Obama, China, and a New Public Diplomacy

China Presents a New Set of Challenges for America's Next President, Says David Wolf

By Published on .

BEIJING ( -- Since the U.S. resumed relations with the People's Republic of China some 36 years ago, Washington's foreign policy mandarins have dealt with a small elite in the Communist Party. The party's heavy-handed bureaucracy guided China's foreign policy, its media, and its public attitudes toward the United States.

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, he and his foreign policy advisers face a China different in subtle but important ways from even the "strategic competitor" faced by the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
David Wolf
David Wolf
China's government and the Communist Party still reign supreme and the formal decision-making structures of the nation remain intact. But the cauldron in which attitudes (and, by extension, policies) toward the U.S. are formed now include a sizable, and growing, helping of public discourse.

China's leaders may operate in a system where they are free to ignore public opinion, but a host of reasons -- not least among them China's evolution toward a more consensus-driven policy-making model--are driving party leaders and bureaucrats to seek input from business leaders, academics, foreign experts, and even the public itself.

This shift has massive implications for the approach the Obama administration must undertake to strengthen U.S. ties to China, especially as many of the new administration's actions to address the daunting challenges it faces will be seen as running counter to Chinese interests.

China can help Obama
If Mr. Obama is to keep his hard choices from backfiring with China, he must make his case to both the Chinese government and the Chinese people. And make no mistake, Mr. Obama will need China. One only need look at the issues the new president will face to see how important the help of China will be to his success.

At the very least, China will be essential in forging a global energy and environmental regime, bringing security to Central Asia, ensuring that Russia remains integrated in the global system, midwifing North Korea's return to that system (and perhaps its peaceful re-unification with South Korea), and, of course, resolving the current global financial crisis and forming a new system to both nurture and regulate international finance.

Conventional diplomacy will form a part of the effort to enlist that support, but it will not be enough. Mr. Obama and his team will need to undertake an unparalleled effort of public diplomacy, and one that shuns the tools and tactics of the Cold War for strategies, approaches, and messages more appropriate to a world rendered naked by the internet.

Four-step strategy to engage China
The team should base its efforts to this end on four fundamentals.

First, the administration would do well to begin the effort to create (simplified) Chinese-language versions of nearly every public-facing U.S. web site. This effort alone will open channels of communication that have been closed for no good reason.

Second, the administration needs to learn how to listen to China's public voices. This process only starts with engaging with businesspeople, academics, editors, and other influential types. It has to delve far beyond the elites and find ways to listen to the people of China. Polling won't work. It will be far better to find a way to listen to what they are saying to each other, and China's blogs and online forums are an excellent place to begin.

Third, as the administration begins to forge the tools and tactics to conduct this effort, it would do well to draw from the toolkit it created to win the election. That means banishing the United States Information Agency (USIA), Voice of America, and the feeble attempts to date by the U.S. government to use the internet as a diplomatic tool. Any government can conduct propaganda campaigns. Given our tarnished credibility, America needs to win hearts and minds through engagement, not pronouncement.

Finally, the administration must realize that to be effective, American public diplomacy must be in the main a person-to-person effort. Mr. Obama's efforts to enlist the help of all Americans in the changes he advocates would be well directed to an effort to rebuild our frayed international reputation.

In the long run, it will be the relationships between individual Americans and Chinese that will form the basis for grass-roots support for America in the homes and on the streets of China.

Understanding this situation is important to marketers and communicators. Our natural instincts will be to stand aloof from the matters of international politics. We will argue that we are merchants, assigned the task of selling goods and services, not making peace between nations.

Turn brands into unifying messages
Such thinking is technically correct, but it misses a crucial point. The prosperity of advertisers depends on a global economic system built on a foundation of friendly relations between nations, especially the major players in the global economy. That system is under stresses unprecedented in scope and severity since its inception after World War II.

We can either ignore those stresses and hope they will ease or go away, or we can acknowledge that there is a role for us to play in this process that serves our commercial interests as well. This means not that we become "stooges" for any government, but that we seek appropriate opportunities in our messaging, in our creative, and in the structure of marketing campaigns to cast oil on the turbulent waters of international affairs.

Some of the world's greatest brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Cathay Pacific have in the past delivered messages of unity and amity in their campaigns, and the results have been spectacular. Particularly now, multinational companies have an opportunity to prove their brands are ties that help bind the world together. We should not miss this chance.

David Wolf manages Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based management advisory firm that specializes in technology, media, telecommunications, and entertainment.

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