When three prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay Camp X-ray – America’s much maligned detention camp for “enemy combatants” that has kept prisoners of “war on terror” in a legal limbo for over 3 years – committed suicide earlier this month, the US Administration fumbled over its response. The first official statement was the one quoted in this post’s title. Colleen Graffy, America’s deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy called it a “good PR move”. The commander of Guantánamo,said that by committing suicide they had committed an act of “asymmetrical warfare” against the United States.
The Economist has possibly the best succinct response to this event (see below, or read it here). (This piece is also a reminder for me of why I prefer British magazines to any other – just brilliant writing!!).
The critical question in the piece is this:
“The point, though, is that if much of the war against terrorism is a contest between values—in short, a PR war—America should be winning hands down. A brand that stands for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an easier sell than a brand that stands for beheading unbelievers and reviving the Middle Ages.”
It strikes me that the reason America is not winning this no-brainer is that they don’t understand the Connection Economy. In this era, its less and less about WHAT you sell, and more and more about WHO you are and HOW you sell. America doesn’t get this – they think that a good “product” is good enough. It isn’t!!
Secondly, they don’t understand that today’s consumers are very quick to discount “spin”. They want to see a connect between what an organisation SAYS and what it DOES. Guantánamo is a huge disconnect. America has assumed that it can manage the disconnect between its own values (as stated by its Founding Fathers) and its current actions simply with a PR job. It cannot. As important as PR is in the Connection Economy, it can only work if it is telling the truth (i.e. that the underlying “product” actually does deliver and adds value).
The Connection Economy creates plenty of opportunities. But it can be pretty brutal as well.
IT SEEMS unfair to single out the hapless Colleen Graffy. America’s deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy is far from being the only official in George Bush’s administration who has a tin ear when it comes to—well, to public diplomacy. When three of the Muslim inmates held for years without trial at Guantánamo in Cuba hanged themselves last weekend, she called this “a good PR move”. But she was hardly alone in sounding callous. The commander of Guantánamo, a sensitive soul, grumbled that by hanging themselves his three charges had committed an act of “asymmetrical warfare” against the United States. Plenty more tin ears and sharp tongues belong to bigger heads higher up in the administration.
Inside the clever head of Donald (“stuff happens”) Rumsfeld, America’s defence secretary, for example, wags a tongue that may on its own be responsible for having needlessly alienated more former friends of the United States than any other instrument since the invention of the B-52 bomber. As for John Bolton, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, he appears to take particular pride in ignoring the advice of the Founding Fathers for America to pay a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. Mr Bolton is trying to force various management reforms through the UN’s glass palace in New York. Reform is sorely needed. But instead of using persuasion, Mr Bolton too often plays the bully. His tone is that America is numero uno, the UN’s chief paymaster, and so must be obeyed. Some potential allies are put off.
To his credit, Mr Bush himself has been learning. Under the civilising influence of Condoleezza Rice, a secretary of state who took up her job intent on putting the diplomacy back into American foreign relations, Mr Bush has lately been politer about other countries, and readier to admit some of his own mistakes. He now says he wants Guantánamo closed—just as soon as America figures out what to do with all the people it has scooped up and dumped in legal limbo there.
But in some ways the president still doesn’t get it. Take something that went down well in America—Mr Bush’s surprise call this week on the new prime minister of Iraq. Nuri al-Maliki had been building up the elected government’s credibility by putting a careful distance between himself and the Americans. The last thing he needs is to look like the superpower’s stooge. But he seems to have been given no advance notice of the visit. After Mr Bush was choppered into Baghdad, a bemused Mr Maliki was obliged to stand squirming alongside his beaming visitor, as pictures of president and stooge were flashed unhelpfully to Muslims in Iraq and around the world. It is sometimes bad manners to drop in uninvited.
Manners maketh multilateralism
Manners and tone of voice matter in international relations. Go back to those suicides. Though Ms Graffy ought not to have called them a good PR stunt, she may have been right to imply that they were a political act, rather than individual expressions of despair (see obituary). The point, though, is that if much of the war against terrorism is a contest between values—in short, a PR war—America should be winning hands down. A brand that stands for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an easier sell than a brand that stands for beheading unbelievers and reviving the Middle Ages.
And yet America is not doing half as well as it should be. The annual Pew survey of global attitudes this week reports yet another fall in its standing almost everywhere. Why? In part, because actions speak louder than words, and America sometimes betrays its own values. The Guantánamo inmates should be tried or released. In part because some American actions are right but unpopular. America should, for example, stay in Iraq until the new government can stand alone. But also because of those tin ears and sharp tongues. That problem cannot be fixed by hiring “public diplomacy” experts. Mr Bush needs to remind his top people that, especially in a superpower, a little politeness goes a long way.