Election 2012: PD Implications?

Wednesday, November 7th 2012

When I think of the "implications for public diplomacy" in the wake of the 2012 election, I can only come with—zero, zip, zilch.  This never-ending political phantasmagoria we have just witnessed produced zero serious discussion of any foreign policy matter. The prospect of any new or telling involvement of our national government in matters of PD is also about zero, especially because we are looking at a future where expanding resources for any kind of  government action in almost any sphere is, again, around zero. (especially in foreign affairs). The fact also that the shape of our national institutions, the Executive and the Congress, are roughly status quo ante, means exactly as much interest in PD matters as in our recent past—almost zero.


The recently concluded campaign makes me lament more than usual at Americans grasp of and concern about international matters generally. To be honest, the overall US populace has rarely been interested in matter international (except for involvement in shooting wars, hardly public diplomacy’s best arena), but this recent imbroglio saw a kind of nadir of citizen interest. Not the daily campaign scrum, not the national conventions, not the much-hyped debates—none addressed foreign policy matters at all seriously during the last eight months.  (I do not exempt the caterwauling over the Benghazi incident which was hardly a foreign policy discussion but a verbal slugfest dropped into the middle of campaign rhetoric which had very little to do with what happened to Amb. Stevens and his colleagues). 


During the campaign, the president and his opponent barely made mention of our international interests overseas, even though we are still in a shooting struggle overseas. As I indicated above, Americans typically can’t stay interested in “foreign” stuff, and if the news about it is unsettlling or depressing (like Afghanistan, European debt crises, Middle East flames) why should a candidate even mention it?  The national attention span, too, cannot linger long on foreign stuff—like Iraq.  What a difference four years makes: that war is “over” for us and thus forgotten, utterly.  The only mention that Iraq gets in our general political discourse is Obama’s repeated claim that we are out of it.  Good riddance and let’s not talk about it any more. 


All of this is to say that few elements of our foreign policy (I am not talking about our level of involvement in the predictable foreign hot spots) will, for awhile, be a significant part of our national conversation.  Thus, a small subset of our foreign policy concerns, like public diplomacy, will be even less salient.  General talk of PD, which burgeoned with 9/11, will shrink to a narrow specialist’s topic (down to the level of outfits like PDC) where it has usually been, and, with those shrinking resources, that talk will mainly be a rearguard defense of sustaining just some, a little of it.


This doesn’t mean that talking about PD or encouraging it or sustaining it in modest ways isn’t worth doing.  We are, still, thoroughly embedded in the wider world and have to talk to it and move within it in any case. It’s just disheartening to me—who thought my life’s work had some value—that that work of public diplomacy has so little resonance within our national political clamor.

Michael Canning

Board member

Summary: As an officer with the US Information Agency (USIA), Mike Canning worked for 28 years as a press and cultural officer in eight countries on four continents and, in retirement, he retains his interest in promoting a vigourous public diplomacy (PD).

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Author: Michael Canning

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