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Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale (Asharq Al-Awsat photo by Hatim Oweida)

US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale (Asharq Al-Awsat photo by Hatim Oweida)

US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale (Asharq Al-Awsat photo by Hatim Oweida)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Since President Barack Obama’s administration came to power, statements and interviews given by a number of US officials have increasingly focused upon “soft power” or “public diplomacy.” This comes after the US’s position has suffered for years from the results of diplomatic force and smart bombs. It is worth noting that in the speeches given by President Obama, and his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, to the world, have focused upon the fact that the new [US] administration wants to chart a path for itself that is based upon communication and flexibility; a path that relies heavily on public diplomacy.

Ms. Judith McHale, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, became the face of public diplomacy for the Obama administration last May. McHale comes to this position backed by extensive experience in the fields of media, communication, and education. She worked for “Discovery Communications Inc” for 20 years, rising to the position of President. She headed several initiatives that led to the Discovery Channel being broadcast in 170 countries, where it reaches up to 1.4 billion people worldwide. In this regard, Ms. McHale said that what she brought with her to her new position in the US State Department is the principle of “focusing on the things that unite us, not on what divides us.”

Asharq Al-Awsat met with Ms. McHale in London and conducted an interview with her discussing the concept of “soft power”, the problem of visa entry to the US, and the mistrust that Muslims and Arabs are being exposed to due to the actions of a few extremists.

The text of the interview reads as following:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a lot of emphasis by the current administration, particularly from State Secretary Hillary Clinton and yourself, on the term “the strategy of smart power”. What is your definition of smart power?

[McHale] Well you know, in my current role I was asked by President Obama and Secretary Clinton to lead our efforts to strengthen and expand the relationships between the people of the United States and the government of the United States and the people of the rest of the world and I believe that that’s a critically important initiative that we’re currently engaged in to go out. The world has changed so dramatically in terms of people’s participation in their countries, the political lives of their countries and their development so it’s becoming increasingly important that we have relationships, we build very strong relationships with citizens all over the world, and, so, and going out and doing that we can find opportunities to work together to solve so many of the problems which we’re currently confronting. I don’t think there’s a path forward unless we can find ways to work together and so we’re really reaching out and trying to find a number of areas to identify and where we can work together, where we can collaborate together and really sort of find new solutions to problems. There are a number of initiatives where we can do that. I’ve only been in my position a relatively short period of time but as I’ve traveled around when I was in Pakistan finding projects that American scientists and software developers are working with, some of our scientists and MIT are working with people in Pakistan to find solutions in telemedicine, bringing medicine to rural areas. I was in Saudi Arabia for the opening of KAUST University and I think there are going to be a number of areas where we can collaborate on new scientific initiatives and all of those things I think will lead down good paths and stronger relations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is smart power in replacement of smart bombs?

[McHale] Well what I’m concentrating on again in my role is the people-to-people component, people-to-people diplomacy, and how we can actually do that. I believe that that’s the exercise of smart power, again finding ways that we can work together, building strong relationships and going forward.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said in an address last month that this administration recognizes the central role of public diplomacy as a tool of course of smart power. How can we reconcile this with the fact that currently the administration has increased the military presence in Afghanistan and has increased the targeting in Pakistan?

[McHale] I think again, actually coming back to what I focused on, which is the relationships between the people of our country and the people of other countries, I think all of us are confronting a very difficult security situation around the world, but at the same time I believe if we find ways for people to work together that’s a positive path forward. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have both stressed the importance of finding ways that we can work together to sort of collaborate on finding solutions to some of these challenges and also finding new opportunities to work together. If we do that, building stronger relationships we will have ways of working together.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are the reports that the US is offering to pay Taliban fighters in Afghanistan if the renounce violence; is this actually buying peace?

[McHale] That’s probably not in my area of responsibilities. I’m looking at the people-to-people component and our relationship with people not only in Pakistan but all over the world and how we can go forward.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How much has been spent by the US government since September 2001 on public diplomacy?

