Tuesday’s reelection of Barack Obama confirmed few people’s confidence in American democracy – least of which was the utter failure of $3 billion in “outsider” Super PAC money to effect the overall makeup of the federal government. But the election results did confirm the general accuracy of much-maligned public opinion polling which, with appropriate aggregation and correctly applied judgment, could accurately forecast much of the election results.
This brings me to the importance of international public opinion to public diplomacy practice. In many respects, public opinion is public diplomacy, or to be more precise, the entire point of public diplomacy: we engage with the public to change minds and mold opinion. We ask and check and monitor opinion through public opinion polling and surveys, both public and private, in order both to know what people think but also to determine how to change what they think. It is impossible to think about public diplomacy without understanding and caring about public opinion, polling data and methodology in great detail.
This information does not exist in nearly the kind of depth and sequence that it does for something like a national race or for presidential approval ratings. For a national race, high-quality public tracking data can be produced on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Information on presidential approval ratings can be produced on a monthly or weekly basis and on a variety of issues. This sort of information, about the United States and a variety of issues, is not available nearly as regularly, nor for as many countries, nor in as much depth.
But they do exist: Gallup, Pew, and (to a lesser extent) the German Marshall Fund all produce regular, multi-national surveys of public opinion on a variety of issues. The data is fascinating and rich and worth spending quite a lot of time reading and absorbing. Sinking down into the data, as I have, will demonstrate the astonishing diversity and dynamism of public opinion not just around the world, but within demographics, relating to the United States and on a variety of different issues.
But if public diplomacy is about affecting public opinion, then two ready questions come immediately to mind. Why aren’t those in charge of public diplomacy held to account for the global public esteem of the United States? And, if they are, then why isn’t the public diplomacy apparatus organized and equipped better to change global public opinion?
I found these unanswered questions – or rather, the questions disconnected from solutions – during my time at NATO. We were interested in public opinion but lacked the resources and tools to understand it in greater depth. We didn’t really know what we wanted people to know or think about us, other than generally to understand and support us. And we had no real way to gauge how to resource that mission in any event. I suspect the State Department is in a similar position.
It’s important to note there are imperfect comparisons between public diplomacy and an election campaign. There is no “vote” in public diplomacy, only a continuing series of referenda on U.S. foreign policy and our leaders. And there is little compromising on matters of national interest and prerogative and certainly none when it comes to those whom our people choose as our leaders.
If we told the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy that her job performance was contingent on public opinion ratings, that would certainly tighten her job description and focus her resources. (There are, for example, about 1,000 qualified public diplomacy officers in the State Department. The Pentagon has probably 10 times that number.) It certainly argues for an organization within the State Department such as the U.S. Information Agency, whose dedicated mission is entirely focused on foreign publics. Unfortunately, it might also lead to the elimination of some of the more popular (and necessary) programs in the State Department, such as the Fulbright fellowships, that have long-term benefits for the United States but less immediate impact. It might also lead to the accusation of propaganda, if not its outright activity. Just as with the “air game” during an election at home, the obsession with public opinion may lead us to find an “easy way” to influence foreign “voters”. An undue focus on public opinion could force our diplomats could succumb to these temptations, like studying to the test.
Perhaps we need to return to the recent election for another model for public diplomacy. It is becoming clear that the Obama campaign won the election through a gritty application of the ground game – a serious, methodical application of organization that found committed supporters and got them to the polls. There is something to be learned from that example. The ground game is also the best public diplomacy: building rapport, strengthening the organization, mobilizing allies, reaching out to the undecided. In the long game, it’s what wins.