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U.S. Undersecretary Of State For Public Diplomacy Talks About America's Image

Judith McHale, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, during a visit to RFE/RL

Judith McHale, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, during a visit to RFE/RL

Judith McHale, the U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, has been tasked with leading America’s engagement with the people of the world. It's a daunting job description with many obvious challenges. But the former CEO says she's making progress. McHale, during a visit to Prague, sat down with RFE/RL senior correspondent Jeremy Bransten to discuss her work.

RFE/RL: Welcome to RFE/RL, and welcome to our airwaves. When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president two years ago, he said there was a unique opportunity to "reboot America's image" around the world. In your view, how is it going?

Judith McHale: I think that from his very first day as president, in his inauguration speech, he has been very committed -- both he and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton -- to pursuing engagement with people all over the world, an engagement based on mutual respect, mutual trust, mutual understanding, and a cooperative approach to all the challenges that face us.

So we've spent the past year-and-a-half or so -- coming up on two years -- really looking at our programs and initiatives to engage with people all over the world in new ways and to have a dialogue to begin to reach out to people, to find new ways of working together. And I think it's going very well. There are certainly challenges which continue, which will always be there. But I'm finding people very open and willing to enter into this new spirit of engagement with the country.

RFE/RL: As undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, how exactly would you define your job, and what would your top three priorities be?

McHale: Put quite simply, I'm responsible for the area of the State Department which is charged with going out and strengthening and expanding the relationships between the people of the United States and people in countries all over the world. So a small task is, we try and reach out and engage with close to 7 billion people. But I think we're making progress in terms of our efforts to reach new audiences, to reach out to consumers and citizens all over the world.

In terms of my top priorities, one is to continue to develop new tools to look at new programs, to do a better job of understanding what's important to people around the world, to work with them to develop new programs, to find new ways for the citizens of the United States to learn about, to meet, to discuss with their colleagues and peers around the world. I think there are a number of things that we're looking at doing.

RFE/RL: You were just visiting our Afghan Service, so let me segue to that. Is there anything that you'd like to highlight that you're doing in Afghanistan -- any creative initiatives your office is undertaking that would be of special interest?

McHale: In our particular area, one of the things we're focused on is communication, so we're looking at a number of opportunities to reach out to build Afghan capacity for producing programming and information, looking at new ways to distribute that information to the citizens of Afghanistan. This is a critically important function, for them to have access to good and accurate information, which is why the radio service here plays such an important role in that effort.

RFE/RL: In the past year, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, America's favorability rating has slipped in Egypt, where President Obama delivered his address to the Muslim world 17 months ago. It's slipped in Jordan. It remains pretty dismal in places like Pakistan and Turkey. And these are all important U.S. allies. What can public diplomacy do to reverse those low ratings? Or are they tied to more fundamental political factors?

McHale: I think that there are a number of factors that we're always looking at. I think in the case of some of the countries that you mentioned, the president gave an incredible speech in Cairo just over a year ago. The expectations were incredibly high as to what was going to come of that. And we've worked very hard to deliver on the president's promises, but it's something that's going to take place over time.

There was actually a story in a paper I read the other day, which said that we are actually making progress -- small steps -- as we reach out to ordinary citizens to expand our engagement with them. And that's not necessarily reflected in some of the polls that you refer to. And I think over time you will see that. Whenever you're going into this kind of arena, where you're trying to establish or repair relationships with people, it takes time, and it takes time over a period of time. I've worked and focused a lot of our efforts on the areas you've talked about: Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.

And I do believe we're making some progress, which might not necessarily be reflected in those polls. And I think we have to be careful [to note] when we're looking at polls that this happens to be a snapshot at a moment in time, and what we're looking at is to build and sustain a relationship over a prolonged period of time.

RFE/RL: You just mentioned repairing relations in some countries, so I'd be interested to know, in your diagnosis, what led to the disrepair?

McHale: I think there have been many things that can happen that would cause that. Obviously, there have been areas where we have disagreed with countries. Some of the policies that we've pursued, people have disagreed with. In some case, actually, I think we haven't done a great job in communicating what we're doing. So I think all of those factors come together.

There's no doubt, and I think everyone would understand and appreciate some of the feelings coming out of the Iraq war and other things. And so we're looking at how we can do, on a go-forward basis, do a better job of communicating with people, of listening to them, of putting information into their hands so that they can understand what we're doing. We will always have areas that we disagree on.

I don't think we're seeking a point in time, because I don't think a point in time is achievable, where we will all agree on everything. But what we want to do is to create an environment in which people can debate, in which people can discuss, deliberate, and they can debate as friends. They can get angry at each other but not necessarily end up hating each other.

RFE/RL: On the one hand, America -- through the private sector -- is incredibly successful at marketing its values abroad. American universities, movies, TV programs, literature, music, and high tech innovations continue to capture the global imagination. On the other hand, government-funded efforts at public diplomacy -- when you measure them against what other Western countries, like Britain, Germany, or France do through their superb networks of cultural and language centers, or even what China has done in recent years -- seem to fall short. So what's your argument for having a government funded U.S. public diplomacy effort? Why not leave it to the private sector?

