American story” are very different. Here, the meaning, quality, and benefits associated with these public goods depend largely on a high degree of understanding, acceptance, adoption, and practice by others rather than by individuals acting alone. For example, one person’s valuation of tolerance depends to a considerable extent on its reciprocal acceptance, valuation, and practice by others. Not only are these public goods “non-rivalrous,” but realization of individual benefits from them depends on their collective adoption (consumption) by all, or at least by the larger group of which the individual is a part. And the benefits of these collective goods, once the goods are provided, are accessible to others without imposing any additional costs on them. Beneficiaries of private goods pay incrementally for the benefits they receive. Beneficiaries of public goods do not.

Acceptance of and support (including funding) for private goods depends on purchases of discrete amounts of these goods by individual consumers at market-based prices. Acceptance of and support for public goods depends on other means: namely, on endorsement by a constituency whose members collectively share in the benefits of the collective goods and (directly or indirectly, and sooner or later) can accept the burden and responsibility of their attendant costs.

Another key difference is that because private goods are discrete and separable (“rivalrous”), one person’s taste for and consumption of a private good does not require another to consume the same good. The situation is different for public goods, which must be collectively consumed (hence, nonrivalrous), or at least collectively purchased. Similarly, those who dislike a private good may largely insulate themselves from its distastefulness simply by refusing to consume it. Because public goods are collectively consumed, no one is shielded or insulated from them. Their availability to one beneficiary entails their imposition on all. An individual can consume a Madonna CD without any one else doing so, but that same individual cannot consume democratic values unless democratic values have been collectively adopted and sustained.

This difference creates barriers for the potential consumers of public goods that the potential consumers of private goods do not face. A constituency group that regards voting rights, women’s rights, civil liberties, and democratic values as collectively appealing public goods may therefore face hostility from an implacable adversary group which regards this package as offensive public “bads.” We will discuss later certain Muslim groups that illustrate the respective designations of constituencies and adversaries.

Such are the differences between public goods and private goods that methods and techniques for effectively marketing one cannot be presumed to be successful in marketing the other. Success in each of these arenas may depend on rules and strategies as different from one another as those that account for success in basketball differ from those accounting for success in football.

The second flaw is that among some groups, cultures, and subcultures, American values and institutions are already reasonably well understood yet intensely resisted and disliked. Misunderstanding isn’t the principal source of anti-Americanism. Rather, the source lies in explicit rejection of some of the salient characteristics of American values and institutions. Women’s rights, open and competitive markets, equal and secret voting rights, let alone materialism and conspicuous display, are, in some places and for some groups, resented, rejected, and bitterly opposed. When this hostility is mixed with envy, the combination can lead to violent resistance.

The third flaw is that some U.S. policies have been, are, and will continue to be major sources of anti-Americanism in some quarters. The most obvious and enduring policies that arouse anti-Americanism stem from strong U.S. support for Israel. Much of the Middle East views this stance as providing support for an already strong, dominant, and overbearing military occupation, while U.S. concern and support for the plight of the Palestinian victims is viewed as half-hearted and grudging. To explain, let alone extenuate, U.S. support for Israel as actually a reflection of democratic values, tolerance, and the defense of freedom rather than a denial of these values to the Palestinians may be an insuperable task.

Nevertheless, public diplomacy may mitigate this source of anti-Americanism. What we have in mind is not a concession to the cliché that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Instead, public diplomacy might emphasize the long history of U.S. support for Muslim Bosnians, Kosovars, and Albanians in forcefully combating the brutal ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 19908. This support often placed the U.S. in strong opposition to both Russia’s backing of the Serbs against the Bosnian Muslims and European reluctance to commit military forces in accord with Europe’s verbal condemnation of ethnic cleansing.

Another part of the story that could be usefully conveyed to the Muslim “constituency” by U.S. public diplomacy is the perennial American support for Muslim Turkey’s admission to the European Union, also perennially and vehemently opposed by the European Union, especially by Germany and France. Reiteration of U.S. support for an independent Palestinian state is a third theme which a suitable public diplomacy could appropriately emphasize.

