Guest post: John Matel on First Monday's deans panel

Thursday, April 6th 2017

John Matel business card reading "a gentleman of leisure
John Matel

John Matel, who retired one year ago from a career in public diplomacy as a Foreign Service Officer, left this impression of our most recent First Monday Forum with three deans of international relations schools discussing trends in teaching.

[Taken from Facebook, with John Matel's permission]

Keeping some contact with my earlier life in public diplomacy, I went to “First Monday” held at AFSA and sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Council. This episode featured deans of schools that teach public diplomacy: James Goldgeier of American University, Joel Hellman of Georgetown, and Reuben Brigety II of George Washington talking about what they are teaching these days.

I have long said that public diplomacy is not rocket science. Almost everything we do in public diplomacy is simple and most of it is obvious. Doing it is not so easy. A comparison might be my cooking skills versus those of Gordon Ramsey. We can both use the same recipe, but I suspect his results might be better.

So, can schools teach more than recipes? First, let me emphasize that recipes are important. The skill to make the masterpiece and the ability to make great innovations require strong foundations. To extend the recipe analogy a bit further, doing public diplomacy is maybe more like those cooking shows where you get surprised by a load of odd ingredients, not enough of some and too much of others. You must take what you can find to make something good. Schools can teach the recipes and they can stimulate the thinking that you will rarely have all the ingredients you think you need.

Reuben Brigety II of the Elliott School at GW said that he thought a missing piece was leadership. GW also emphasized ethics in practice. Lots of the situations diplomats face will be rich in ethical ambiguity.

Ethics often means doing with the right thing even when the wrong thing is easier and perfectly legal. I think it good to empathize the “recipes” of ethics, so that students will not be thinking about these things for the first time when they face the real things.

Dean Brigety also said something about diplomacy. I didn’t write the exact quotation, but it is something like – diplomacy is the art of getting people do what you want because they want to do it. I used to agree with that but I don’t anymore. I think now that the art of good diplomacy is ability to find shared aspirations and construct systems that satisfy participants. This does not mean that somebody wins in the negotiation. If you manage to trick someone, the settlement won’t last. And if you fail to identify the right conditions the settlement won’t last.

At the risk of sounding hopelessly naïve, I really do believe that the only settlements that are worth doing are those where the participants are satisfied in the long run. It takes a smart person to be cynical and a wise one not to be. I think that you have to pass through cynicism before you get to wisdom. One of the things a school could do would be to help hasten that evolution.

When I think of schools of diplomacy, Georgetown come to mind first, and Dean Hellman didn’t disappoint. Georgetown relies on a kind of liberal arts curriculum that is increasingly cross-discipline. Science and international affairs is one of their growth sub-disciplines. Less than 2% of their graduates go into the Foreign Service. More generally, they are training “globally minded citizens.” I am not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds good. He went on to explain that their studies do not teach practice but informs it. That’s right.

The Dean made an interesting observation. He said that in many ways we live in a post-data world. Used to be that you would argue and win arguments by amassing charts and data. It used to be a competitive advantage to have access to all that. Today, data is more widely distributed. The key now in the narratives. There has to be a story that makes sense. Telling a compelling narrative has always been a big part of effective persuasion. I agree with Dean Hellman that it is ever more crucial.

Last but not least was American University’s James Goldgeier, who explained that the big competition for international affairs comes not from other IA schools, but rather from business schools.

I understand that. Way back when I was looking for a professional degree, I opted for the MBA rather than international relations. I was always interested in international stuff, but I didn’t have confidence that it would enhance my career prospects. It is one of those things that everybody purports to respect, but then fails to follow through in the hiring decisions.

History departments are moving away from diplomatic history and into more cultural competencies. This is not new. It was already happening when I was in college. I took two semesters of diplomatic history, which is sort like just history as it was taught in the old days, i.e. the relations among states. My professor, a Dr Kiel as I recall, kept on telling us that diplomatic history was out of style. Dean Goldgeier said that diplomatic historians are finding homes in International Affairs departments. Good.

AU has a capstone course where teams of 4-6 students work on a real problem for a real firm. This is like my MBA too. We had a team that studied the market for heavy earthmoving machinery in China. We advised that our firm (Amhoist) get deeper into the Chinese market. Seemed like good advice in 1984. Of course, that is something very simple to advocate but hard to do.

Most of the people who attend these PDC meetings are retired FSOs. I like to go to see old colleagues and I go as much (more) for the company than the talk, although the talks are good. I talked to a younger colleague on the way out, one who was still hard at work at State Department, about why these meetings are so geriatric. An obvious explanation is that the old guys have the time. But the AFSA building is close enough to HST. People can easily come over for lunch. Maybe they are too busy. Which lead me to a tangent.

There is a saying attributed to Thucydides that "The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.” I think a variation applies to lots of things. If practitioners are so busy practicing and they leave the thinking to people with time, maybe our thinking will be done by the out-of-touch and our doing done by the out-of-mind.

Joe B. Johnson

Board member


Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. authors name for more info

Author: Joe Johnson

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