In international politics actions always speak louder than words. Governments claiming to exercise soft power do well to remember this, for how they behave will forever tell a far more commanding and convincing narrative than what they say. When successive US presidents have demanded and actively promoted the spread of democratic values around the world, and agencies representing the state have participated in activities that can be defined only as violations of human rights, America’s credibility suffers.
Such a clear discrepancy between rhetoric and behaviour also exposes the US to allegations of hypocrisy. Should we be surprised that China’s international television service, CCTV-America, has focused overwhelmingly on the events in Ferguson, Missouri, while almost ignoring entirely the clampdown against protestors in Hong Kong?
The publication of the US Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme during George W. Bush’s presidency poses significant soft power challenges. It not only highlights the systematic torture undertaken in the name of national security, but also documents the embarrassing subversion of law and justice by a state that emphasises such values as the core of its foreign policy. We also need to remind ourselves that this is the same administration that asked repeatedly after 9/11: ‘Why do they hate us?’ The publication of the Senate’s report points us towards a possible answer.
Can the US recover its credibility? Yes it can. By following a clear communication strategy, the US can salvage its soft power without the present government having to distance itself in an unconvincing way from its predecessor. And the way to do this is by focusing more on the process of how the world came to know about these terrible acts and less on the acts themselves, as well as by outlining how the US intends to deal with the consequences.
The plan begins with culpability and humility. The CIA and key members of the Bush administration must hold up their hands and admit that these activities are wrong and inexcusable. Any attempt to justify them as part of an anti-terrorist strategy or as carried out in the name of national security has already backfired, and it is a defence that is no longer relevant when global public and media opinion is clear that two wrongs do not make a right. A clear and modest, self-critical admission of guilt is required. CIA apologists must not be allowed to control the narrative and shape public opinion about the report, and they must not be allowed to employ alternative, less malignant labels such as ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ to describe acts of torture. When their voice is heard, when Vice-President Dick Cheney calls the report ‘full of crap’, the world needs to know that it is heard because America is a democracy and pluralism is encouraged. Within democracies disagreement is expected and can be healthy.
Second, President Obama himself must launch an investigation into the abuses documented in the report and commit America to bringing to trial those responsible. Obama’s response so far has been unsatisfactory: ‘Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,’ he said in a written statement, ‘I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong, in the past.’ This will not satisfy the US’s critics around the world who demand both answers and justice, not just promises that it will never happen again. For American soft power, this is too little, too late.
The third component of the strategy requires the US government to marshal its entire public diplomacy machinery in a global communication campaign. There is an urgent need to highlight and explain to the world how the publication of the report reflects fundamental values of the American political culture: a commitment to accountability, transparency and scrutiny of government behaviour, as well as the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers built into their creation; and when government agencies break the law, the mechanisms are in place to make sure those responsible are brought to justice, regardless of position or status. This is not spin, a communication activity now tarnished in public opinion by its association with deceit. Rather, it is an understanding that the strengths of the American political culture have a valuable role to play in crafting a measured and accurate response to serious criticisms against it. But transparency and accountability can only be effective themes for public diplomacy if the government explains why only a redacted 525-page summary of a 6,700 page report has been released. There must be a communication strategy in place to deal with the inevitable question: What else are they hiding from us?
In the modern information age, credibility is the currency of politics; and credibility is generated by building trust, authority and legitimacy, and by ensuring that how you behave is consistent with the values you profess. More importantly, when you are found out – when parts of the state machinery violate the constitution and international law, as well as the core principles you, your government and your nation hold dear and which you promote to others as an ideal to others around the world – how you respond is critical in helping to restore your credibility. Soft power depends on doing the right thing, and being seen to be doing the right thing. As President Obama has noted, ‘this report reminds us … that the character of our country is to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.’
However, there is no escaping the fact that at the end of the day, the best means for maintaining credibility is not to commit the crimes in the first place. The Senate report on CIA torture will cause ripples of indignation around the world and damage American soft power abroad in the short term. If its publication also encourages a period of introspection and critical questioning in the US, there remains hope for America’s otherwise tarnished image in the longer term. Revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programme and the repeated violations of national sovereignty by drone strikes suggest that there is still work to do, and that the US’s soft power is far from guaranteed.