As important as it is to communicate America’s history of support and defense of Muslim populations, it is equally important to communicate the rationale motivating these policies. In these instances, U.S. policies reflected and furthered the values of democracy, tolerance, the rule of law, and pluralism. The overarching message public diplomacy should convey is that the U.S. tries, although it does not always succeed, to further these values regardless of the religion, ethnicity, or other characteristics of the individuals and groups involved. Highlighting the instances in which the United States has benefited Muslim populations by acting on these values may make this point more salient.

Convincing others that U.S. efforts to further these values are genuine, persistent, and enduring requires that those receiving the message believe that the values themselves are worthwhile, that they are “goods.” Potential opposition to U.S. policies among Muslim groups can be divided into three discrete groups: those who accept that the values America seeks are goods; those who may believe that the values America seeks are not goods but desire to achieve other core goals (such as personal of family betterment, improvements in health, education, skills, and the assurance of personal dignity) that are associated with the preceding values; and those who believe that the goals America seeks, as well as the associated core goals, are bads and would therefore reject the entire package.

The first group is sometimes considered to be the least populous of the three, although one especially knowledgeable observer, Bernard Lewis, has recently suggested that the size and influence of this component of Islam may well be larger than has usually been assumed.

Those in the first category will be most receptive to the contention that U.S. policies are beneficial. Because they already believe that the values the policies seek are goods, they need only be convinced that the policies really do engender these values. Convincing those in the second category requires the antecedent step of convincing the members that the values themselves are associated with goals that are valued by those in this category (e.g., opportunities for personal or family betterment, improvements in health, education, etc.).

These two categories comprise what we have referred to as public diplomacy’s “constituency.” Those in the third category are presumed to be beyond persuasion; they comprise public diplomacy’s “adversary.”

Thus, two tasks emerge. One is to convey and persuade that U.S. policies are pursued because they seek to further values that are already accepted by the audience, including Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. The second is to persuade that the values themselves have other derivative effects that are accepted as goods.

Constituencies and Adversaries

Reflecting on the earlier discussion of the differences between marketing public goods and marketing private goods, and relating that discussion to the previously cited examples of potentially promising public diplomacy themes, we propose the following “constituency/adversary” hypothesis to guide thinking and debate about public diplomacy and the formulation and implementation of more effective public diplomacy efforts by the United States.

Effective marketing of the public goods represented by the values and ideals America cherishes requires two ingredients: first, an existing or identifiable constituency expected to be relatively receptive and more or less congenial to the content of the message to be conveyed by public diplomacy; second, an existing or identifiable adversary whose actual or expected opposition to the public diplomacy message can be directly or indirectly invoked as a challenge and stimulus to mobilize and activate the constituency.

The effectiveness of public diplomacy efforts and messages, and more generally effective marketing of public goods, depends on (a) appealing to the identified constituency by focusing on the goods and goals to be achieved, (b) explicitly or implicitly recognizing the adversary or adversaries standing in the way of the constituency’s interests in the delivery of those goods, and (c) capitalizing on the tension between public diplomacy’s appeal to the constituency and the adversary’s resistance to it.

In some cases and situations, effectiveness may be maximized by focusing the public diplomacy effort on the constituency while ignoring actual or potential opposition by the adversary. Constructing or reconstructing hospitals, clinics, and schools in Iraq is a case in point; their appeal does not need to be highlighted by acknowledging the expected opposition of the adversarial group. Instead, public diplomacy can be advanced by ignoring the potential adversary or relegating it to only limited recognition.

In other cases, public diplomacy’s effectiveness may be maximized by acknowledging—perhaps even anticipating—inhibitory and perhaps violent oppositional efforts to be expected from the adversary. In advance of or in response to, those efforts, the constituency can be mobilized to stand up for the public goods in question. Training and equipping indigenous Iraqi police and self-defense forces are examples—opposed by adversary groups while sought and welcomed by the constituency.

Learning from Past Successes

To test the constituency/adversary hypothesis, we will look at it in relation to past successes in two different contexts of marketing public goods that are, or are close cognates of, core American values, and that were marketed in adverse and at times hostile environments. Specifically, we examine the speeches and public writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his attempt to achieve basic civil rights for people irrespective of color and of Nelson Mandela in his attempt to end apartheid in South Africa.

