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John Brown

John Brown

Posted: November 28, 2010 05:33 PM

Public diplomacy -- defined by the State Department as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" -- has become increasingly passé among American officials, scholars, and NGOs as a term and activity used to define how America should communicate with the outside world. Meanwhile, the governments of other countries -- notably China and India -- are enthusiastically embracing public diplomacy as a new and essential part of their foreign policy. Who's the winner in such a situation -- the USA or the rest of the world? Hard to say.

I. Public Diplomacy: Passé for the U.S.?

Public diplomacy was coined by Dean Edmund Gullion and the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy in the mid-1960's. He and his colleagues wanted to find a way to characterize the many informational, educational, and cultural programs that were instituted, on an international level, after World War II, by US governmental and non-governmental entities:

Even beyond the organ of the Government set up to handle information about the United States and to explain our policies, what is important today is the interaction of groups, peoples, and cultures beyond national borders, influencing the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments.

To connote this activity, we at the Fletcher School tried to find a name. I would have liked to call it "propaganda." It seemed like the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing. But "propaganda" has always a pejorative connotation in this country. To describe the whole range of communications, information, and propaganda, we hit upon "public diplomacy" [my italics].

The United States Information Agency (USIA), created as an independent USG agency in 1953 to combat Soviet anti-American propaganda, appropriated the term by the 1970s to justify its programs to Congress. In the process, public diplomacy became identified as an essentially overseas governmental activity. In the words of scholar Nicholas Cull:
A dozen years into its life, the United States Information Agency needed alternative to the anodyne term information or malignant term propaganda: a fresh turn of phrase upon which it could build new and benign meanings. Gullion's term 'public diplomacy' covered every aspect of USIA activity and a number of the cultural and exchange functions . ...

If public diplomacy existed as a variety of diplomacy in the modern world - the argument ran - then surely the United States surely needed a dedicated agency to conduct this work, and that agency was best structured to control all work in the field.

Less than a decade after the collapse of communism, the USIA was consolidated into the State Department (1999), for a variety of reasons, among them: The powerful Republican Senator Richard Helms was "annoyed" by the Agency; with the so-called "end of history" after the U.S. "won" the half-century ideological struggle with the USSR, the USIA was considered an anachronism; the federal government wanted to cut spending (in the words of Joseph Duffey, the last USIA Director: "The idea of moving the USIA to the State Depart­ment was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's idea. The central reason was money, because she was under enormous pressure because the budgets had not been increased"); the Agency "never really functioned as desired," according to the Heritage Foundation.

A long-term historical pattern was also at work: When a global war ends, the USG "information" agency established to win "hearts and minds" overseas during such a conflict is terminated: WWI: the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919; WWII: the Office of War Information 1942-1945; Cold War: the United States Information agency 1953-1999.

On a more down-to-earth level, "public diplomacy" was an American term with little meaning for most foreign audiences in our past century; indeed, in certain parts of the world, US "public diplomacy" practitioners (I had the privilege to be among them in the 1980s and 1990s) worked in the "Press and Cultural Section" at the Embassy where they were assigned, so named in order for their activities to be understandable to local contacts (in Eastern Europe, where I mostly served, these diplomats were considered spies by the communist authorities). And, here in the United States, while "public diplomacy" became part of the inside-the-Washington-beltway jargon, it would be hard to say that it was a term most Americans were familiar with.

The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of USIA marked the beginning of the possible demise of public diplomacy -- as a term and, to some extent, an activity. By the beginning of the 2000's, public diplomacy no longer had its own bureaucratic niche, although the State Department had by then created the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Charlotte Beers, a marketing whizzkid selected to serve in that role at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, was widely criticized for her simplistic efforts to "brand" America à la her buy-Uncle-Ben's-Rice campaigns, one of her advertising triumphs.

Despite Ms. Beers's efforts during the early years of the Bush administration, public diplomacy was neglected and (some would say) turned into base propaganda to justify the war in Iraq. The dozens of reports appearing on the failure of public diplomacy after 9/11 had little impact in restoring it to its Cold War importance and indeed led to "report fatigue" regarding the subject. The so-called "listening tours" of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes, active during the second term of the Bush administration, were ridiculed by both domestic and foreign media, contributing to public diplomacy's loss of reputation and relevance (1).

