11/05/2012 11:04 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2013

Public Diplomacy and the Flight to the Academy

"Diplomacy was not like chess, Holbrooke told me; it was more like jazz."

--Michael Ignatieff

"It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"

--Duke Ellington

"When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering."

--Hegel, Preface to the Philosophy of Right

I am reading, for my sins (which are many), a book by Richard Pells, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies and the Globalization of American Culture (2012). Much of this volume seems like a series of Wikipedia entries (although far better written), and I don't quite know (as of now) what main point it is trying to make, except to proclaim that the world likes American movies. What else is new?

Having gotten that off my chest, I was struck by a passage in Pells's book that reminded me of the current state of American public diplomacy (PD):

To the extent that jazz found a home in the 1960s, it was no longer in clubs (which were either shutting down or hiring rock musicians to entertain the patrons), but in the universities. As in the case of literature, jazz ceased to be a popular art form. Instead, it became a subject of study, encased in theory, with jazz musicians as members of university faculties. Their music could still be heard on college radio stations and in concerts on campuses. But the flight to the academy further isolated jazz musicians from African American and white audiences. (p. 153)

Let me explain. Public diplomacy is, to some, a Cold-War relic that is an anachronism in the 21st century. Indeed, the term itself was coined when jazz was becoming homeless, in the mid-1960s -- an indication that this quite undefinable activity -- which, arguably, existed, under a less jaw-breaking designation, since antiquity; see Sir Harold Nicolson's book on diplomacy [1] -- was, by being placed in a linguistic straitjacket, already losing its spontaneity and energy (have you ever tried to define "jazz"?).

As an American PD practitioner on behalf of our government during ten years of the Cold War and for a decade after this conflict ended, I basically considered myself (pretentiously, as I play no musical instrument) a jazz performer, improvising, as best as I could, in order to promote American national interests overseas. (See the wonderful article by my father, who was a "public diplomat" before "public diplomacy" became part of the general vocabulary; and do consult Richard Arndt's book)

I saw my job, as my father did, as an opportunity to share ideas with the best and the brightest in other countries (not that I could claim membership among such brilliant people) about America's role in the world. It wasn't rocket science on my part, but I hope it contributed to a better understanding of the United States overseas.

One distinguished veteran of the United States Information Agency (USIA) put it best regarding public diplomats in the past century, who so often did "what they wanted" in the field, uncontrolled by internet-delivered instructions from Washington: "We got away with murder," he told me over (a thank-God non-brown-bag) lunch. Call all it nostalgia if you wish.

Today, American public diplomacy, once implemented by an independent and very imperfect agency (the above-mentioned USIA), is hidden away at the regulations-driven State Department, some would say like a coffin at a funeral home, despite the good intentions of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (who, strangely enough, believes Edward R. Murrow was "the first director of the United States Information Agency") and her dedicated staff.

And PD has increasingly become, like dinosaurs, "a subject of study, encased in theory," with a growing number of American "higher education" learneries (one of which has, at least, a great football team) offering courses/degrees in "pubic diplomacy" (pardon the non-typo) for students hoping, in these hard economic times, to get jobs (while amassing huge debts paying outrageous fees for "tuition") by earning a "PD" degree, often from ivory-tower professors who have themselves never engaged in this very down-to-earth, "real-life" activity.

(1) Pp. 7-8 (1988 edition): "The Greek states from the sixth century [BC] onwards adopted the practice of choosing as their Ambassadors the finest orators, the most plausible forensic advocates, that the community could produce. The task of these envoys was to plead the cause of their city before the popular assemblies of foreign leagues or cities."