To be sure, there are manifest differences between the circumstances in which King and Mandela operated and the conduct of public diplomacy by the United States government. King and Mandela were individual charismatic figures whose public causes and public messages were intimately connected with their personal styles and characters. By contrast, public diplomacy is conducted by, or at the instigation of, a government. Despite the differences, the efforts of King and Mandela and of public diplomacy share the central concern of effective marketing of public goods: civil rights, racial equality, and the end of apartheid in the King/Mandela context; democratic values, open societies, and competitive markets in the context of U.S. public diplomacy.

To that end, we have examined a sample of significant, high-profile public writings and speeches of Mandela and King and classified them according to the frequency of references to the good or value to be attained, the constituency addressed, peaceful activities the constituency conducted or was urged to pursue, activities the constituency conducted or was urged to pursue that may or may not be peaceful, violent activities the constituency conducted or was urged to pursue, the adversary, activities of the adversary, and negative remarks about competing leaders. In addition, we summed and characterized as “positive” references to the good or value to be obtained, the constituency, and peaceful activities the constituency conducted or was urged to pursue. We have also summed and characterized as “negative” references to violent activities conducted by the constituency or urged on it, identification of the adversary, activities of the adversary, and negative references about or activities relating to competing leaders. For further details about the data and their analysis see our paper, “Public Diplomacy: How to Think About and Improve It.”

The results reveal stark differences between the approaches of King and Mandela. In every speech or writing, King made substantially more positive than negative references. In contrast, before Mandela was in prison, his negative references always equaled or exceeded the positive ones. After imprisonment, his speeches were markedly different. In each of them, positive references substantially exceeded negative ones.

Turning to the individual categories, the data suggest that King consistently and frequently referred to the good to be achieved as his main focus. In six of the eight works we examined, the good to be achieved was referred to more than any other single reference category. With few exceptions, King gave little attention to the adversary, averaging only one reference to the adversary or to the adversary’s activities per speech. This contrasts markedly with Mandela, who, before prison, made an average of three or four references in each speech to the identified adversaries and their activities. However, after release from prison, Mandela’s emphasis was sharply reversed; his attention focused instead on positive references and on the constituency while rarely making negative references or even mentioning the adversary.

In addition to these general points, a closer look at the individual works suggests lessons that may be applicable to public diplomacy more broadly, and to the constituency/adversary hypothesis in particular.

King’s Public Message

King’s consistent references to the good to be achieved and, in most of his works, to the targeted constituency were purposeful; the linkage he made between the two was strategic. His ultimate aim was “to bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible.” King recognized that doing so—effecting civil rights for blacks—required the assistance of a sizeable portion of white America, which was clearly not his natural core constituency. Hence, King needed to broaden his constituency to include whites.

Attaining sufficient support from moderate whites may have been possible by focusing on the goal of black civil rights, but it was made more probable by framing the goal as something that more obviously appealed to this sought-after additional constituency. To this end, King did not speak merely of black civil rights for its own sake. He linked black civil rights as beneficial, indeed essential, for America as a whole. He portrayed attaining black rights as inextricably linked to fulfilling America’s purpose and promise as a nation predicated on freedom and democracy. The following quotations are illustrative:

We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens, and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.

We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.

Also illustrative is the motto that was chosen for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “To save the soul of America.”

The linkage between the framing of goals and the targeted constituency is strong and clear. King’s goal, and his assessment as to what was necessary to accomplish it, compelled him to select a broad constituency (white America). To court it, he needed to seek broader goals, the goals of the broader constituency (the fulfillment of America’s purpose), and to portray the attainment of these broader goals as dependent on the attainment of the specific, narrower goals (black civil rights) that he sought. Through this tactic, he elicited the support of white America (the broader constituency) for black civil rights (the narrower goal).

Something similar may be relevant and important for public diplomacy in the Middle East, and specifically for affecting positively the behavior and attitudes of those who believe the values America seeks are “bads” but nonetheless desire core goals, such as personal or family betterment, with which these American values are linked. This middle group should be among the constituencies targeted by American public diplomacy. To enlist their support requires convincing them that U.S. goals, which this group may currently oppose, are inextricably linked to other goals this group favors—family and personal betterment, improvements in health, education, and opportunity.

