The social media peace corps

No amount of PR or rebranding techniques can address the primary goal of neutralising anti-American sentiment.

'Tunisia is one of our oldest friends in the world,' President Obama said when US Peace Corps reopened operations in the country [EPA]

Washington, DC –  After a 16 year hiatus, the US Peace Corps is reopening operations in Tunisia. The first group of volunteers is scheduled to arrive this year and their assignments will focus on English language training and youth skills development in order to help prepare Tunisian students and professionals for future employment.

Why would a middle-income country participate in a US programme that historically engages lower-income countries such as Vietnam and Mali? Tunisia boasts the best education system in Africa, and the only other Arab countries the Peace Corps operates in are Jordan and Morocco, which rank much lower than Tunisia in the UNDP human development index

“Tunisia is one of our oldest friends in the world,” President Obama said when announcing the resumption of the programme last October, pointing out that Tunisia was one of the first countries to recognise the United States. “I told the prime minister that, thanks to his leadership, thanks to the extraordinary transformation that’s taking place in Tunisia and the courage of its people, I’m confident that we will have at least another two centuries of friendship between our two countries. And the American people will stand by the people of Tunisia in any way that we can during this remarkable period in Tunisian history.”

Thus, the decision regarding the Peace Corps seems to be the latest example of the United States attempting to react positively to the Arab uprisings, which had their start in Tunisia in December 2010. Considering that the Arab world’s views of the US and President Obama are increasingly negative, with 73 per cent of Arabs seeing Israel and the US as the two most threatening countries, there is a great need for the United States to alter its relationship with the region. But by focusing on providing services and aid as a way of shoring up its image, the US is failing to truly understand once again what is at the core of anti-American sentiment in the region.

Back in 2006, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report for the House International Relations Committee attempted to review the reasons for anti-American sentiment in countries with significant Muslim populations. The goal was to examine what the US could do to improve its image and reduce the tension between “Muslims and Americans” and thereby improve relations between the “West and everyone else”. Considering that the majority of Arabs are Muslims, several Arab countries were included in the report. 

Putting aside the problematic use of terms, what we learned from US citizens abroad was that our public diplomacy strategy was paralysed. But this was not entirely true, considering the new smart marketing and public relations campaigns the US was engaged in under Charlotte Beers’ innovative leadership as Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. 

Public diplomacy strategy

Facebook was big, and perhaps there were interactive US websites that could be utilised. Twitter was not yet officially part of the foreign policy and diplomacy toolbox and neither were pre-approved blogs. We learned about the Echo Chamber, a Karen Hughes initiative for information sharing about lessons learned in other countries. Then there were her “Listening Tours” to the region, which tended to revert to “Talking At” tours.

During the recent Social Media Week in DC, State Department officials shared their updated tactics. The tone was not that different from six years ago. For example, several explained how Tweeting from embassy missions aided Foreign Services Officers in sharing the message of the US when they were limited in face to face interactions with foreign publics, due to restricted physical security measures. The “democratisation of information access” was supposed to be aiding in our public diplomacy strategy by making our diplomats more accessible to the people in the countries they were serving.

What was very clear, however, was that the foreign policy message itself had not changed. And here is where the problem lies: our public diplomacy strategy continues to be divorced from our foreign policy. What the State Department either fails to realise or refuses to address is that no amount of PR or rebranding techniques can address the primary goal of neutralising anti-American sentiment – because the problem is not that Arabs don’t get the US message, but rather that they get it loud and clear every time the US chooses to support oppressive regimes instead of promoting human rights.

From a pragmatic point of view, why would anyone decide to change his or her point of view about the US just because a newer technology is projecting the same message? It is like turning the volume up (or down) on a new song by the same musical artist. The voice is the same. Obama might choose to overlook US support for the 24-year dictatorial regime of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, but the people of Tunisia won’t be quick to forgive and forget just because Americans are now coming to teach them English, or that there are US agencies Tweeting job tips to them.

Maybe it’s time for the US to engage in “raw listening” and realise that the problem isn’t that way the message is being relayed – but the message itself.

Mehrunisa Qayyum is a freelance international development consultant and editor of PitaPolicy, a blog focusing on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa. She is also the media chair for the Network of Arab American Professionals based in Washington, DC.

Follow her on Twitter: @Pitapolicy

Ramah Kudaimi has completed post-graduation studies in conflict resolution at Georgetown University.

Follow her on Twitter: @ramahkudaimi