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Public Diplomacy as a Linguistic Phenomenon

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Public Diplomacy -- according to the US State Department, "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" -- was coined in the mid-1960s by Dean Edmund Gullion of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy as a term meant to be more acceptable than propaganda.

Public diplomacy continues to undergo interesting linguistic evolutions, as few persons can agree on what it actually means. Take, as a recent example of the opacity of the term, the headline of a front-page article (print version; also available online) in The Washington Post piece by Annys Shin, with the following headline: "DC Water chief turns on the public diplomacy to make tap hip again."

You may not think of George Hawkins when you flush your toilet, but Hawkins wants you to know that when you do, he's thinking of you.

Hawkins is the endlessly upbeat head of DC Water, the agency that many District residents still associate with leaded tap water, ineffectual fire hydrants and chronic water main breaks. For 18 months, Hawkins, 50, has been trying to persuade the District's residents to forget all that and get excited about the future. He wants to clean up the Anacostia River and cover the city with "green" roofs. And he wants D.C. residents to pay more to do it. A lot more -- without getting angry.

To that end, he has shelved the bureaucratic sounding "D.C. Water and Sewer Authority" for the more Evian-worthy name "DC Water Is Life." He has footage of himself on YouTube doing the robot at an office holiday party. And he's trekked to every ward in the city, handing out bags of fresh popcorn and free water bottles while he regales his audience with the wonders of sewage treatment and the complexities of water distribution.

While The Post article focuses on Hawkins's domestic "public diplomacy" (Ms. Shin is evidently unaware of the little-known 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which, while not using the term, legislates that public diplomacy is a foreign, rather than domestic, USG activity) it does include a photograph with the following caption: "DC Water's general manager, George Hawkins, right, points out features of the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant to a delegation from China."

And in USA Today, we have an article by Richard Wolf and David Jackson about White House Easter egg roll keeps getting bigger, noting that President Obama

has a $14.3 trillion national debt, an 8.8% unemployment rate, two wars and a re-election campaign to worry about. Even so, President Obama is making time Monday to have 30,000 people over for eggs. Not just any eggs: Easter eggs. ... Why all the fuss? ...

Public diplomacy. Over the years, its [the egg roll] popularity has grown, creating a backlog of disappointed children who didn't make the cut. This year, 205,739 tickets were requested through an online lottery.

"The term 'public diplomacy,'" US International Broadcasting guru Kim Andrew Elliott wisely noted, "is now attributed to so many activities that it has lost useful meaning."

If everything is public diplomacy, then nothing is public diplomacy. But that in itself may be an interesting subject of discussion, an intellectual pursuit on the essence of things that medieval monks and American academics, both concerned, in different historical periods, with how many angels can dance on a pin, share in common.

Yet in some ways, the below bluntness of Richard Holbrooke, who was a practicing diplomat, regarding public diplomacy -- a comment which, while lacking in subtlety and nuance, and somewhat oblivious to our new so-called "networked" world, where everyone is supposedly "interactive" and centrally-controlled messages don't really count anymore -- is actually quite refreshing (like an icy shower), especially after one has endured yet another DC thinktank/university discussion on the infinite varieties of PD, each suited to the "turfs" of various agencies/NGOs eager to increase their budgets through federal funding:

Call it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or -- if you really want to be blunt -- propaganda.

A comforting (after it's over) icy shower, but, I would agree, ultimately misleading. The world is indeed more complex than ever -- a world where any kind of "definition" is actually an anachronism, as "defining" anything anymore in our multilayered societies has become increasingly impossible.

So no wonder the cottage industry of "what is PD" is thriving, not necessarily for the worst (or the best), in our age of uncertainty.

Yes, USG PD doesn't quite know what it's doing (is that just as well?), despite its so-called roadmap and the money we, the US taxpayer, spend on it.  Quite ironically a country challenging US hegemony -- China -- is, to assert itself on the changing global stage, using the US Cold War model of public diplomacy, at the very time that some in the US (including in the current administration) are abandoning such a oh-so-twentieth century activity as too "top-down." Take, as an  example, the very words of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale (November 11, 2010):

I think that the more we can have people having direct conversations with each other -- and through those conversations and initiatives, through history of cultures we can learn about each other and if we do that, at the people-to-people level, that will provide us with a path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. So it's a key part of what we're trying to do, to really have people engage with each other, to learn about each other. So it's not public diplomacy, it's not messaging, it's not just a marketing campaign [my highlight]. It's really fostering an environment where you can strengthen relationships between people.

US PD: Paradox? Oxymoron? Rip-off? Investment? An Act of Faith? Winning Hearts and Minds? Information War (as Hillary Clinton at one point suggested)? Mutual Understanding? Propaganda? Hit 'em Hard Through Our Message? Engagement? A Conversation? That monster of military terminology, "Strategic Communication"?

Maybe only She, God, knows the answer.