The course of U.S. public diplomacy under President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may not be clear just yet, but it is known who will be at the helm. Judith A. McHale, the former president and CEO of Discovery Communications, is the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

The daughter of a foreign service officer, McHale grew up in Britain and apartheid-era South Africa. In a press release announcing her nomination, the White House emphasized McHale’s “commitment to global outreach efforts.” In the 1990s, she launched the non-profit Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership, which supplies free educational video programming to students across Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. More recently, she worked with the Global Environment Fund to launch the GEF/Africa Growth Fund, an investment vehicle intended to supply expansion capital to small- and medium-sized businesses in emerging African markets.

Some observers of U.S. public diplomacy quickly expressed concern when President Obama nominated McHale in April, surmising that it may have had less to do with her public diplomacy acumen and more with her long friendship with Secretary Clinton and financial support for Democratic campaigns. Noting the unimpressive record of Karen Hughes, President Bush’s media-savvy political advisor, as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy from 2005 to 2007, former U.S. diplomat John Brown wrote in The Guardian that “McHale will have to convince skeptics the world over that she is not a Democratic clone of Hurricane Karen.”[i] Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch likened McHale’s resume to that of Charlotte Beers, the former J. Walter Thompson advertising agency chairwoman who was President Bush’s first Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, and whose tenure, according to Lynch, “is generally considered to be an utter failure.”[ii] Once the nomination was announced, however, Lynch emphasized that “I have nothing against Judith McHale!,” adding that “I want her to prove me wrong and emerge as an effective advocate for public diplomacy and serious global engagement.”[iii]

According to former Under Secretary James Glassman, “Her career shows that Judith McHale certainly has the drive and talent to do the job. The bigger issue is what she thinks the job is. We will soon find out.”[iv] And Kenneth Wollack, the president of the National Democratic Institute (on whose board Ms. McHale serves) views her experience at the Discovery Channel as a plus:  “Under her two decades of leadership, Discovery’s reach expanded to 1.4 billion subscribers in 170 countries, with translations into more than 30 languages. Its emphasis is on both locally focused as well as globally unifying communications, which is the same strategy that should underpin U.S. public diplomacy efforts.”[v]

The Senate confirmed Judith McHale as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs on May 22. She was sworn into the position and began work on May 26.

Obama reaches out to Muslim audiences.

After promising Muslims around the world a “new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” in his inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama reached out to Muslim audiences in several examples of the new approach during the first 100 days of his administration.

Beginning less than a week after the inauguration, President Obama embarked on what some are calling a Mddle East “charm offensive,” as he granted an interview to the Saudi-funded, Dubai-based television station Al Arabiya. That Obama granted his first television interview as president to an Arab-language station was cause for headlines in itself; just as noteworthy, in the eyes of many, was his choice of Al Arabiya, rather than the arguably more popular Al Jazeera, or the U.S.-funded Alhurra.

During the ten minute interview, Obama told viewers that “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries… I’m not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what’s on a television station in the Arab world — but I think that what you’ll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity.”

Next on the new president’s public diplomacy agenda for the Muslim world was a March 20 video message for Iran. Obama chose the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian new year, to speak directly to the Iranian people, offering them a “new beginning.” “For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained,” Obama told his viewers, “but at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.”

Making good on a campaign promise to speak in a Muslim capital within his first 100 days as president, Obama addressed the Turkish parliament on April 6, and followed up with a roundtable discussion with Turkish students the next day. In his speech to the parliament, Obama stressed that: “The United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject. But I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to al-Qaeda. Far from it.”

The President also made a much-touted keynote speech on U.S.-Muslim relations at Cairo University in Egypt on June 4. The speech was the centerpiece of a trip to the Middle East and Europe, during which the President also visited Saudi Arabia and traveled to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. In the speech, which was aimed at Muslim audiences, the President said, “I know there has been a lot of publicity about this speech, but no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors.”

Obama’s early engagement with Muslim audiences, and the marked shift in tone from that of his predecessor, were widely and, for the most part, favorably noted in the region. Reaction from al-Qaeda, not surprisingly, was hostile. In a video statement released April 19, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, claimed: “President Obama did not change anything of the image of America towards Muslims and the oppressed… America came to us with a new face, attempting to fool us with it; a face that calls for change, but to change us, so that we give up our faith and our rights, not to change their crimes, aggressions, thefts, and their scandals.”[vi]

How Obama’s new approach will affect U.S. policy in the Middle East is not yet clear. In the short term, though, he hopes his efforts at outreach will begin to reduce the high levels of mistrust toward the U.S. in the region. As he told the Turkish students, “simple exchanges can help break down walls.”

South Korea’s Presidential Council on Nation Branding.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s proposal for a Presidential Council on Nation Branding became a reality on January 22, when the council was officially launched by its chairman, former Korea University president Euh Yoon-dae, together with the South Korean Minister of Culture and the president of the Seoul Tourism Association.
After taking office last February, President Lee promised to establish a presidential committee for the promotion of “Brand Korea,” saying he would upgrade the national reputation so as to strengthen its competitiveness.

