In one of the best examples of Public Diplomacy in action, Barack Obama reached out to Iranian leaders through an online video. Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed Obama's invitation to engage in dialogue. While Obama may have failed from a foreign policy perspective, he succeeded in the realm of public diplomacy.
In a subtitled video posted Thursday on the White House's website and official YouTube channel, Obama congratulated the Iranians on the occassion of the Nowruz ("New Day") holiday, and expressed a willingness to improve bilateral relations.
Most relevant to public diplomacy, Obama publicly addressed Iranian citizens, not just their leaders. In the 3 minute 20 second video, the American president highlighted the similarities between Iranians and Americans, and pledged to see "engagement that is honest, and grounded in mutual respect."
The Iranian supreme leader responded Saturday defiantly. "He (Obama) insulted the Islamic Republic of Iran from the first day. If you are right that change has come, where is that change? What is the sign of that change? Make it clear for us what has changed," said Khamenei.
It may seem initially that Obama's innovative attempt to appeal to Iranian leaders failed. Yet, the seeming short-term foreign policy failure does not outweigh the substantial public diplomacy success he has achieved.
Obama may have not gotten a good reception from Iranian leadership, but that was not the only audience targetted by the video. Obama may have very well succeeded at communicating with three main audiences: American citizens, Iranian citizens, and international publics.
In his presidential campaign, Obama had pledged to the American electorate he would attempt to engage with nations such as Iran. If nothing else, with this video, he has realized that promise, and has legitimized the notion that he was indeed committed to the process.
Similarly, Obama has proven to international audiences, both the leaders and the citizens of nations around the world, that he was open to engaging with Iran in dialogue and to seek reconciliation of differences. Future American foreign policy approaches to dealing with Iran that may focus less on diplomacy and more on the exercise of hard power can always be explained as a result of Iranian lack of willingness to cooperate, even when given the chance.
Most poignantly, by using an internet video, Obama reached out to not only Iranian leaders, but also to many Iranian citizens. While it is challenging to accurately measure the impact of Obama's message throughout Iranian civil society, his conciliatory tone must have allowed him to connect with many.
Even though a video message will probably not be enough to fully transform the views of Iranians that perceive the United States negatively, many others may start reconsidering whether the blame of strained bilateral relations truly lies on American shoulders. Iranians who reacted positively to Obama's message may now be frustrated by their leader's response. If that is the case, Obama will have effectively applied public diplomacy skills to engage with foreign citizens in a way in which it slowly alienates their nation's top leadership. This may eventually allow for the members of that leadership to be deemed as too radical and too unrepresentative of the voices of their fellow citizens.
In that sense, Obama may have achieved more with a 3-minute YouTube video than many diplomats have in years of foreign policy efforts. Welcome to the age of public diplomacy!