King’s treatment of adversaries is also instructive. King rarely identified adversaries. Even when speaking of those he deemed responsible for the travails of black people, he relied on past tense and the passive voice (indicated in italics below), thereby cushioning the impact of his criticism:

And when our organization was formed ten years ago, racial segregation was still a structured part of the architecture of southern society. Negroes with the pangs of hunger and the anguish of thirst were denied access to the average lunch counter. The downtown restaurants were still off-limits for the black man. Negroes, burdened with the fatigue of travel, were still barred from the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. Negro boys and girls in dire need of recreational activities were not allowed to inhale the fresh air of the big city parks. Negroes in desperate need of allowing their mental buckets to sink deep into the wells of knowledge were confronted with a firm “no” when they sought to use the city libraries. Ten years ago, legislative halls of the South were still ringing loud with such words as “interposition” and “nullification.” All types of conniving methods were still being used to keep the Negro from becoming a registered voter. A decade ago, not a single Negro entered the legislative chambers of the South except as a porter or a chauffeur. Ten years ago, all too many Negroes were still harried by day and haunted by night by a corroding sense of fear and a nagging sense of nobody-ness. (“Where Do We Go from Here?”)

In this passage, the passive voice is both appropriate and effective: appropriate because the travails were in the past and have since been overcome and effective because the passive voice castigates past adversaries without necessarily implicating present ones. The following passage reflects the same stance:

From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his life and destiny he has been subject to the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure. (“Where Do We Go from Here?”)

In the above passage, King points to the “white power structure.” For King, this constituted a fairly specific labeling of an adversary. Even this relatively innocuous labeling was unusual, for he rarely referred to specific adversaries. On those few occasions when he did, he seldom described them as invidiously as does the phrase “white power structure,” a term that could be considered denigrating to white America generally and thus might inhibit his ability to gain the support of this prospective constituency.

Instead, King preferred to characterize adversaries in more impersonal terms. For example, he referred to the “bullies and the guns and the dogs and the tear gas” without referring to who was controlling the dogs or wielding the guns or the tear gas. He referred to “a system that still oppresses” without referring to who controlled or supported that system.

Nevertheless, on those infrequent occasions when King did not use the passive voice and referred directly to adversaries, he chose labels with intensely pejorative connotations: for example, “bloodthirsty mobs,” “hooded perpetrators of violence,” “close-minded reactionaries,” “Klansmen,” and “White Citizens Counsilors [sic].”

King’s occasional references to adversaries also may have been designed to appeal to the constituency he sought. Characterizing the adversary in terms of ideological extremes may have been a conscious strategy, implying there is a choice to be made: between supporting King and the goals he espouses or supporting the extremists and the goals they espouse. When the rhetoric is framed this way, the targeted constituency would be more likely to adopt the former position.

This too may be applicable to public diplomacy in the Middle East. Care should be taken in the labeling of adversaries so as not unintentionally to disparage those to whom the U.S. is trying to appeal. Whether there are circumstances in which intentional disparagement may be warranted remains an open issue. In general, adversaries might be identified not as individuals, but as unnamed perpetrators among those committed to extremism, totalitarianism, murder, exploitation of women, and other odious activities which the targeted constituency resists.

Mandela’s Public Message

Mandela, like king, claimed to seek a broad constituency: “Though certain individuals raised the question of a united front of all the oppressed groups,” he said,

the various non-European organisations stood miles apart from one another and the efforts of those for co-ordination and unity were like a voice crying in the wilderness and it seemed that the day would never dawn when the oppressed people would stand and fight together shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy. Today we talk of the struggle of the oppressed people which, though it is waged through their respective autonomous organisations, is gravitating towards one central command.

