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Obama soars abroad, but America's PR doesn't

The president's stirring Cairo speech demands follow-up, amplification, and explanation.

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President Obama's speech to the Islamic world was a splendid example of public diplomacy at its best. His message was sincere, his words eloquent, and his quotations from the Koran pertinent as he reached out beyond governments and political organizations to millions of ordinary Muslims.

The US State Department carried the speech live and translated it into 14 languages on its website. It was posted on blogs and sent by text message to mobile phones in more than 170 countries. The US government's Middle East TV operation, Alhurra, ran a three-hour special, canvassing viewer reaction by e-mail and Facebook. The Voice of America (VOA) also did its fair share of promotion.

However impressive this was, public diplomacy cannot be a one-shot affair with a presidential speech. It demands follow-up, amplification, and explanation. Foreign audiences need interpretation of US government policies, and insight into the American way of life and love of freedom.

In difficult earlier years, notably during the cold war, this function was performed by the US Information Agency (USIA) and government radio such as the VOA, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty, broadcasting to people behind the Iron Curtain and beyond. USIA was disbanded after the cold war, its remnants placed under the State Department, its transmitters given a new home under a civilian board of governors.


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