The Obama administration isn't talking much about "public diplomacy" these days.
To be sure, "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" -- the State Department's definition of public diplomacy -- is on Obama's and Clinton's agenda. Consider the president's appearance on Al-Arabiya and YouTube as a way to "reboot" a dialogue with the people of the Middle East and their leaders. And, aside from her own very "public" recent visit to Asia, we have the statement of the Secretary of State at her Congressional hearing that education is an important tool in societies' development.
Bush-era Public Diplomacy
But "public diplomacy" -- as a panacea for our government's failure to find support in the outside world for its policies -- has lost its Bush-era luster. Initially ignored by the previous administration, public diplomacy got front-page headlines when the White House, criticized after 9/11 for its neglect of foreign public opinion, decided that America's low prestige overseas was a problem that needed to be fixed through public diplomacy.
First came "branding" expert Charlotte Beers, who resigned as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs for reasons of health. Then entered Karen Hughes (Hurricane Karen, as she was known in the White House, at least before Katrina), the PR confidante of our 43rd president, who engaged in various "new," widely derided, public-diplomacy "initiatives."
James Glassman, the clever war-of-ideas advocate who followed Ms. Hughes, hyped the Internet as a way of bad-mouthing through third-parties those "who hate us" (his most memorable quote of his brief tenure: "Think of it this way: we're Coke; they're Pepsi. Our job is not to get people to drink Coke in this instance, but to get people not to drink Pepsi").
And let's not forget the countless, ponderous inside-the-beltway think-tank, committee-produced reports on how to "improve" public diplomacy so that the world would like -- and be like -- us. The worse, most bureaucratically written, of them all was the Djerejian report (2003), which the media greeted like the Ten Commandments coming down from Mount Sinai.
So, during the past few years, public diplomacy was taken oh-so-solemnly by the American political elite and chattering classes, who hoped, with some exceptions, that public diplomacy could somehow "sell" disastrous, unpopular policies under the previous president. And, of course, provide public diplomacy "experts" with government funding on how to make the world love us "again."
The New Team
Now we have new team in Washington, which is making a haphazard effort to change these Bush policies -- not significantly enough, in my judgment -- and adopting a new, less sanctimonious, tone in speaking with the outside world.
Meanwhile, Bush-style public diplomacy -- an unholy mixture of propaganda, PR, branding, tactlessness, silly "new initiatives," and getting public diplomacy officials at the State Department to "implement its programs" -- appears to be, thank God, history.
But not completely: Consider the flap over the DVD set Obama presented to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as a "gift" or the "reset" button Secretary Clinton offered to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Just the kind of insensitivity to the cultural details of diplomacy -- which public diplomacy supposedly focuses on -- that marked the "cowboy-style" of the previous administration.
Still, despite these USG faux pas, Obama provides an opening to restore one of public diplomacy's greatest qualities: that, while getting the human details right (will Obama's staff learn from its protocol mistakes?) it does not take itself too solemnly and realizes its own limitations.
Public diplomacy is not a substitute for wise policy, although it can help shape policy. It cannot automatically make the world love -- or respect -- us (should it?). It does not necessarily lead to "mutual understanding" (Karadžić, the butcher of Bosnia, studied poetry at Columbia University). Its use of the latest media -- including internet social networks -- doesn't necessarily make the USG "communicate" with foreign publics in a "mind-changing" way (nothing wrong with twittering, but are messages limited to 140 characters really that significant?).
But public diplomacy, at least from the perspective of this former practitioner of the trade for over twenty years in countries far different from the United States, can help avoid embarrassing, damaging situations for the U.S. abroad by being tuned in to local mores.
And public diplomacy can perhaps make a difference in promoting "realpolitik," that nebulous term, or the US "national interest," that equally nebulous term, on certain occasions.
There are endless anecdotal examples of so-called public diplomacy "successes." Allow me to be generic. The mayor of a small town from a "Third World" country comes to America under a USG-sponsored International Visitor program and realizes that Americans are as human as he is. A reader of the US Embassy website in Central Asia discovers the "truth" about American foreign policy. An eighty-year-old in Russia still remembers listening to Willis Conover's jazz programs over VOA during the Cold War and thus loves America.
The list can be as long as those implementing such programs want them to be. ... But anecdotes are anecdotes, and "objective studies" are ... "objective studies."
Public diplomacy, like all human activities, does not produce miracles. Leave that to the Almighty, if She exists.
At its best, public diplomacy's "successes" with overseas publics, are, I would suggest, based on its recognition of its (or, more accurately, of those practicing the trade) own limitations in "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences."
Public diplomacy's practitioners -- among them American diplomats overseas -- know that they are dealing with human beings who cannot be "measured" as to how they have "changed" to support American interests as a result of US public diplomacy -- simply because human beings cannot be measured, given their humanity. Or so I would venture to say, if so allowed by "strategic communications experts."
To try to convince supposedly budget-conscious staffers on Capitol Hill that US public diplomacy deserves funding -- for, at the very least, preventing diplomatic gaffes -- while admitting that it's not a cure-all for our "image problems" is, of course, difficult at this time of economic crisis. But acknowledging one's limitations is at least honest and credible -- what public diplomacy, at its best, should be all about.
Enough of solemnity. Or, to quote the famous line from Some Like It Hot, "nobody's perfect."