Attaining a broad constituency, however, proved to be elusive for Mandela. This was partly due to a greater fragmentation among the “oppressed people” (Mandela’s core constituency) than there had been among King’s core constituency. But achieving a broad constituency also may have been hindered by the often-divisive rhetoric Mandela employed in his pre-prison phase:

The Society of Young Africa (or SOYA), like its parent body the Unity Movement from which it broke away a few years ago, is an insignificant sect of bitter and frustrated intellectuals who have completely lost confidence in themselves, who have no political ambitions whatsoever and who abhor serious political struggle. In the whole history of their existence they have never found it possible to rise above the level of saboteurs and scandalmongers. Together with the Peter Makhenes and the Sons of Zululand they invariably disappear from the political scene and suddenly come to light fighting side by side with the police to oppose the just struggles of the African people. Africans know who their friends and enemies are and these cliques are treated throughout the country with the contempt they deserve. No useful purpose will be served by wasting more ink and paper on bogus organisations which, under the pretext of ultra-revolutionary language, permit themselves to be used by the police against the struggles of their kith and kin. The attitude of former members of the PAC on the stay-at-home [issue] has been one of shocking contradiction and amazing confusion. Nothing has been more disastrous to themselves than their pathetic attempts to sabotage the demonstrations. Even locally there were many former PAC people who bitterly disagreed with their leaders and who felt that they could not follow the stupid and disastrous blunders they were advocating.

Such vituperative rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the modulated rhetoric of King. Those referred to in the Mandela quotation may have been competing leaders rather than adversaries. Nonetheless, the language Mandela used may have made it more difficult to appeal to some of those whose support he was seeking.

In addition, the subjects of Mandela’s castigation extended beyond competing leaders to adversaries. At times, as did King, Mandela took great care to identify and limit the adversary. “I would like to emphasize the aims of our Campaign over again. We are not in opposition to any government or class of people. We are opposing a system which has for years kept a vast section of the non-European people in bondage.” But much of Mandela’s rhetoric made this claim difficult to believe. Often, his language could be interpreted as viewing all whites as adversaries.

The cumulative effect of all these measures is to prop up and perpetuate the artificial and decaying policy of the supremacy of the white men. The attitude of the government to us is that: “Let’s beat them down with guns and batons and trample them under our feet. We must be ready to drown the whole country in blood if only there is the slightest chance of preserving white supremacy.” But there is nothing inherently superior about the herrenvolk idea of the supremacy of the whites. In China, India, Indonesia and Korea, American, British, Dutch and French Imperialism, based on the concept of the supremacy of Europeans over Asians, has been completely and perfectly exploded. (“No Easy Walk to Freedom”)

At times, Mandela made efforts to praise those whites who supported his cause and could be construed as an actual or potential part of his constituency: “European students at the University of Rhodes, and at the Witwatersrand University, also played a prominent part in the demonstrations. Their support showed that even amongst the Whites the forces of challenge and opposition to White supremacy exist and are ready to join battle whenever the call is made.”(“General Strike”) This reveals an attempt to distinguish whites generally from whites who believed in white supremacy. By this bifurcation, Mandela sought to enhance his appeal to a broader constituency than the one already predisposed to support the beliefs and goals he was advocating.

But sometimes his rhetoric failed to distinguish carefully and adequately between those whites who supported or might support his goals and those who opposed them. The introduction Mandela gave to the argument made at his trial particularly illustrates this failure.

I might also mention that in the course of this application I am frequently going to refer to the white man and the white people. I want at once to make it clear that I am no racialist, and I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or from a white man. The terminology that I am going to employ will be compelled on me by the nature of the application I am making.

Mandela’s claims not to be a “racialist” could have been easily dismissed by whites based on what appears to be his frequent use of racialism. It is not that Mandela was insincere or incorrect in claiming that he was not a racialist and that not all whites were his adversaries. Even if it was unintended, he made it too easy for whites to believe he was insincere or incorrect. And the use of rhetoric that invites this belief may have contributed to Mandela’s failure to amass a broad appeal among whites prior to imprisonment.

After Mandela emerged from prison, he was, at least publicly, a different and improved leader. Before his imprisonment, Mandela was in the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was a fractionalized organization, one of several representing black people in South Africa. Thus, he was constantly competing for a constituency both inside and outside the ANC, and that constituency was narrow; it was limited to blacks and some of the other oppressed people.

While in prison, Mandela’s perspective and stature increased. First, he became the leader of the ANC prisoners, which entailed fighting for improved conditions and representing prisoners in meetings with government officials, foreign dignitaries, and, most importantly, journalists. Second, he benefited from a 1980 strategic decision of the ANC to cast him as the central figure in its international political campaign.