The 47-member council includes eight ministers and several PR experts from the country’s leading enterprises. It will take the lead in creating an image of Korea commensurate with the country’s status as the world’s 13th largest economy. Council Chairman Euh said that South Korea would create a pool of nearly $75 billion to build a brand for the country as a “respected and beloved” member of the international community.

“South Korea has become a wealthy country, but it is still regarded as a poor country in some parts of the world, partly because it failed to provide sufficient contribution to the international community and has not been active in helping poor countries,” Euh told The Korea Times. “In a sense, the country’s leading conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Hyundai have a higher degree of global reputation than their country. In terms of branding on the global stage, Korea lags far behind the companies.”[vii] [For more, see Beyond the Brand on page 57.]

NATO’S 60TH Anniversary Summit

Ten years ago, NATO’s 50th anniversary summit in Washington DC unfolded in the midst of the alliance’s air campaign in Kosovo, its second major combat operation in history. The goal then, for traditional diplomacy as well as public diplomacy, was to display alliance unity and keep simmering tensions over the Kosovo campaign from boiling over in public.

No such discord was expected to mar this year’s 60th anniversary summit, held April 3 and 4 in Baden-Baden and Kehl, Germany, and Strasbourg, France, even though NATO is currently engaged in another difficult operation, this time in Afghanistan. Yet this summit nearly ended in a public fiasco for the French and German hosts, provoked by the usually routine selection of a new NATO secretary-general.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen had emerged as front-runner to replace current Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who steps down at the end of July. But a secretary-general must be elected unanimously by the NATO member states, and Turkey was opposed to Rasmussen’s candidacy because of his handling of the 2006 dispute over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that offended Muslims and his tolerance of the Kurdish broadcaster Roj TV’s presence in Denmark.

For some time it looked as if Turkey could not be persuaded; the summit was forced to go into overtime before an agreement was reached. Secretary-General Scheffer did not appear at his closing press conference until two and a half hours after the scheduled starting time.

Turkey put aside its concerns only after U.S. President Barack Obama intervened personally with Turkish President Abdullah Gül at the summit, and then phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The German weekly Der Spiegel commented that by doing so, “Obama saved Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy from deep embarrassment… Merkel and Sarkozy owe him one.”[viii]

Fifth Summit of the Americas

The agenda for the fifth Summit of the Americas, held April 17-19 in Trinidad and Tobago, may have focused on “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability,” but public attention was captivated by a handshake between the leaders of two countries that were present and the specter of a country that wasn’t.

The heads of state in attendance, representing the 34 democratic countries in the Organization of American States, signed a Declaration of Commitment at the conclusion of the summit outlining key areas of the agenda in which their countries will work toward common goals.

But headlines and photographs from the summit began emerging even before the opening ceremony, when U.S. President Barack Obama walked across the room where the heads of state were gathered and shook the hand of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

A handshake, normally just a formality, in this case signaled much more. Relations between George W. Bush’s administration and Venezuela under Chavez were chilly at best. At the last Summit of the Americas, in Argentina in 2005, Chavez railed for two hours against a hemisphere-wide free-trade agreement advocated by the Bush administration. But Chavez greeted Obama with the gift of a book — Eduardo Galeano’s “The Open Veins of Latin America,” the bible of the Latin American Left — and described the new U.S. president as an “intelligent man.”

Media coverage of the summit also focused on the debate over Cuba, which was excluded from the summit because its government is not democratic. On the eve of the summit, Obama eased some of the existing sanctions on the island, and he used his speech at the opening ceremony to announce that “the United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba.”

Expressing the views of a number of her fellow leaders in the hemisphere, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina in her remarks urged Obama to “abandon the blockade of our sister republic of Cuba.”

Mark Smith has been a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for 28 years. In 2008-2009 he was the Public Diplomat in Residence at the Center on Public Diplomacy of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.


[i] John Brown, “Can America Change Hearts and Minds?”, The Guardian, April 22, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/apr/21/obama-public-diplomacy-judith-mchale

[ii] Marc Lynch, “Why Judith McHale Would Be a Bad Foreign Policy Choice,” Foreign Policy blog, January 23, 2009, http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com:80/posts/2009/01/23/rumors_of_a_bad_public_diplomacy_choice

[iii] Marc Lynch, “I Have Nothing Against Judith McHale!”, Foreign Policy blog, April 17, 2009, http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/04/17/i_have_nothing_against_judith_mchale

[iv] James K. Glassman, “My Likely Successor,” March 24, 2009, http://www.jameskglassman.com/?p=7#more-7

[v] Kenneth Wollack, “People-to-People Based Foreign Policy,” The Huffington Post, April 20, 2009  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kenneth-wollack/the-importance-of-people_b_188974.html

[vi] Ben Farmer, “Al-Qaeda Deputy Zawahiri Says Muslims Not Convinced By Barack Obama,” Telegraph.co.uk, April 20, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/5186744/Al-Qaeda-deputy-Zawahiri-says-Muslims-not-convinced-by-Barack-Obama.html

[vii] Na Jeong-ju, “Nation Branding Key to Attracting Foreign Investment,” The Korea Times, January 21, 2009, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2009/01/116_38283.html

[viii] Matthias Gebauer, “Obama Saves NATO Governments from Summit Shame,” Spiegel Online, April 4, 2009, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,617478,00.html