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Public Diplomacy: "Out" for the U.S., "In" Overseas?

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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:

"'Public Diplomacy' is a term that should be abolished."

--Widely-read blogger Matt Armstrong (November 23, 2010);

"The term 'public diplomacy' is now attributed to so many activities that is has lost useful meaning."

--International Broadcasting expert Kim Andrew Elliott (October 7, 2010), who is adamant about keeping public diplomacy and US International Broadcasting separate;

"For Obama-era Global Engagement to mean more than Bush-era Public Diplomacy it needs to be more than Bush-era Public Diplomacy."

--Scholar Nicholas Cull (June 5, 2009);

"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. It's really fostering an environment where you can strengthen relationships between people."

--Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale (November 11, 2010).

Quite amazing -- but not that surprising, given the history of the past 50 years -- that we have an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs minimizing the importance of public diplomacy! But then why not? Modesty may be the beginning of wisdom (3).

III. Public Diplomacy: à la Mode Overseas

Irony or ironies: While the US "drops" public diplomacy, a term it created, the outside world (or at least foreign governments) embraces it.

That "public diplomacy" has become a global phenomenon is now quite evident (a conference was devoted to this subject some years ago). As I tried to illustrate in several essays for Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (2007), "public diplomacy" is now part of the official/media vocabulary of numerous countries, including, in tentative priority order for this year, according to the near-daily examination of articles pertaining to public diplomacy cited in my Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review: Israel (which also uses its traditional term "hasbara" to identify activities related to public diplomacy); China; India (which also uses "cultural diplomacy" extensively); Australia; Canada; Turkey; the UK; Japan; South Korea; the Philippines (where it is closely associated with tourism). There is some, but little, mention of public diplomacy in the case of sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa and Ghana) and Latin America. Greece cites it to a limited degree, but as a rule Mediterranean countries (France, Italy, Spain) do not, despite their extensive cultural programs overseas. No one has better demonstrated that public diplomacy now goes beyond the walls of the U.S. government than the Dutch scholar Jan Melissen.

Most intriguing about public diplomacy as a global phenomenon is the case of China and India, whose public diplomacy activities have grown extensively in our new century. China has a new Public Diplomacy Research Center and its officials make frequent references of the need for public diplomacy to play a greater role in its foreign policy. Its hundreds of Confucius Institutes are located throughout the world. India, though less aggressively than its Asian neighbor, also underscores the importance of public diplomacy. So these two emerging powers, which some see as the countries that will define the nature of our new century, are taking up a foreign-policy tool -- or at least the term that describes it -- that the United States seems to be abandoning. They of course don't see public diplomacy, as an activity that is difficult to define precisely, in the same way as the USG does, especially as regards the need for a firewall between domestic and international information dissemination by the government. According to the Smith-Mundt Act, the USG cannot implement public diplomacy programs at home; they are meant for overseas audiences. This distinction does not seem to have any relevance in the case of China and India.

I'm not quite sure what the implications of China's and India's adoption of public diplomacy are for international affairs, except that they evidently want to be increasingly recognized and "understood" globally, realizing that "soft power" is an important part of international affairs, not just demographic, economic, or military clout. As relatively new kids on the modern global power block (as America still is), the Chinese and Indian governments believe it is in their national interests to "explain" their growing impact on the rest of the world by "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences." Much of what they are doing in public diplomacy seems to me like an unoriginal replica of USIA programs during the Cold War (doubtless their experts have read Nicholas Cull's magisterial study on the subject), although both governments (especially of India) recognize that the digital age is here. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, filter unacceptable material from the Internet, including, evidently, this author's totally harmless Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review.

In the U.S. today, there is a growing sense that in our "borderless" internet age, with a growing absence of a communications "center," international communications should be in the hands of individuals rather than governments. (Americans, however, tend to forget that, as putative participants in a democracy, their government supposedly represents them, including overseas).

True, there were "people-to-people" exchanges during the Cold War between the United States and other countries, but today more than ever, I would say, Americans want to deal with the rest of world (when they actually want to, which is not always the case) without the "interference" of their government, while nevertheless not refusing, as a rule, its financial support when they do want to "engage" foreigners. The same may be true, to some extent, in China and India, but clearly in the case of these two countries public diplomacy is what it was for the USG in the Cold War -- a government activity aimed to change the behavior of overseas audiences for its country's national interests, including through its public diplomacy officers overseas.

IV. An Ending without a Conclusion

So, it seems that the "declining" world power, the United States, increasingly seeks "government-free" international communications, including among "ordinary" citizens from different countries; while the governments of "growing" powers like China and India feel a need to "sell" their countries overseas through state-run programs. While Americans are tiring of that American invention, government-directed public diplomacy, others in the world think it's the way to go. What that all means in the future is not quite clear to me. Perhaps it doesn't mean very much at all, and may have little, if anything, to do with the "losers-winners" games in international relations. There has been a temptation to overstress the impact of traditional public diplomacy -- just as there's been a tendency to dismiss it as worthless.

But I just find it ironic, as a historian, that many on the globe seem to be adopting what many informed American citizens wish to abandon: namely, public diplomacy, both as a foreign-policy term and as governmental programs that seek to engage, inform, and influence key international audiences to promote a country overseas.

Who's right? The rest of our small planet or ourselves? Time may tell.

***

(1) Such criticisms also resulted, ironically enough, in public diplomacy -- due to its being highlighted in the media and official/semi-official reports -- becoming part of the general vocabulary in the U.S.; it is now being used in ways that go beyond Gullion's original definition, which suggests that no one quite knows what public diplomacy is in the first place, even if it is a commonly used term, at least among the media, think tanks, academe, and NGOs.

(2) An earlier version of this posting incorrectly stated that "[a]fter the election of President Obama, it took more than a year for his administration to install a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs." I am grateful to Dan Sreebny, Senior Media Advisor Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R), for pointing out (see his below comment) that this assertion was mistaken, because, as Mr. Sreebny also wrote to me in an email dated December 1, "Under Secretary McHale was sworn in on May 26, 2009 (four months after President Obama's inauguration)." The much awaited "roadmap" of the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public affairs, "Public Diplomacy: Strengthening U.S. Engagement with the World," however, was not made public until February 26, 2010.

(3) The use of capital letters for "Public Diplomacy" suggests that Marshall was, according to McHale, the best implementator in history of this imperfect craft. Never mind that the term had not yet been coined when Marshall was Secretary of State, 1947-48. It should also be noted that, before innovative artistic programs eventually became a part of public diplomacy during the Cold War, Secretary Marshall, according to The New Yorker's Louis Menand, had "announced that no taxpayer money would be spent on modern art ..., and the State Department issued a directive that no artist suspected of being a Communist or fellow-traveler could be exhibited at government expense."

(4) See also the 2004 article by Barry Zorthian, "Public Diplomacy Is Not the Answer," posted at publicdiplomacy.org. Zorthian is a former senior foreign service officer who was in charge of the communications effort in Saigon for four a half years during the Vietnam War.