By the time of his release, Mandela was legendary. His was the face of and the name synonymous with the movement to end apartheid—a stark difference from when he was one leader among many in an organization among many and he was fighting desperately for a constituency. The strategy of the ANC gave Mandela a constituency that had become broader and deeper than it had been, extending beyond South Africa to include the international community and consisting of a sizeable white component.

Mandela’s public comments reflected these changes. As the following quotations illustrate, he became more careful in calling for a broad constituency and in selecting his adversary, frequently characterizing the latter as “apartheid” rather than as “whites”:

It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too. We call on the international community to continue the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime. To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid.

Mandela’s tactics did not transform completely; his characterization of “whites” as adversaries was less frequent, but it still occurred.

The extent of the deprivation of millions of people has to be seen to be believed. The injury is made that more intolerable by the opulence of our white compatriots and the deliberate distortion of the economy to feed that opulence.

[T]he white minority government is using every means at its disposal to maintain economic power in the hands of the whites and big business in particular. The intention is, of course, to ensure that whites continue to enjoy a privileged life style.

The differences in approaches between Mandela and King may have been due to different contexts. King sought a broader constituency by seeking to enlist the aid of moderate whites. Mandela was more polarizing: He did not strive to appeal to whites. Perhaps in his earlier, pre-imprisonment phase, he considered attaining such support to be so unlikely that the only way to move forward was not through internal change, as King contemplated and indeed achieved, but through greater polarization to galvanize the situation to crisis levels, thereby compelling action by the international community. In this scenario, “the international community” becomes subrogated to the role of “broader constituency” that Mandela evoked indirectly, whose counterpart within the U.S. King had mobilized directly.

Assuming this was Mandela’s intended strategy, the question presented is whether this strategy can be a model for public diplomacy in the Middle East. Which better applies to public diplomacy there: the context and strategy of King, focusing on a broad and expanding core constituency, or the context and strategy of Mandela, focusing initially on mobilizing his constituency by severe and hostile depiction of its adversary while later modulating this message in order to make the constituency broader and more inclusive?

Next Steps

The preceding question highlights a dilemma facing U.S. public diplomacy in general, and especially in the Middle East. On the one hand, there is a risk, which we might call the “King risk,” that a new, perhaps more sensitive and tactful public diplomacy effort may be too passive and ineffectual because its strategy is to appeal to an overly broad constituency, and therefore may appear bland and trite. On the other hand, there is a risk, perhaps the “Mandela risk,” of appearing combative and arrogant if the adopted strategy seeks to mobilize the more receptive constituencies by aggressively identifying and targeting specific adversaries within the Muslim community. Identifying real “adversaries” both within the Middle East (militant and autocratic Islamists, for example) and outside it (such as some Europeans—especially Germany and France—who have adamantly and perennially opposed admission of Muslim Turkey to the European Union) may hedge against the first risk but would increase exposure to the second.

Yet this dilemma is perhaps too sharply drawn. Mixed strategies may be feasible, with different emphasis placed on avoiding one risk without unduly increasing the other. Moreover, the effective mix may prudently change or alternate over time, as did Mandela’s strategy and message before and following his imprisonment.

The challenge that faced King and Mandela in the past and now faces U.S. public diplomacy is how to formulate and transmit a compelling case espousing public goods: civil rights in the U.S. and South Africa in the King Mandela contexts; open and free societies, tolerance, and human rights in the case of U.S. public diplomacy. As in the U.S. and South African settings, Middle East ethnography and sociology are no less susceptible to distinctions among different groups of Muslims in terms of their acceptance or rejection of the public goods that the U.S. cherishes for itself and favors for others. For example, Cheryl Benard distinguishes among four ideological positions in the Muslim world. From right to left:

  • Fundamentalists, who reject democratic values and Western culture and endorse violence to resist these values;
  • Traditionalists, who want a conservative society and are suspicious of modernity, innovation, and change;
  • Modernists, who want to reform Islam to bring it into line with the modern world;
  • Secularists, who want Islam to accept a division between mosque and state.