[McHale] I probably wouldn’t have an accurate figure on that, the one thing I could tell you is that recently there has been, my observation coming in to government and obviously I’ve only been in government a couple of months so I can’t go all the way back to 2001, I wouldn’t know, but there is an increasing awareness of the importance of public diplomacy as a critical tool in our foreign policy helping us achieve our own foreign policy objectives and one of the things I feel incredibly lucky I have from my top of team both President Obama and Secretary Clinton understand how important it is to reach out to people all over the world, to involve them in this dialogue and discussion and so our government has been increasing the amount of resources available for us to pursue all of those initiatives things such as exchanges, bringing people to the United States but also bringing Americans overseas. There are a number of programs and initiatives that we’ve been doing and so each year for the past couple of years there really has been an increasing amount of resources dedicated to this critical task and I would expect that to continue as we go forward.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do I understand there is an increase in the budget or decrease or has it stayed the same?

[McHale] There has been, over the past couple of years there has been really pretty significant increases in the area of public diplomacy, I don’t have the exact figures with me at the moment but there has been a pretty significant increase year over year. You know I come from the private sector so I’m very into budgets and understanding and I have to say I was really pretty impressed with the way they were looking at it. I believe in my role I have to continue to make a case to my government as to why this is an important area, and we have the support of the President and the Secretary of State and what I’m working on now is to provide them with a plan which sort of outlines our strategies for going forward, which will support the incremental resources that are being made available to us.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there anyway of obtaining figures that support the argument you are making?

[McHale] In 2001 the actual budget for diplomatic operations, including the budget for educational and cultural exchange programs, was $477,677,000, while this year the budget amounts to $932,806,000. As for 2010, the amount requested for the public diplomacy budget is $133,521,000. This clarifies the size of the increase in the budget, and the extent of the interest in diplomacy and public diplomacy.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many people are working in public diplomacy?

[McHale] In 2001, there were approximately 2861 employees working in the field of public diplomacy, including diplomats, civil servants, and foreign staff, [all of whom] are working out of our different offices. In the 2010 budget for next year, we expect the staff to increase to 3,132 employees.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many Muslims and Arabs feel that they are being singled out for racial or religious profiling, especially in the visa process and all that, do you agree to what many people are saying that this faith of more than 1.5 billion followers have been unfairly treated because of the actions of a few extremists?

[McHale] You know I’ve heard this from people and I assure you that the position of our government is not to treat them unfairly or single them out in any way but obviously I’ve heard this from a number of people as I’ve traveled around. I think we’re doing everything we can to demonstrate that that’s not the case in our policies and in the way we actually interact with people.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any steps being taken to ease the visa application process for students or people like that because surely that’s a segment you’re interested in?

[McHale]You know it’s really interesting, I’ve talked to my colleagues in other governments, I think the visa process is always a difficult process from wherever you’re coming and historically it has always been a difficult process in the United States and frankly, coming to the United Kingdom as well. I heard the other day that there continue to be issues so it’s one of the things that we are always looking at, how can we make this process easier for people from all over the world to come to the United States and at the same time deal with some of the immigration issues that are of concern to any particular country. However, I know it is one that we continue to look at to see how we can make it a better, faster process and I think if you look historically, the number of student visas and others that are currently being issued are reasonable. You know right after September 11 there was a decrease as we revised our procedures, I do believe now the number of visas being given exceeds those that were being given in 2001. One of the things I think that will be a powerful tool going forward and I’m a big advocate of it is the use of technology to speed up the process so that people are not kept waiting but this is an issue I think that we’ve grappled with for years, trying to make this an easier process for people and this is something that we’re committed to continuing to work on.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The educational exchange programs, how do you evaluate them, especially as some students sometimes settle in America and this might turn out to be like a brain drain?

[McHale] You know I think that’s an interesting question. We have a very large student exchange program from countries all over the world, it’s something we’re deeply committed to, for me it’s a central part of our strategy to continue to maintain and expand this because I think there’s no better way for people to get to know each other than to actually spend time with each other. If I could wave my magic wand I’d bring everyone to the United States and have everybody in the United States go overseas and I think the world would be a lot better if we could do that so we’re definitely looking at expanding that. I think in terms of the brain drain you know what we find is that the vast majority of people who participate in these exchanges go back to their own countries and I think that continues to help expand and strengthens our relationship with them. The two sides to that are that they come from their country to the United States not only do they benefit but we benefit as a country because citizens in America get to hear, our exchange students can bring their stories to Americans, and not only do they come and learn about America but Americans learn about them. The vast majority of people who participate in those exchanges go back to their home countries and make very valuable contributions to them. If you look at our Fulbright program, the number of heads of state or heads of important government ministries or business leaders who participate in our exchange programs is extraordinary and have gone on to very important positions in their country and I hope that that would continue into the future.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The American, not necessarily this administration but the previous administrations, have tried to change the educational syllabus in some countries to fight extremism. Do you think that might be counter productive in the sense that people might resent this as interference?

