State Department official discusses public diplomacy issues
Ralph Begleiter and Dana Shell Smith
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4:35 p.m., March 27, 2009----As the latest speaker in the University of Delaware's series “Global Agenda 2009,” Dana Shell Smith spoke to a full house in Mitchell Hall Wednesday, March 25, about public diplomacy and the new role she will assume as the media liaison for the U.S. State Department. Her presentation was entitled “Dousing the flames: Public diplomacy in action.”

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In opening remarks, Ralph Begleiter set the tone for the presentation acknowledging the routinely negative depictions of the U.S. overseas and about Shell Smith's new position, where she will “literally be the face of the United States in the Middle East.” Begleiter is Edward and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Communication, Distinguished Journalist in Residence for communication and political science and international relations.

Fluent in Arabic, Shell Smith will be one of the select few U.S. officials who will appear regularly on Arab television, radio and regional newspapers to present the U.S. point of view on key Middle East issues. She began her presentation by explaining what diplomacy is and the need for diplomacy in the Middle East.

“While diplomacy happens at official levels, the relationships built between people give a better understanding of the U.S. and who Americans are as people,” said Shell Smith.

Addressing the negative perceptions is key to changing the public opinion of the U.S. in the Middle East. Shell Smith showed the audience a brief video of continuous, violent images that people in the Middle East encounter daily in practically every media outlet. These images were ones of death, mutilation, destruction, burned buildings and of President Bush “making nice” with various Arab world leaders. She also played a clip of Radio Sawa, an Arabic radio station in the Middle East, where J-Lo's single “I'm Real” was immediately followed by a question from a caller in Cairo, Egypt, wanting to know why the U.S. is fighting a war against Islam. Shell Smith's job was created, in part, as a response to the unstopping news and images sent out to the Middle Eastern people.

Shell Smith clarified, however, that “U.S. public diplomacy cannot and does not try to counter this emotional imagery.”

Instead, Shell Smith said she will use several outreach tools to communicate with the public overseas in order to address these and other serious political issues. These tools include the U.S. government owned and operated television station Al Hurra, Radio Sawa and the newly created Web site America.gov.

Shell Smith also provided a synopsis of ways the U.S. can be most effective in public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East. First, policy changes, although they are beyond the direct control of the public diplomacy office, will have an enormous impact on public opinion overseas. Second, she said the U.S. has to listen to these opinions and not just talk over them or ignore them. Third, speaking the language of the countries with whom the U.S. is trying to communicate will show them the respect we have for their cultures. Finally, Shell Smith spoke at length about the importance of transparency, which is the concept of not merely sharing information with the people of the Middle East, but also being clear and credible about why policies are formed, and how and why decisions are made in the U.S. The questions were alternated between students, nonstudents and Begleiter.

The session concluded with a question-and answer- opportunity for the audience members, moderated by Begleiter.

“Why has it taken the U.S. so many years to have people out in the field to engage in dialogue?,” asked Begleiter.

“People didn't realize how big a problem public opinion was before 9/11,” said Shell Smith. “And, public diplomacy is hard to quantify. We can't exactly show data about who would have hated [the U.S.] but now don't.”

One audience member, a non-student, asked, “Do you ever find it challenging to defend a policy you don't personally agree with?”

“Frequently,” answered Shell Smith. “But I have to think beyond my personal opinion. I take our democratic system so seriously, and I must faithfully carry out my job.”

One final question concerned the importance of public diplomacy. “Who cares about public opinion outside of the U.S.? Do we have to respond?”

“As we saw on 9/11, the world is a small place now and [the U.S.] has no possibility of being isolated. So, as long as the world we live in is one where people can travel and interact internationally, then we have to care,” Shell Smith said.

She added, “A little bit of public diplomacy is a lot cheaper than war.”

The next global agenda presentation will take place on April 8, with John Fisher Burns, the London Bureau Chief for The New York Times. He will discuss “Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.”

Article by Blair Lee
Photo by Kevin Quinlan

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