Kerry, Drones and Cultural Diplomacy

In this Jan. 24, 2013 photo, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., sits before the committee he has ser
In this Jan. 24, 2013 photo, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., sits before the committee he has served on for 28 years and led for the past four as he seeks confirmation as U.S. secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Kerry's nomination to be the next secretary of state. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Not long ago I attended an interesting conference in Washington DC organized by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. A lot of very different viewpoints were expressed, very stimulating presentations were given by scholars from the DC area. Max-Paul Friedman, Christinna Leahy or John Feffer shared their knowledge of the world and their political and cultural analyses with the participants. Another group of scholars and officials also caught my attention though. I won't name them because I intend to criticize their approach. They represented a general view which seems to characterize the current administration almost as much as the previous one.

To encapsulate it most effectively I will quote from John Kerry's confirmation hearings:

"President Obama and everyone here knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone," and, "American foreign policy is also defined by food security and energy security, humanitarian assistance, the fight against disease and the push for development, as much as it is by any single counterterrorism initiative." John Kerry was extremely critical of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and knows first hand about what Goya called "the disasters of war." Yet here he seems to have forgotten what his own experience and past political statements indicate he must know. Though I focus here on Kerry, much more worrying statements have been made by Brennan, soon to be CIA chief, whom some call the "assassination czar". Yet Brennan is all hard power and no advocate of so-called soft power.

Cultural diplomacy or public diplomacy cannot be effective when coupled with acts of war. This is a lesson which major powers keep learning and also keep forgetting. Public diplomacy could not succeed in Iraq as long as military force was used. The French had had to learn the same lesson in Algeria in the 1950s and early 60s. Yet there are now officials and scholars who praise US cultural efforts in Pakistan when the country is "living under drones". There was a time when the U.S. dropped bombs and peanut butter over Afghanistan. This was what Arundhati Roy called "Brutality Smeared in Peanut Butter." I won't belabor the point, for many have made it in eloquent ways before me. The question that remains is why the U.S. strives for cultural or public diplomacy successes when it employs the most devastating military means at the same time. And fails.

The boots on the ground approach of the Bush administration created havoc and did not solve any problems though it caused a lot of avoidable deaths. The Obama administration shifted to drone strikes which do not kill Americans directly but clearly antagonize the areas of the world where drones are used and make the U.S. unpopular elsewhere. Obama squandered his high popularity ratings in the world because of these drone attacks. The American public may prefer drones to sending troops on the ground but it is clear that drones create terrorists as much or even more than they kill them. Clearly drone attacks do not achieve their stated aim. This is something which should be obvious and therefore lead to different policies to protect the U.S. and improve its global image.

In his book Rethinking Anti-Americanism Max-Paul Friedman shows that the image of the U.S. closely follows specific policies adopted by the U.S., this is also something that Stephen Walt noted in his 2004 book Taming American Power, The Global Response to U.S. Primacy. Clearly the expertise is there, there are scholars, in the U.S. and elsewhere, who have established the link between policy and image and scholars, the late Chalmers Johnson among others, who have analyzed the backlash of counter-terrorism policies but they get almost no hearing in official circles. Instead officials, following Ms Clinton, talk about smart power, the resort to either hard or soft power as the case requires. Experience and scholarly analysis would seem to indicate that there is nothing smart about mixing drones and cultural diplomacy yet this is the preferred method. Why?

Like all powers the U.S. has a right to defend itself. There is a case for the use of hard power or military means in cases of self-defense. That is if self-defense is not defined so extensively that anything can be considered a threat to national security. In the case of imminent attacks, police work is more effective than drone attacks whether preventive, pre-emptive or punitive. As far as the root causes of terrorism are concerned, economic justice and a global economic system that fosters it are more productive, in the long-term, than a permanent low-intensity war. Genuine smart power should move away from military non-solutions. In foreign policy offense is not the best defense.

A lot of critics point to the military-industrial complex as a reason for the U.S.'s preference for drone attacks. Others claim that the U.S. is trying to compensate its economic decline by resorting to military might. They put forward valid arguments yet one still has to wonder why elected officials care so little for the way the U.S. is perceived and do not figure out that drones are not cheap. Can American leaders remain impervious to what is both costing tax payers too much and destroying the image of America? Drones achieve the exact opposite of what public diplomacy wishes to achieve. Why bother with cultural diplomacy if hard power, that is "kill lists" and drones, block any positive effect?

It is tempting to think that only hard power matters and that therefore public -- or cultural -- diplomacy is mere feel-good advertising. As propaganda it does not work abroad yet it is very effective on the domestic front. Cultural diplomacy taps into Americans' genuine desire to help generously, it hijacks this American and universal human trait. In the same way as feminist values are sometimes invoked and hijacked to justify armed intervention, cultural diplomacy abroad may be a selling argument for an American audience.

However, it will probably reinforce the perception of ingratitude among Americans when apparently well-meaning cultural endeavors are met with hostility in the countries where drones or military interventions are mixed with them. Kerry's statements above may be read as a plea: "don't forget we Americans also do a lot of good work." Yet all the good work and all the good will in the world will achieve nothing if they are coupled with "counter terrorism initiatives" which kill innocents.