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Why the Messages We Don’t Intend to Send Matter More—Defining Passive Messaging Key American values. Image credit: Lindsey B. / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Why the Messages We Don’t Intend to Send Matter More—Defining Passive Messaging

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ASP’s recent paper, A New American Message, put forth the premise that America already has a good message at its disposal. That message is clearly laid out in the country’s founding documents and should from the basis for the country’s approach to the world.

The major problem with that message, however, is that America’s actions at home and abroad are not in sync with its founding ideals. When it comes to this message, America’s credibility is determined by whether it upholds its own rhetoric with its actions. Those actions subsequently determine the effectiveness and legitimacy of the message.

The combination of actions and messages can strongly affect a country’s soft power—the power of attraction.  In 2011, Dr. Joseph Nye expanded on his concept of soft power by introducing “passive soft power.” He explained that soft power can be generated without special attention:

“Sometimes attraction and the resulting soft power it engenders require little effort. As we saw earlier, the effect of an actor’s values can be like the light shining from ‘a city on the hill.’ This attraction by example is the passive approach to soft power.”

Yet this does not mean we can simply let soft power generate on its own through some magical process. We must still check to see whether that light is shining so brightly anymore from the city on the hill. Is it clouded by smog? Whether we tell the world of the brightness of our lights is inconsequential. It’s not our perception as residents of that hill that matters, but rather, the perception of those outside.

Arguably, the U.S. has had many periods during which it wasn’t upholding its ideals, thereby weakening its soft power potential. Issues including slavery and segregation were present for much of America’s existence. Some of America’s best public diplomacy has acknowledged and documented these stains on U.S. history—and highlighted the efforts to overcome them.

However, today’s media environment, whether in the form of 24/7 news coverage or in the ubiquitous form of social media, provides an often unfiltered view of the United States that nearly anyone around the world can access in real time. It does not wait for the documentaries or curated exhibits that proved so successful in during the Cold War. It is not contextualized as part of a narrative about America’s continuing evolution and maturation. Instead, no matter where you live, America can be in your face nearly any time at the push of a button, with nothing to guide your understanding other than the raw imagery on display or the public commentary ubiquitous with social media.

This imagery and discourse largely comprises America’s passive message, and currently feeds the counter narratives of “whataboutism.”

Passive Messaging

From a public diplomacy perspective, the U.S. has the ability to draw attention to the things that give it soft power. It has the ability to utilize exchange programs, promote its culture overseas, and to export its values through rhetoric. It can show the internal struggles to correct its flaws. These things are a form of active messaging. They are active because they are activities the U.S. specifically undertakes to affect foreign opinion. They can be helpful, but they have limitations.

Rather than attempting to affect or “change” foreign public opinion after the fact, the most important place to have influence is at the baseline—shaping the initial thoughts one has when thinking of the United States. These thoughts are formed as a result of passive messaging and provide a platform for further receptivity.

Passive messaging includes all the unintended messages sent by a country on account of its appearance, reputation, and as a result of its daily activities that aren’t explicitly intended to send a message. These activities radiate messages without any specifically directed intent. Despite this lack of intent, these are the things that primarily make up a country’s soft power, as they generate baseline sentiment about that country. More than any outright effort to affect people’s opinion with a message about a country, it’s the observed behavior and characteristics that most affect opinion.

Unlike Nye’s passive soft power, which implies an unintentional net positive attraction—specifically the idea that soft power is a generated positive—passive messaging can, in addition to creating soft power, generate negative soft power: the power to repulse rather than attract.

Examples of Passive Messaging

America’s passive messaging encompasses many behaviors and activities. Here are a few from recent years:

  • Government shutdowns – This sends the message that the U.S. model of government is ineffective and unable to function. It weakens the U.S.’ ability to promote democracy worldwide.
  • Disinformation – Frequent falsehoods coming from the White House send the message that the U.S. is no more trustworthy a messenger than Russia or China.
  • Berating Allies – Constantly pressuring or dismissing the value of America’s friends sends the message that the U.S. does not care for the wellbeing of its allies, and only cares about what it gets out of them.
  • America’s values – These are incredibly important for setting expectations about the U.S. However, it appears many do not believe America upholds these values in practice. A failure to meet expectations can cripple national credibility. The ability of a free press to be critical of the government is vital. White House attacks on the press are not helpful.
  • Culture – Much of America’s entertainment culture sends the message that the U.S. is an open and free society. It can also carry the message of whatever particular viewpoint the creator has. The power of Hollywood and music to send messages is undeniable and is reflected in the worldwide consumption of its culture. However, in some circumstances, culture can give a warped perception of society, just as House of Cards reinforced negative perceptions of corruption in the U.S.
  • Pulling out of diplomatic agreements – Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and Iran Deal sends the message that the U.S. doesn’t keep its word and isn’t a reliable negotiating partner.
  • Inhumane treatment of unlawful immigrants — Putting children in cages and family separation sends the message that the U.S. doesn’t respect basic human rights, severely weakening its message against Chinese human rights abuses.
  • Science – Major scientific accomplishments send a message about what this country is capable of. Whether accomplishments in space, technology, or medicine, the world admires America for its science. But dismissing science, whether in the form of climate change denial or anti-vaxxers, sends the message that science is not seriously respected.

If the passive messaging of the United States is good, this provides a steady platform from which supplemental public diplomacy programs aimed at boosting soft power can flourish. If the passive messaging is bad, it can weaken American soft power to the point where people are repulsed and traditional public diplomacy programs are rendered ineffective. Some have spoken of soft power in a way that implies it can simply be used or wielded to increase a country’s influence. It’s not quite that simple.