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Sham on You, Ben Barber

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Ben Barber's recent Salon article, "WikiLeaks and the sham of 'public diplomacy': Our diplomats spout jingoistic nonsense about American supremacy -- instead of engaging with the rest of the world," shows his heart in the right place but his history way out in left field.

Barber doesn't miss a heartbeat when he writes that, "[a]s a foreign correspondent in the 1980s and 1990s," he found that

Foreign students, journalists and researchers found it easy to visit the American libraries attached to the USIA buildings [the United States Information Agency, 1953-1999, known overseas as the United States Information Service], which were deliberately separate from the intimidating American embassies.

The American libraries were a breath of fresh air in countries that either lacked freedom or were so poor that most journalists could not afford to buy its varied publications, dictionaries, encyclopedias and newspapers.

But he's way out in left field, far away from history, when he claims that

[T]he field of international relations that is called "public diplomacy" is a new breed of animal that emerged only in the past 15 years -- since Jesse Helms, installed as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the 1994 elections, began pushing for the USIA to be absorbed by the State Department and shut down, something that officially happened in 1999. Its staff was now under the control of State Department bureaucrats, forced to rein in the open, informal style of their contacts with the international and U.S. media. "Public diplomacy" was thusly born.

In fact, "public diplomacy" was coined in the mid-1960s (though the term had existed before) by Dean Edmund Gullion and his colleagues at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy to describe (in Gullion's words), the following:

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."

Public diplomacy became, as scholar Nicholas Cull points out, USIA's main Cold War activity and justification:

The reason that the term "public diplomacy" took off in 1965 was that there was a real need for such a concept in Washington DC. 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 jealously guarded by the Department of State. The phrase gave a respectable identity to the USIA career officer, for it was one step removed from the "vulgar" realm of 'public relations' and by its use of the term 'diplomacy,' explicitly enshrined the USIA along side the State Department as a legitimate organ of American foreign relations. The term itself became an argument for USIA and against the rump of exchange and cultural work at State. 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. The term paid dividends a decade later. In 1978 USIA was reorganized according to the logic of the new terminology and at last acquired dominion over the entire range of American activity in the information field. The interdependence of the concept of public diplomacy and USIA is suggested by the fact that following the demise of the USIA in 1999 the Murrow Center at Tufts became -- and remains -- the Murrow Center for International Information and Communications. Yet the phrase had, by 1999, more currency than a single agency or a single country. It was destined to live on.

So yes, Cold War US cultural centers were America at its best overseas, but public diplomacy was not a post-Cold War fabrication. True, the demise of USIA arguably hurt America's ability to communicate with the outside world. But well-intentioned people like Ben Barber should really check the historical record before pouring their nostalgic hearts out.