James K Glassman: America knows that bullets alone will not win this war

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

As the American Secretary of Defence, 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 Mr Gates' words 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. In fact, I would argue – and many in the Pentagon would agree – that, in this struggle, ideas are more important than bullets.

While winning hearts and minds would be an admirable feat, the war of ideas adopts the more immediate and realistic goal of diverting impressionable segments of the population from the recruitment process. Ideological engagement comes down to a contest of visions.

Going beyond diversion, we seek to build counter-movements by empowering those opposed to violent extremism – movements (using both electronic and physical means) that bring people together with similar, constructive interests, such as women opposed to violent extremism , believers in democratic Islam, entrepreneurship, and technology.

Our work is ahead of us. There is a widespread belief in Muslim nations that the United States and other Western powers want to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity. This root belief underlies much of the passive support for the violent extremism of al-Qa'ida and similar groups. The flow of new recruits has not stopped.

Have we been slow to react, to get it right? Yes, indeed. "Sometimes it is the case that democracies don't really organise themselves until there's a real wake-up call," said my boss, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. "Now this country and, I would say, the international community are better organised to deal with this threat."

In the end, the American mission in this new age of public diplomacy is to tell the world of a good and compassionate nation and, at the same time, to engage in the most important ideological contest of our age.

James Glassman, the US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was speaking at Chatham House last week

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