Trans-Pacific View

US-China Relations: Public Diplomacy and Soft Power

Insights from Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch.

US-China Relations: Public Diplomacy and Soft Power
Credit: U.S. State Department photo

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch – Founder and President of the U.S.-China Education Trust and the first Asian American to hold the rank of U.S. ambassador (to the Kingdom of Nepal in 1989)  – is the 70th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Ambassador Bloch, you came to the United States from China at nine years old and became the first Chinese and Asian American U.S. ambassador in American history. Based on your decades of service in public diplomacy and the private sector intertwined with your personal history, what elements are essential to strengthening U.S.-China relations?

My experiences have taught me that education and exchange are key to building a stable U.S.-China relationship. I am proud to be Chinese and American, Chinese by birth and American by upbringing. Having Americans study in China and educating the Chinese here are the best ways, by far, to build mutual understanding and to remove the greatest impediment to a stable U.S.-China relationship – the distrust that exists between the two countries. Those who can navigate both China and America – linguistically, culturally, and perceptually – will be better poised to alter the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship for the better.

What is the role and impact of public diplomacy?

Public diplomacy, an essential foreign policy tool through which a country can “tell its story” to the rest of the world, is an important topic that has received far too little attention in recent years. In 1953 when President Eisenhower established the United States Information Agency (USIA), which became the government’s public diplomacy arm, he understood that the future of the world would be shaped more by how well we communicated the values of our society to others than by our military or economic might.  As Edmund Gullion, an American diplomat who coined the phrase, put it, public diplomacy at its best engages in open dialogue and people-to-people exchange to “[influence] the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments.”

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There is no better metaphor than the fall of the Berlin Wall to characterize the impact of U.S. public diplomacy, which played a central role in shaping America’s national image and winning hearts and minds to end the Cold War. Despite September 11, when many Americans, including President George W. Bush, asked, “Why do they hate us,” the idea of America has remained attractive to the rest of the world and no competing models of politics and policy offered by China, Europe, or Russia have become ascendant.

But after the invasion of Iraq, America’s reputation around the world plummeted. Interestingly, polling data revealed that people were unhappy with the United States, even in Muslim countries, not because they hated our values, but because they believed we were not true to our values. It was a rejection of U.S. policies, not U.S. values or its people. American soft power remains resilient to this day.

What are constructive ways to demystify misperceptions between Americans and Chinese of each other?

It is more important than ever to demystify misperceptions between Americans and Chinese because the two countries today stand on the precipice of the Thucydides trap. Will China and the United States mimic their ancestors’ folly, when rising powers inevitably went to war with ruling powers — as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago? The inevitability of war between China and the United States is not unthinkable if we take at face value how each perceives the other today.   Chinese elites today are convinced that the United States is deeply opposed to China’s rise, and driven to do whatever it takes to prevent China from taking its rightful place on the world stage. Their counterparts in the United States are equally vehement that China is seeking to push the United States out of Asia and off of its superpower perch.

Experience tells us that education and exchange are effective tools, bar none, for building mutual understanding. Yet, the exponential rise in U.S.-China educational exchange since the normalization of relations in 1979 has not made much of a difference in how the Chinese and Americans continue to misread each other’s intentions and interests, posing dangerous possibilities for misunderstanding and miscalculation.

I think we need to look at the quantity and quality of the experience for an answer. While over 300,000 Chinese students study at U.S. universities, most study business, science, and technology, practical subjects that offer tickets to a better life.  Only some 16,000 American students study in China, focusing on learning the language and culture, but most only stay for a summer. China and the United States need to tap the full power of educational exchange, as envisioned by Senator William Fulbright, the author of the premier exchange program that bears his name – its power to convert nations and peoples and to translate ideologies into aspirations.

Educational exchange is also long term. And it cannot stand alone; it needs to be connected to a framework of high-level political effort at the bilateral, regional and global levels. And there has to be a common purpose to build strategic trust step by step, over time with the objective of seeking common ground in taking common action to resolve common problems.

Assess strengths and weaknesses in American and Chinese exercise of “soft power.”

Today, a country’s standing in the global community is determined not only by military and economic power, but also by its national image and values. China and the United States are increasingly engaged in a war of ideas, each seeking to shape the world’s values and standards in line with its own. This requires soft power – the ability to attract others without force or coercion. In this struggle, the U.S. has decidedly a head start, helped in no small measure by Western global dominance since the 19th century and the fact that the world lingua franca is English.

While China’s soft power remains less competitive than that of the United States today, the question is whether and how quickly China can catch up. Under President Xi Jinping, China has stepped up spreading wealth for influence, mounting one of the largest economic diplomacy programs in history. China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite strong U.S. opposition, has 57 members, joined by practically all U.S. allies with the exception of Japan and now rivals the World Bank. Meanwhile, U.S. public diplomacy shrank to a shadow of its former self, with USIA shut down, crippled in our ability to combat distortions and misunderstandings about the United States and reduced in penury as an asset in building relations with the rest of the world.

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But China is not poised to win this competition, as it does not yet understand that governments cannot create soft power. In the best of circumstances, it is hard for the government’s voice to be heard among the cacophony of so many competing messages on social media. Government messaging increasingly is treated as just more background noise to be ignored or discarded as propaganda. The bottom line is that soft power is only as good as the product.

How might President-elect Trump optimize public diplomacy and soft power in effectively managing U.S.-China relations?

Just as President-elect Trump rewrote American election history, he intends to rewrite American foreign policy. While nothing he has said during the campaign or since the election indicates that he knows or cares about public diplomacy and soft power, a blank slate is not necessarily a bad thing. Appealing to his communication, business, and deal-making instincts, he may be inclined to bring back a more robust, better-funded form of U.S. public diplomacy. His mantra, “To make America great again,” means he would care what other countries think about the U.S. and he might be willing to invest, as the U.S. did when America was “great,” in marshaling public diplomacy to project its soft power. He would see America’s sliding ratings around the world as a challenge, and he would not want to lose, certainly not to China.

Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who developed the concept of soft power, thinks “to say that Trump has a [foreign] policy is to give him too much credit. He has attitudes.” Advocates of education and exchange and adherents of soft power might try to make the most of Trump’s “attitudes,” including his latest exhortation for Americans to think big. Thinking big might just bolster educational exchange’s effectiveness.