Public Diplomacy’s 100 Days

Thursday, April 27th 2017

Donald J. Trump employs public diplomacy as much as any President we’ve seen.  Yet his public diplomacy staff has not faced so much uncertainty in decades.

The State Department, supposed leader for the United States outreach to the rest of the world, named a new press spokesperson this week: one of the first political appointees to join Secretary Rex Tillerson.   Secretary Tillerson has placed a highly respected ambassador in charge of the PD apparatus for the time being.  However, broader guidelines going beyond the press briefings are skimpy.

Except for one bold marker.  A budget is the clearest statement of priorities.  On that basis, the White House has expressed little need of public diplomacy.  Its initial budget request called for the elimination of all educational and cultural exchange programs except for the Fulbright exchange of scholars, on top of a 30 percent across-the-board cut in Department resources.

There will of course be debate in Congress, and there are rumors of adjustments in the Administration’s initial proposal.  But the current situation is hard to explain.

Given the silence so far on this issue, it’s possible that the nation’s core public diplomacy enterprise will be ignored during the upcoming budget cycle.  By “core,” I mean the public diplomacy staff deployed abroad, their support staff in Washington, and the information, education and cultural programs they administer.

Maybe White House budget planners found it hard to wrap their minds around nearly 200 programs at U.S. missions around the world.  A Heritage Foundation article about State Department reorganization said to be influential with the new Administration deals only with international broadcasting in its section on public diplomacy.

That overlooks more than 3,000 public diplomacy personnel based in 188 U.S. embassies and missions abroad and in the United States. Their job is to shape the narrative and to build relationships with foreign audiences in places including China, Russia, Israel and other nations where the Administration seeks influence.

These talented Americans and foreign nationals advocate our interests through every means of communication from Twitter to tours of the U.S.A.  They do a lot of listening, too, and not just through polls. Some local employees are connected to very prominent leaders in their host countries.

In Washington, it’s easier to view audience statistics of the Voice of America and other U.S. broadcasters to make judgments about “ROI”.  Despite ongoing efforts, no one has found a dashboard for retail public diplomacy.

This Administration above all should understand that retail is where sales are made.

To accomplish the Administration’s goals in Korea, China, Syria and other places, America will need friends going well beyond a handful of personal relationships between presidents and foreign ministers.  PD’s value proposition is building networks of leaders who understand us and are inclined to support our needs and policies.  Embassies count influential contacts in the millions because of steady effort since the post-Word War II era.

Even thinking of domestic politics, public diplomacy coincides with campaign themes of the new Administration. 

·      Informing and influencing political and economic leaders in other countries aligns perfectly with America First.   And polls indicate that 90 percent of Americans support continued U.S. global leadership.

·      The nearly $600 million budget for education and cultural exchange brings foreigners here for visits and then sends them back to their home countries with better understanding of U.S. policies and priorities (think trade and immigration).  Over four hundred current or former heads of state and government have participated, starting with Chinese President Xi.

·      Foreign students in the U.S. have been contributing more than $30 billion to the U.S. economy.  They’re creating jobs in all the states of the Union.

I worked in public diplomacy for 33 years and saw it advance the agenda for seven presidents, Republican and Democrat.  This Administration should undertake a careful review before it dismantles a prime instrument of national power.

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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