Benard suggests that the primary constituency for a realistic public diplomacy should be the modernists. The secularists and traditionalists comprise in varying degrees intermediate and shifting groups that, depending on the issue and circumstances, may join with the modernists. Fundamentalists can be consigned—more or less unalterably—to an adversarial role. Benard suggests they should be opposed “energetically.” Such energetic opposition may help unify and strengthen the modernist constituency.

It may be that the ideological spectrum cannot be so neatly cleaved into these four categories. There may be a significant overlap of traditionalists and modernists: people who are troubled by the problems in their societies due to a persistent rejection of modernity but wish to retain traditional values. These skeptical modernists (or progressive traditionalists) may lean toward a desire to modernize Islam, if only partially or slowly, and nonetheless be suspicious of a fuller reformation. Depending on the tactics employed, if public diplomacy were to oppose fundamentalists too “energetically,” the effect might be to repel traditionalists or skeptical modernists whose support may be valuable.

Here, the King and Mandela case studies illustrate potential effects of different tactics. The “Mandela risk” warns of stridently targeting fundamentalists in such a broad way that traditionalists and skeptical modernists also feel targeted and their support is driven away. Following King’s approach would counsel focusing not on the fundamentalists, but on the goods the modernists and perhaps the progressive traditionalists seek. The “King risk,” however, is that polarization may be instrumentally necessary and that failing to target the fundamentalists energetically may dissipate the sought-after galvanizing effect on the constituency.

With these thoughts in mind, a few approaches—some new, some old—are worth consideration:

  • The tasks of public diplomacy and the obstacles confronting them are so challenging that the enterprise should seek to enlist creative talent and solicit new ideas from the private sector through outsourcing of major elements of the public diplomacy mission. Whether the motivational skills and communications capabilities of a King or a Mandela can be replicated though this process is dubious. In any event, government should not be the exclusive instrument of public diplomacy. Responsible business, academic, research, and other nongovernmental organizations could be enlisted and motivated through a competitive bidding process. Outsourcing should be linked to a regular mid-course assessment, with rebidding of outsourced contracts informed by the assessment.
  • It would be worthwhile to consider modes of communicating the “big ideas” of public diplomacy different from the monologue. Other modalities are worth attention: structured debates, call-ins by listeners, “conversation and controversy” programming, and live interaction among different elements of the audience, including members of both constituency and adversary groups.
  • Current efforts to bring honest, unbiased information to people in the Middle East may provide platforms for implementing the foregoing ideas. Radio Sawa and Al Horra are publicly funded but independently operated endeavors of public diplomacy. They build off past successes of outsourcing public diplomacy through radio transmissions, but success in this medium may be applied to other media. Television is already underway through Al Horra. Radio Sawa broadcasts popular music interspersed with news. An implicit assumption of their approach is that the listener will be more engaged by the combination of music and news reporting than by news reporting alone. This rationale is equally applicable to debates, call-in programs, and live interaction among different elements of the audience. Indeed, such approaches have the added benefit of using tools that directly reflect the goals public diplomacy seeks: open debate, free expression of competing and conflicting ideas, and participation by citizens with sharply different views. The conduct of public diplomacy can be enhanced by employing instruments that directly reflect the collective goods that it seeks. In this case, the medium can become the public diplomacy message.

Still, even a reformed and enhanced public diplomacy should be accompanied by limited expectations about what it can realistically accomplish. U.S. policies—notably in the Israel-Palestine dispute as well as in Iraq—inevitably will arouse in the Middle East and Muslim worlds opposition and deafness to the message the U.S. wishes to transmit. While these policies have their own rationales, the reality is that they do and will limit what public diplomacy can or should be expected to accomplish. The antipathy for the United States that some U.S. policies arouse is yet another argument that supports outsourcing some aspects of public diplomacy. The message America is trying to sell about pluralism, freedom, and democracy need not be delivered by the U.S. government. The message itself may be popular among potential constituents who view the United States unfavorably, but if the government delivers the message, it may not get heard.

Nevertheless, even if outsourcing proves more effective, expectations should be limited. While outsourcing may put some distance between a potentially favorable message (pluralism, freedom, and democracy) and an unfavorable messenger (the United States government), the two inevitably will be linked.