[McHale] You know I have to tell you I am not aware of that program so I can’t, and I don’t know what the previous administration did. I do know that as part of our initiatives the whole area of education and working with various countries collaboratively to see how we together can find new ways of addressing curriculum is something, for me, is one of the paths we can go down. Education around the world is a challenge for everyone and I think this should be a two way street, there are many things we can learn as well and it’s one of the things I hope to promote. I don’t know if you know but in my background I was on the State Board of Education in the state of Maryland so I spent a lot of time learning about curriculum and I think I want to sort of have an environment where we can actually exchange ideas about how to improve educational systems around the world. I also believe quite passionately that education goes to the heart of any country and it is up to that country to decide its curriculum and I would expect that that’s the way we will continue.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] USAID has been talked about by this administration as an important tool for smart power, yet the head of the agency remains a vacant position. Is that a hindrance in your opinion?

[McHale] We have a complicated process in our country for identifying the heads of agencies and we’re going through that process but it hasn’t stopped USAID from functioning. I know because I’ve been in meetings with them and I understand that we have a very robust, strong USAID and I think it will continue to be that way and it is staffed by dedicated individuals who are going to continue to carry out their tasks everyday. So no I don’t think it’s slowed it down, I think they are continuing full-speed ahead. It is an area that Secretary Clinton is very focused on, she knows the importance of it, she is deeply committed to. She understands the importance of aid and development initiatives and she cares quite passionately about it so that delay has not slowed it down and we have an acting head, an individual with years of experience who is guiding it in this interim period.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The credibility gap – a term you’ve used yourself – how do you envisage reaching this gap?

[McHale] One of the things that I want to try to do and my whole team is committed to doing is being sure there’s no gap between what Secretary Clinton says or President Obama says and what we actually do. As you know both of them have spoken on a number of initiatives and issues in the international arena since they’ve been in office obviously so we’re working very hard to be sure that there’s no gap between what we’re saying and what we’re doing. I think it’s very important for people not only to listen to our words but to look at our deeds and to be sure that the two are matching up. I think as long as we do that we will succeed in closing the credibility gap.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your position, and post, don’t you think that despite all the programs and all the ideals the real issue always goes back to the actual foreign policies?

[McHale] I think that a policy of a particular administration is going to impact relationships and people’s perceptions, I think that’s unquestionable that is going to happen, but I believe very strongly that if we have good relations with people that will help when we have moments when we disagree and that will happen inevitably. I don’t believe there’ll ever be a point in time when we’ll agree on everything forever, that’s just not realistic in human nature. I always say to people there’s only one person in the world with whom I agree 100 percent of the time and it’s myself. So if you take that into the sort of foreign policy arena it’s the same thing, we’ll never agree on everything but if we fundamentally have good strong relations between the people of the United States and people in the rest of the world when we have those moments of disagreement over foreign policy or other policies we will debate but we’ll debate as friends and hopefully, I sometimes we’ll agree to disagree but I believe with those solid, enduring relationships in place we’ll be able to weather that storm.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You’re a New Yorker, you’ve been to the UK, partly educated here, you lived in South Africa during the Apartheid era, how did this experience have an impact on you, how would this impact your current post?

[McHale] I think that I was very lucky to grow up as a member of a foreign service family and I think it clearly impacted my world view, having grown up and traveled extensively, and while I was growing up and living in South Africa, it clearly gave me a different view because I felt very comfortable in the international arena. I feel totally comfortable having traveled around not only when I was growing up but of course as I headed a company that operated in 170 countries so I actually think my background growing up helped me go down that path. And I think one of the great benefits of the kind of experiences I have that I’ve seen in all my travels, the one thing I’ve always learned and focused on is that what we have in common so far exceeds the things that we think divide us and I’m optimistic that if we continue to do that we will make progress on so many of the difficult issues that we confront. So I’m hoping to bring to this position that understanding where I tend to focus on what we have in common not what brings us apart, I mean I think growing up allowed me to do that.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You had been at Discovery Communications for almost 22 years…

[McHale] I was there for 20 years, that’s right

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are you carrying from your former job to your current post?

