There is an alternative to the death, destruction, mistrust and misperceptions that our military actions have engendered and continue to generate. There is a way to battle the lies and hatred of violent extremism that does not depend on F-16 fighters, nuclear aircraft carriers, M1 Abram tanks and, most important, the sacrifice of brave American service men and women. It is called public diplomacy.
Public diplomacy is best defined as the communication and presentation of America’s interests, culture and policies to foreign populations in a fashion that generates good will, respect and support.
Since the abolition in 1999 of our government’s primary public diplomacy agency, the U.S. Information Agency, the practice has in essence become an afterthought. To successfully conduct and win the war on terror will require strong diplomatic efforts and sustained cooperation from countries around the world with the support of the citizens of those countries.
Due to our troubled foreign policy in the Middle East, this will require a long-term effort. The war on terror is not a two- or three-year war; it is now a generational war.
Approximately 70 percent of the population in Middle East is 35 years of age or younger, with 50 percent of the region’s population being 18 years or younger. Combine that with the fact that nearly 30 percent of the American population is under 20, and we can see that the key to long-term lasting peace rests squarely in the hands of our youth, the next generation of leaders.
Research shows that Arab and Muslim youth see America as an insular country whose people only see things through the distorted and self-centered prism of our own eyes, and that Americans don’t desire, seek or value their opinions or concerns. What is the solution to this great divide?
There is no magic wand, but one idea is better communication and dialogue, from person to person, in the form of public diplomacy. Cultural, educational and professional exchanges, coupled with the use of Internet technologies such as video conferencing, interactive Web casting and other virtual collaborative workspaces, can all serve to connect us in the millions, and in a fashion that demonstrates that we have much more in common than we do different.
We must educate people in the Middle East and Muslim countries around the world, and show them that not every American youth is a warrior-in-the-making that will one day invade and occupy their country. Conversely, we must also educate Americans that not every Arab or Muslim youth is a terrorist-in-the-making harboring a desire to bomb our neighborhoods and backyards.
We recently witnessed firsthand the benefits and potential of youth-oriented public diplomacy efforts. More than 80 young female leaders from throughout America and the Arab and Muslim world gathered in Boston for a weeklong leadership conference entitled “Women2Women.” These young women learned, collaborated, networked and built long-term friendships that will no doubt lead to better relations and understanding between America and the region.
America’s best weapons against violent extremism are our people and our culture. Through vibrant public diplomacy programs and increased dialogue and communication between peoples, we will best be able to build bridges of understanding and support to the Arab and Muslim world. This type of commitment can — and ultimately will — help lead us to peace and demonstrate that the carrot can be mightier than the stick.
Joan Menard is a Massachusetts state senator and the Senate Majority Whip. Rick Rendon is a strategic communications consultant and the founder of Empower Peace, a nonprofit organization committed to building respect and understanding between Western youth and those in the Arab and Muslim worlds.