Modern Diplomacy and 9/11

9 11 matters

After the 2001 attacks, people around the world expressed shock and support for the U.S. government. Since then, however, negative attitudes about America have increased and become more intense, not just within Muslim populations, but worldwide. The Iraq War, begun in March 2003, exacerbated negative opinions of America in virtually every country polled — both traditional allies and non allies.

Today, there is a realization that strong negative public opinion about the United States could affect how helpful countries will be in the war on terrorism. Moreover, negative sentiment might assist terrorist groups in recruiting new members. Therefore in recent years a sense of urgency to utilize public diplomacy to the maximum extent possible has been expressed by top level officials, think tanks, and the 9/11 Commission.

9/11 and the public diplomacy

Public diplomacy is, very simply, diplomacy aimed at publics, as opposed to officials. While some people associate public diplomacy with commercial marketing – that is, with building a national brand – the truth is that public diplomacy, like official diplomacy and like military action when it  becomes necessary, has as its mission the achievement of the national interest. Public diplomacy performs this mission in a particular way: by understanding, informing, engaging, and persuading foreign publics. So the aim in public diplomacy is to engage foreign publics.

Public diplomacy is the promotion of America’s interests, culture and policies by informing and influencing foreign populations. Immediately after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush Administration found itself in, not only a military, but also a public diplomacy war on terrorism. Right after September 11th, public diplomacy worked.

Target of public diplomacy

The U.S. government has always targeted public diplomacy to some degree. From its earliest years, public diplomacy was targeted to reach audiences in Europe to influence the outcome of World War I and World War II. It was later used primarily in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to help end the Cold War.

An actual actions done in recent years, Congress and the Administration have sought ways to use public diplomacy tools to influence Muslim and Arab populations to combat terrorism, improve coordination of public diplomacy activities throughout the government (via the Policy Coordinating Committee, or PCC), increase funding through regular and supplemental appropriations, and better evaluate current programs to gain future effectiveness.

While the 9/11 terrorist attacks rallied unprecedented support abroad for the United States initially, they also heightened the awareness among government officials and terrorism experts that a significant number of people, especially within Muslim populations, harbor enough hatred for America so as to become a pool for terrorists. Over time it became clear that for the global war on terrorism to succeed, sustained cooperation from around the world would be require.
In the years prior to September 11th, both Congress and the various administrations downplayed the importance of funding public diplomacy activities, and in 1999 abolished the primary public diplomacy agency — the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). Public diplomacy often was viewed as less important than political and military functions and, therefore, was seen by some legislators as a pot of money that could be tapped for funding other government activities.
Even prior to the 2001 attacks, a number of decisions by the Bush Administration, including refusing to sign onto the Kyoto Treaty, the International Criminal Court, the Chemical Weapons Ban, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, damaged foreign opinion of the United States. After the decision to go to war with Iraq, much foreign opinion of the United States fell sharply, not only in the Arab and Muslim world, but even among some of America’s closest allies. Some foreign policy and public diplomacy experts believe that using public diplomacy to provide clear and honest explanations of why those decisions were made could have prevented some of the loss of support in the war on terrorism.

Many U.S. policymakers now recognize the importance of how America and its policies are perceived abroad. A former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and both chairmen of the 9/11 Commission expressed the view that public diplomacy tools are at least as important in the war on terrorism as military tools and should be given equal status and increased funding. As a result of the 9/11 Commission recommendations, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (S. 2845, P.L. 108-458) which included provisions expanding public diplomacy activities in Muslim populations.

At the same time, some believe that there are limits to what public diplomacy can do when the problem is not foreign misperception of America, but rather disagreements with specific U.S. foreign policies. A major expansion of U.S. public diplomacy activities and funding cannot change that, they say.
This report presents the challenges that have focused renewed attention on public diplomacy, provides background on public diplomacy, actions the Administration and Congress have taken since 9/11 to make public diplomacy more effective, as well as recommendations offered by others, particularly the 9/11 Commission. It will be updated if events warrant[1].

As the American Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said recently, ‘Over the long term, we cannot kill or capture our way to victory. Non-military efforts – …tools of persuasion and inspiration – were indispensable to the outcome of the defining struggle of the 20th century. They are just as indispensable in the 21st century – and perhaps even more so.’ This is a statement that helps define the new age of public diplomacy. And, as the words of the Pentagon’s master reflect, there is now a broad consensus in Washington that public diplomacy is essential to defeating the violent extremist threat, to promoting freedom and social justice – to reordering the pieces of the kaleidoscope. In fact, I would argue – and many in the Pentagon would agree – that, in this struggle, ideas are more important than bullets.

There are four parts of our public diplomacy effort:

  1. Education and cultural affairs
  2. International information programmes
  3. US international broadcasting

Ideological engangement-emphasizing war of ideas as opposed to war of bombs and weapons. The focus of today’s war of ideas is counter terrorsim. The mission today in the war of ideas is highly focused on the use tools of ideological engagement – words, deeds, and images – to create an environment hostile to violent extremism[2].


Public diplomacy is one of numerous tools that the United States has used since the early 20th century to promote U.S. interests abroad. Over the decades since its formal authorization by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, views have fluctuated between vigorously supporting public diplomacy as a highly valuable foreign policy tool and disparaging it as a government program with no constituency and uncertain long-term benefits. After the end of the Cold War, many in Congress questioned the expense and abolished the USIA, moving public diplomacy into the Department of State where it could be more closely coordinated with other foreign policy tools. Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, many in Congress have advocated an increase in public diplomacy funding to “win the hearts and minds of Muslims” and, perhaps, help prevent future attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report agreed with significantly increasing the budget and status of public diplomacy as has been done with the military.

Some foreign policy experts and Members of Congress have cautioned, however, that public diplomacy is only good if the message is credible. Recent worldwide polls show that the United States government continues to be viewed with skepticism by much of the world, not just among Arab and Muslim populations. When the message isn’t consistent with what people see or experience independently, many assert, public diplomacy is not effective. Furthermore, they say, if U.S. foreign policy is the primary cause of negative foreign opinion, then public diplomacy may be less effective than lawmakers would like. America could benefit, however, if in this view, the government uses public diplomacy more proactively to clearly and truthfully explain U.S. foreign policy actions, rather than appearing indifferent to world opinion.


[2] Glassman, James. 2008. The New age of Public Diplomacy.


About Renny Candradewi Puspitarini

Lecturer at Panca Marga University Faculty of Social Science and Political Science Department of Public Administration

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