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Leaks make US PR task even harder

Andrew Hammond

THE latest WikiLeaks release of about 250 000 classified US state department documents has been variously characterised as the “September 11 of world diplomacy” (Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini); an “attack on the international community” (US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton); and a threat to “democratic sovereignty and authority” (French government spokesman Francois Baroin).

Debate will long continue about the rights and wrongs of WikiLeaks’s actions.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the episode has caused considerable damage to the US.

Underlying many of these issues is the fundamental question of what the WikiLeaks affair reveals about the changing map of influence and power in a world that continues to be transformed by the information revolution and economic globalisation.

To date, these forces have generally reinforced US pre-eminence for several reasons, including the country’s relative technological edge over much of the rest of the world; the fact that its dominant culture and ideas are very close to prevailing global norms; and its multiple channels of communication, which help to frame global issues.

However, as the WikiLeaks releases underline, this emerging environment has raised new challenges — for the US and all countries.

For instance, with technological advances leading to vast increases in information, international publics have generally become more sensitive to spin and propaganda.

Here, governments must not just compete for credibility with their foreign counterparts, but also with new actors such as broadcaster Al Jazeera and WikiLeaks.

Information that appears to be propaganda, or sensitive leaks that are damaging, can undermine the credibility of a country and or its government.

For instance, prewar intelligence controversies about Iraq damaged the reputation both of the US and the UK, and also of the Tony Blair and George Bush administrations.

In this context, key dangers from the WikiLeaks episode for Washington are a potential backlash from some international publics, and also foreign elites proving more cautious in sharing information and co-operating in the future.

Taken overall, the WikiLeaks affair intensifies the already massive global public diplomacy and alliance-building challenge US President Barack Obama inherited from the Bush administration.

While the Obama team has begun to make strides in the right direction, including on the strategic communications dimensions of the campaign against terrorism, its focus continues to be distracted by political headaches such as this latest one.

Looking specifically at the campaign against terrorism, the scale of the public diplomacy task Obama still faces is regularly highlighted in opinion polls. For instance, the 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey revealed that in Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, just 17 percent of people have favourable perceptions of the US.

In the space of just 12 months, US favourability in Egypt has dropped to 17 percent from 27 percent.

It is important that the Obama team turns this climate of perception about the country around.

This is because, in common with the Cold War, the challenges posed by the campaign against terror cannot be overcome by military might alone.

In addition, the US must redouble its efforts to win the battle for “hearts and minds”, especially in the Muslim world.

This will help create an enabling environment facilitating covert and overt co-operation and information sharing with US officials.

It is true that some countries will continue to assist Washington because of factors such as self-interest or fundamental agreement with US strategy and policy.

However, the degree to which other states do so, especially in critical theatres such as the Middle East and Asia, will often depend heavily upon a mixture of the attractiveness amongst foreign publics, and the degree of trust within national elites, of the US in general and the Obama administration in particular.

It would be a tragedy if these relationships become critically damaged by the WikiLeaks affair.

?Hammond is a director at ReputationInc. He was formerly a special adviser in the UK government.

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