McHale: I think it's important for the government to have a role in this critical initiative. Many of the programs that we are undertaking, from our student exchanges to our speaker programs and our cultural exchanges, are appropriate for the government to undertake. And one of the things that I'm really focused on and where I think we're making strides is to demonstrate to the world the breadth and depth of America, the richness of its history and its culture, the diversity of its culture, which if left solely to the private sector, you might not have.

Much of the world's attitudes toward the United States are based on popular television programming. I came from the television business, and I understand those are for-profit businesses, which have a very focused business strategy targeting one particular type of programming or entertainment. And I think it's incumbent upon the government to actually have a role in ensuring that all of America and all American citizens -- the breadth and depth of our cultural history -- are made available to people all over the world.

RFE/RL: You've often spoken of the role technology can have in opening the lines of communication between America and citizens in other countries. Are there any specific projects you're especially excited about?

McHale: Yes, there are a lot. I always say technology is a tool, not a strategy. And so we're looking very carefully. We want to be sure that the technology we're using is being used appropriately. What is the right technology for a particular country or a particular market? But regarding some of the things that we're actually doing, one of the initiatives we have is to expand our ability to connect schools, high schools, and universities with schools all over the world.

We're working on joint projects, and I saw one earlier this year where students at a school in Boston used Skype to speak to their counterparts in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. That brings people together in a very compelling way. It allows them to work together collaboratively on projects. It's one of the ways that I see using technology to create one of those bridges of understanding between different peoples and different countries of the world. It was an extraordinary experience to see these 18-year-old kids really having a good conversation.

Another initiative is we're using technology to amplify the messages that we want people to hear. So for example, last year when the president gave his speech in Ghana, we used a combination of technologies -- radio, television, the classic things -- and we also used the Internet, we used Twitter, we used instant messaging, all the things that we wanted to do to get his message out, so that we were able to reach people wherever they were. We were able to use technology to allow people from across the continent of Africa to submit questions to the president.

And I think that's a very powerful use of it. But it starts with understanding what people are using, why they are using it, and then adapting what we're trying to do to that technology, in order to amplify the programs that we're trying to get out there.

RFE/RL: Technology can certainly knock down barriers but to what extent do low tech issues such as the post 9/11 security environment impede public diplomacy? For instance, foreign students who want to study in the United States can have a tough time obtaining visas and sometimes go elsewhere. Some U.S. embassies have become fortresslike, which tends to discourage interaction with locals. Does that hurt public diplomacy efforts?

McHale: I think it's been very difficult, and we recognize that, and we acknowledge that. On the issue of student visas, the State Department's worked very, very hard to overcome those challenges, and indeed, today, there are more student visas being issued than there were prior to September 11th, so we've come a long way.

We still have a way to go, I believe, because it's still a difficult process. But we're looking at what are the technologies we can use, what are the processes we can use to make it better, because we do want students to come to the United States, we want them to have that opportunity. I'm pleased with the progress we have made, and it is a top priority for us to continue to make that progress and to move forward with it.

In terms of the security ramifications of the embassies and the security considerations that have gone into those new embassies, again, of course, that's a challenge for public diplomacy when we're saying, "Let's go out and engage," and at the same time, in some cases, we make it difficult for people to come and see us. So what are we doing? We are looking at a number of ways of doing that. We are revisiting some of the decisions that we were contemplating about moving some of those centers within the embassies and in fact, probably a number of them will not be moved.

While I was here, I visited the American Center in Prague. It's great, and people are able to access it, and we want to keep it that way. We're looking at how we can partner with other enterprises, co-locate with them, because our goal is to become successful. When I was just recently in Bahrain, I looked at a mobile educational advising unit, which we're piloting there, which is in a shopping mall, and which we want to take to other countries around the world. We want to go where people are.

In Jakarta, we're opening a new American Center in a shopping mall. Now that will be high-tech, with computers and a small auditorium for speakers. That's where the people are, and that's where we want to be. So I think right now we're doing everything we can to be sure we're out where people can reach us, where we can meet with them and carry on the kinds of discussions we want to have with them.

RFE/RL: That brings me to my last question, which is related, and it's about Iran -- another one of the important places that we broadcast to. What do you do in the case of a country like Iran, where America has an obvious stake in engaging the Iranian public, but where Washington right now faces a hostile government and few ways, aside from international broadcasting, of reaching out?

I think you're right. It's a very difficult situation not just in Iran, but in other countries. And so when we encounter that situation, we look at all the tools that we have to continue to reach out. You talked about one of the most effective tools we have, which is international broadcasting.

In those situations, this is a way to reach out, and we have a long history of that in our government, of using international broadcasting effectively, and I'm sure we will continue to do that. I think with today's technologies, with access to the Internet, there are many ways we can reach out and connect with people, and there are many ways in which they can connect with the rest of the world.

And frankly, I think that governments which try to restrict people's access to information are probably playing a losing game. So we're going to continue to look at any way that we can to continue to reach out and engage with people.

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