In Popularity We (Don’t) Trust: Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in U.S. and Sino-Egyptian Relations

Su, Alice [Browse]
Senior thesis
125 pages


Kurtzer, Daniel [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year
Restrictions note
Walk-in Access. This thesis can only be viewed on computer terminals at the Mudd Manuscript Library.
Summary note
This thesis is a comparative study of U.S. and Chinese public diplomacy in Egypt. It seeks to answer a question that frustrates U.S. officials especially in the Middle East: how can American public diplomacy convey a positive image when U.S. policies are provoking anti-Americanism at the same time? By examining U.S. and Chinese differences in public diplomacy policy, message and audience, it hopes to determine their strengths and weaknesses and find ways to better win hearts and minds. Because limited academic literature exists on this topic, this study focuses on direct analysis of current policy, asking what messages the United States and China are trying to communicate, how they attempt to do so, and how they are received. To investigate these questions, the author spent three weeks interviewing Egyptian, Chinese and American diplomats, academics, journalists and officials in Cairo, Beijing and Washington, DC. In the process, this thesis finds a problem deeper than questions of messaging form or content: that U.S. message lacks a credible messenger. U.S. public diplomacy highlights American values, couching policies in rhetoric of democracy and freedom. Egyptian audiences appreciate these values but do not believe U.S. talk of them – not because of its wording, timing or medium, but because they do not trust the speaker. Thus a key concept of this thesis is that identity matters. Egyptians hold a more favorable view of China than of the United States, but not because Chinese messaging strategies are superior. Egyptians see America as an intrusive hegemon. China, while a rising power with similarly aggressive behavior elsewhere, has little history of involvement in the Middle East. Egyptians do not feel threatened by China, even if Chinese messaging is inconsistent, because China’s position simply does not matter as much. Meanwhile, the United States is popular in terms of soft power. While Egyptians dislike U.S. policy, they still buy American goods, apply for American visas and think well of American people, especially after person-to-person exchanges. The United States far overshadows China in this regard. The problem of improving public diplomacy then turns upon a new question: how can U.S. public diplomacy harness the America’s social soft power to make the American message credible? This thesis argues that the United States can best support its values through a classic creed of communication: Show, don’t tell. Instead of trying to sell America by rephrasing U.S. messaging, the United States should communicate its values via demonstration. That means involving the domestic public, America’s source of soft power, in the policies and processes of public diplomacy. This can be done in two ways: Diversification of public diplomacy speakership: State should decentralize public diplomacy by shifting to a role of facilitating American voices in the Egyptian public sphere rather than inserting its own voice. Domestic outreach: The State Department should encourage the American public to learn about foreign affairs and actively question U.S. foreign policies, and then factor domestic opinion more into its policymaking in response. America should live up to its values by bringing the public back into public diplomacy. The core of U.S. messaging should not be that the United States supports democracy, but that the United States is a democracy. Soft power will render U.S. messaging credible when public diplomacy shows that America practices what it preaches at home.

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