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John Brown

John Brown

Posted: May 27, 2009 06:49 AM

Random Thoughts on "Public Diplomacy"


What is public diplomacy (PD), defined by the State Department as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences"? A term coined in the mid-1960s by Dean Edmund Gullion of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, it covers programs ranging from the Fulbright educational exchange to information about US foreign policy directed to overseas audiences. Below are a few random thoughts from a former practitioner of the PD trade, based on his experiences in Eastern Europe during the last decades of the previous century.

In the past, one of the practical advantages of public diplomacy was that -- thanks to its vagueness -- it allowed a PD officer, as an American diplomat "in the field" representing her/his country overseas, to do what she/he thought was important within the broad framework of US foreign policy, without micromanaging from Washington.

While an enthusiast of the latest social networking media on the Internet, I should note that the absence of "instant communications" had much to do with the independence PD officers enjoyed in their often far-off postings. Simply put, Washington was not on your back every minute with e-mails, cell phone calls, etc. You were your own person and essentially could "play the PD diplomat" as you wanted -- within broad guidelines.

Meanwhile, the most astute persons heading geographical area bureaus at USIA DC headquarters (the United States Information Agency, which ran public diplomacy from 1953 to 1999) realized that the "Agency," as it was known among its employees (such as myself), had not hired automatons, but thinking, living, independent human beings who could make crucial decisions in local situations on behalf of the national interests of the United States.

I suppose that such respect and trust for in-the-trenches employees explain why so many "PD diplomats" are still so "loyal" to the "old" USIA (at its best; at its worst, which was regrettably all too often, it had its own slow-moving bureaucracy and ideological warriors).

I won't certainly go as far as using the simplistic phrase, "Why We Won the Cold War," although I always felt, in my postings abroad, that what made US PD diplomats "different" from their communist (and non-communist) "adversaries/competitors" was that we USIA-ers could do "our own thing" without the "do-this, do-that" instructions of formal Foreign Ministry bureaucracies.

Also, it helped that non-USIA employees in the State Department and other agencies serving overseas had little or no idea what "public diplomacy" was, giving USIA-ers much leeway to do what they believed had to be done (from attending art exhibits to giving interviews on the local media) without interference from other Embassy sections. Small detail: USIA had its own motor pool, which allowed PD officers to get around quickly and circulate in the local society at a moment's notice.

Nothing worse than nostalgia, of course. "Useless," as it was known among some State Department employees (a dismissive pun on USIA's overseas name of USIS, United States Information Service), is clearly a thing of the past -- like the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), the Office of War Information (1942-1945) -- "information" agencies which too were created in periods of "total" global war.

With a new administration, the concept of a global war -- against terrorism, initiated by the Bush White House using false analogies with WWI, WWII, and the Cold War -- seems to be, mercifully, passé.

That's all for the good (terrorism is a technique, not an enemy, as persons far wiser than I have pointed out), but ironically this dismissal of the hapless GWOT terminology does not bode well -- bureaucratically or "funding-wise" -- for a strong PD presence at the State Department or for an "independent" so-called "anti-propaganda" PD agency, as former Secretary of State Albright characterized the USIA when it was consolidated into the State Department in 1999.

I'm a great believer in educational/cultural exchanges and in what I call, for lack of a better term, "arts diplomacy." Bravo to all our fellow citizens that engage in people-to-people programs (I do, however, recall a wonderful passage in Kenneth Osgood's book about propaganda during the Eisenhower administration, Total Cold War, when a US P2P group involved in canine matters with overseas interlocutors concluded that dogs were the best ambassadors).

But I'm also a realist, and what keeps US propaganda going -- sorry, I meant "public diplomacy" -- is war (especially a global one). No war, no or little USG-PD (or substantial funding for it). Such is the lesson, sadly, of history, if it is any guide.


Note: Readers interested in the differences between propaganda and public diplomacy might wish to read my article in American Diplomacy
on the subject here.