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Another problem was that the U.S. didn’t entirely eschew old-style imperialism. Despite the hopes (or at least the claims) of FDR and his successors, the empire of ideas has never replaced the empire of empire; it has simply supplemented it. It’s true that we rarely conquer territory anymore, but our troops are still stationed from Germany to Korea to Afghanistan, and our stated belief in Pakistani sovereignty doesn’t stop us from sending in drone strikes whenever the president gives the say-so. America is a gigantic, multifarious nation, more than capable of dropping leaflets and bombs at the same time.
One of the more depressing revelations of Hart’s book is the extent to which public diplomacy explicitly and repeatedly enabled domestic propaganda and Cold War escalation. The P.R. resources of the State Department were used not just to convince folks overseas of the beneficence of U.S. foreign policy but to convince Americans themselves. When Harry Truman wanted to send aid to Greece and Turkey and ramp up the Cold War, he used State Department manpower and expertise to (in the words of supportive Michigan Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenburg) “scare hell out of the country.”
A similar public relations blitz sold the Marshall Plan, using not only official channels but also many members of the press, who were won over through the then-innovative, now tried-and-true strategy of trading access for friendly coverage. In the most egregious example, the Office of Public Affairs in 1947 actually pitched a special section in defense of the Marshall Plan to Washington Post Publisher Philip Graham. Graham not only ran the 16-page insert but slanted future Post coverage toward the State Department line. Eat your heart out, Bob Woodward.
In his conclusion, Hart argues that operational problems with the empire of ideas are not due to government incompetence but rather are intrinsic to the project. He’s right, but he doesn’t take that logic far enough. In fact, America’s empire and its ideas are incompatible.
If American ideology means anything, it means that people should have a voice in their governments’ decisions. Public diplomacy is, in contrast, built precisely on selling American policies and actions to foreigners who don’t get to shape them. This manifest hypocrisy understandably generates as much anger as goodwill. It irritates Americans who have to watch their government acting as if those people over there get a vote. And it irritates those people over there, who keep being told of the wonders of having a vote when in fact they don’t have one.
The United States at its inception and at its best has stood for the principle of anti-colonialism. No taxation without representation means no empire without representation, which means no empire, period. That’s an idea worth spreading—by example, not by propaganda or the force of arms.