James Glassman, the last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Bush administration, suggested that public diplomacy as traditionally used had become an anachronism by coining the new term "Public Diplomacy 2.0." With the perceived loss of importance of public diplomacy, strategic communication became a fashionable term in the early 2000's, and often replaced it as a description for communication with foreign audiences, especially at the Pentagon (where public diplomacy, by those there familiar with the expression, probably has a flaky connotation). In the words of scholar Bruce Gregory (2008), "[t]he term strategic communication is gaining traction. Some see it as more inclusive than public diplomacy and more descriptive of a multi-stakeholder environment." (He goes on to say that "[f]or most analytical and practical purposes, however, the two terms can be used analogously.")

With the installation of new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs -- Discovery Channel executive Judith McHale (2), the USG's buzzwords for truly communicating with the world were not public diplomacy but engagement -- a word also used by Glassman and indeed, as a participle in the State Department's definition of public diplomacy cited above; and also, to a lesser extent, smart power.

Economic/societal development -- in contrast to the educational and cultural programs that formed an essential part of public diplomacy during much of the Cold War (and to some extent still do) -- has under the new administration become a key part of the State Department's engagement, despite development's bureaucratic association with another USG agency, USAID. Ms. McHale, for example, recently proclaimed that George C. Marshall, best known for the European economic development/recovery plan after World War II that bears his name, was "the greatest example in our nation's history of Public Diplomacy done right" (2). Her "developmental" approach to public diplomacy (or should I say engagement) is also illustrated by one of her major initiatives, the launch in Kenya of a new competition called Apps4Africa, which "challenges local coders and software developers to create software tools that will meet the needs of citizens across East Africa."

The concern among the foreign-policy community, on both an official and grass-roots level, that the US government cannot adequately handle communications with foreign publics through its public diplomacy, a view prevalent during the Bush administration and still in existence today, resulted in the creation of the Business for Diplomatic Action by the person who helped coin the advertising jingle of the past century, "You Deserve a Break Today," Keith Reinhard. And Kristin Lord, a scholar,

posited in a report [2008] that American public diplomacy be reformed by creating a new non-governmental organization called 'USA World Trust' that would do better than the government. The report stated this organization would, among other things, create exchange programs to bring foreign university professors, journalists, NGO representatives and government officials to the United States; it would send American experts abroad on speaking tours; it would understand foreign opinion through focus groups; and it would sponsor translations of American books into foreign languages.
This emphasis on private-sector -- rather than government -- diplomacy was underscored by Ted Townsend, a Board member of U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy: "The idea of citizen diplomacy is separate of public diplomacy, related to the state department. The goal is to use people to people exchanges, eye to eye contact. The phrase that many people use is 'one handshake at a time.'"

Under Secretary of State Judith McHale, to be sure, did attend the U.S. Center for Public Diplomacy's recent November Washington summit, the goal of which was "to double the number of American volunteers of all ages involved in international activities at home or abroad, from an estimated 60 million today to 120 million by 2020." The event was in fact co-sponsored by the State Department; but this could yet be another indication that Foggy Bottom agrees that a government-controlled "public diplomacy" is now no longer the best (or need be the predominant) form of US overseas "engagement."

Let's not forget Kennedy Center Director Michael Kaiser, who maintains that cultural diplomacy -- arguably a subset of public diplomacy -- is oh-so-twentieth-century:

But does traditional cultural diplomacy work? Do we need state-supported tours by American performing arts groups when without federal funding so many of our performers and performing arts groups are appearing all over the world?
Finally, as an important footnote, there is a new term used by public-diplomacy blogger extraordinaire Paul Rockower, "gastrodiplomacy" -- the role of food (not indigestion) in diplomacy -- which "public diplomacy" diplomats in the field consider an essential part of their activities, as sharing a good meal with a local and interesting contact of importance is (was?) one way to present and represent America abroad on a face-to-face basis.

II. Words of wisdom?

Recent statements by public diplomacy cognoscenti give strong indications of its declining importance, both as a term and (to a lesser extent) as an activity:


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