[McHale] I think that, my hope is what I have just said which is what I learned in heading up an organization like that to focus on the things that we have in common. The other thing is that people used to ask me why and how was Discovery so successful as an international company and I think it’s because when we went into a country we did everything we could upfront to understand the cultures, the different cultures, the condition that we were in and what people were interested in, what they valued, and to develop products and services which really resonated with them. The other thing we did at discovery was to make sure it was never a one-way street so we would go into a market, we would really understand it, we would develop products there but we were very willing and sought out products and services that we could bring to the rest of the world so it was very much an exchange of values, an exchange of ideas. I want to do that in this position and I hope to be able to bring that sensibility to this because to me that’s the foundation to any dialogue and any discussion. I truly believe the more we can get people talking to each other and exchanging values and ideas the more we can build bridges of knowledge and understanding. I’ve learned that bridges have two-way traffic on them and it goes both ways and I hope to bring that sensibility to this position as well.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The communication and information revolution which you touched on recently, do you see that as an opportunity or do you see that as a challenge?

[McHale] I see it as a great opportunity and I did at Discovery. In the media industry I felt that there were many media enterprises which saw this as a great threat, that it was a threat to the way that they did business that it was a threat in the sense that for hundreds of years you had editors, publishers, writers, authors telling people what to read, how to read, or what information they were going to get. Now you have consumers, it’s sort of turned it on its head, where consumers are basically saying “Now I’m going to tell you what I want to know and tell you how I want to hear it and what I’m going to do with that,” I view that as a huge opportunity for all of us to do that. It is an enormously empowering thing to provide people with information, to provide access and I think we’re seeing that around the world. To me, there’s nothing more positive than that the more people who become a lot involved in the political lives of their country the better because that affects their decisions each and every day and so to provide them with information and access to information which empowers them to improve their lives is a very very positive development.

It is scary at times, I think there are a lot of people who find it scary and I think it can be but I would rather choose to embrace that change and find ways that we can work together and harness the power, the creative power of people all over the world. It’s a very exciting time, it’s a little scary because there are no roadmaps, we don’t know where this is going but I think it’s also exciting.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You invested in the air game – I’m borrowing a phrase you used in a speech recently, and that’s the radio, TV, website and all that – and you raised the question of breaking through the clutter. How do you intend to do that?

[McHale] I think it’s very difficult and it’s going to vary market by market, I’m going to go back to what I did at Discovery, which was each and every country that we’re in, it’s critically important for us to understand how people are receiving their information, how are the information we’re trying to provide to them how are they listening to that. We need to understand what’s the best media to reach our audiences but most importantly we need to be providing information and services that people want, you know that they value whether it’s our English language programming, is there information in the arena of science and technology. it’s listening to what do people want, and then if we can understand that, what do they want, how are they listening to it, I believe we’ll be able to break through the clutter, just as we did, just as I was able to do at Discovery.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you intend to integrate public diplomacy with the actual policy-making process?

[McHale] Well I think it’s very important and there’s a growing sense, a growing awareness of this; that a consideration of foreign public opinion of what’s important to foreign publics who will be impacted by our foreign policy is a critical component as we’re deliberating and developing that policy. That’s not to say that foreign publics should, foreign public opinion should drive the foreign policy of any country, it shouldn’t. Obviously each country is going to look at its interest in what it can do but an understanding of that as the policies are being developed is absolutely critical. So one of the ways I think that it’s very important to do that is we’re going to be relying on our posts around the world as sort of beacons for us and feeding that information into our process. We’re developing ways to make sure that that information gets into the process early and I’m actually convinced that if we can do that some of the problems that we’ve encountered we’ll avoid. If you think about how your messages are being heard or how your policies might affect people upfront you can avoid some of the problems down the line, that’s not going to eliminate everything by any stretch of the imagination but it’s a critical and important component that I believe should be there upfront. So we’re looking at ways to make that easier to have that, we’re looking at technologies to make it easy for that information to flow into the process early on in the deliberations and we’re working on that now.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you touch on the peace process in the Middle East and how that can affect the standing of the current administration?

[McHale] I think our President has been very clear and our Secretary of State, that we are deeply committed to the peace process and working with both parties to find a solution to that and that will not change and we will continue our efforts. it’s a very difficult process clearly, I don’t think anyone thought it would be easy, it’s taken as long as it has taken and I think we will continue to work with both parties in that to find a solution which will lead to a peaceful future for the people in both those countries so we’re hopeful that that will happen.