Public diplomacy's changing profile - a view from Susan Stevenson

Tuesday, November 29th 2016

Susan Stevenson, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs

Susan Stevenson began her Foreign Service career at the U.S. Information Agency and adapted her craft to the Department of State, where she prospered.  Susan Stevenson is currently Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs.  In this article, published earlier this month and repeated her with her permisision, she looks back over her career and the changes in world politics and media that have elevated the role of public diplomacy.

Susan Stevenson

Why Public Diplomacy Matters More than Ever

When I joined the United States Information Agency in 1992, public diplomacy was not seen as equal to other cones in the Foreign Service. My entry-level training class was separate from that of my State Department colleagues, with whom we interacted only twice: an overnight trip to Harper’s Ferry to simulate working in an embassy and our graduation ceremony in the Ben Franklin Room. State Department counterparts wondered if we public diplomacy officers had to take the Foreign Service Exam (we did) and whether we hadn’t scored as well. Early in my training, a State colleague learned I had an Ivy League degree and was surprised I hadn’t joined State instead, not knowing I had turned down three State offers before joining USIA.

We encouraged this separation. Public diplomacy was firewalled off from policy to keep mutual understanding safe from politics. Exchanges were deliberately divorced from foreign policy priorities. The public affairs officer at an embassy overseas was supposed to represent the entire government – not just the State Department – and our separate status allowed this. Moreover, during the Cold War, it was important to maintain the integrity of cultural programs, both for East Bloc skeptics and wary international partners. The Voice of America, then part of USIA, needed to be authoritative and independent. PD wanted and needed to be above the fray.

Keeping public diplomacy outside of foreign policy may have helped encourage participation in our programs, but it didn’t enhance our status with State colleagues. PD was seen as “fluffy” and not serious, and PD practitioners were a different breed from their State Department counterparts. The PD cone tended to be more gregarious and creative. My first cultural attaché was straight from central casting, with a white linen suit and Panama hat. Even our work was different. I distinctly remember traveling to Thailand’s Golden Triangle with a political-coned colleague, I to find a concert venue and she to find smuggling routes. The PD stakes didn’t seem as high.

That impression is due to the long-term nature of public diplomacy, where results can take years to emerge. USIA’s heyday was the height of the Cold War, when the foreign policy priority was clear and simple: Defeat Communism. We were playing a long game, in which the public diplomacy officer’s job was literally to win hearts and minds. The U.S. government spent millions on exchange programs, as well as on glossy magazines and poster shows of American culture.

By the time I joined USIA in the early 1990s, however, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the foreign policy landscape was changing. We were talking about the peace dividend from the end of the Cold War. In 1995, USIA closed many of its libraries, and we hired fewer officers. With CNN around the world, was PD necessary to explain America? In 1999, USIA merged with the State Department, and public diplomacy officers lost much of our separate identity. The East-West conflict transformed into a multi-polar world, and public diplomacy didn’t seem as crucial. It was the 9/11 attacks that reminded us that connecting with foreign audiences was as important as ever. We could not declare victory.

Public diplomacy’s integration into the State Department didn’t immediately translate into policy integration. Our traditional focus on the field – our missions abroad – was pulled back towards Washington and the policy makers, but our programs weren’t necessarily linked. Given long lead times in planning exchanges, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs was unable to shift to rapidly emerging policy priorities. The Bureau of International Information Programs continued to focus on American culture and society, with evergreen products around key events such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and the U.S. presidential election. Neither felt immediate pressure to promote policy; they continued to “tell America’s story.”

We didn’t know it, but the paradigm was already changing, making public diplomacy a key policy tool.

The most important development of the last decade has been the shift away from hierarchies and towards networks. As social media gained prominence, people tended to care more about the views of their peers and less about those of the government. Communication no longer required the filter of traditional media, which in many countries was state-controlled. A Twitter account could reach out directly to the man (or woman) on the street. Instead of poster shows, we are using Instagram and Snapchat.

At the same time, the world has been getting younger. Not everywhere; Western Europe and Northeast Asia are growing older. But overall, 60% of the world’s population is under the age of 35. These youth are more adept at technology and more connected to their peers. They are skeptical of authority and governments. They tend to be more affluent, more urban and more susceptible to public opinion. In short, they are an ideal audience for public diplomacy.

In today’s world, public diplomacy can thus be even more effective than traditional diplomacy at influencing the public and garnering support for U.S. policies. The United States is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the shift toward networks and direct outreach because people want to come here. We are admired for our high-tech companies, world-class universities, international tourist destinations, reputation for innovation, and extensive global networks of multinationals and embassies. Our use of English means we can communicate with broad swathes of the world; and PD officers can often communicate in the local language. As Secretary Kerry has said, “We’re the nation that listens to you, that has a conversation with you. Not many other nations do that.”

The challenge for public diplomacy is to identify ways to maximize U.S. government capacity to engage in networks and partnerships, at home and abroad. Over the past few years, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has aligned its programs more closely with foreign policy priorities, innovating the Peer-to-Peer Program to counter violent extremism and the Tech Women program to empower women in targeted regions. ECA also developed flexibility through on demand programming for International Visitor Leadership and Professional Fellow Programs. The Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs designed challenge funds for the field to manage the migrant crisis in Europe and counter Russian propaganda in the Russian periphery. We’ve pulled together task forces to coordinate outreach strategies on the Ukraine crisis, Ebola, and crush of refugees. The Bureau of International Information Programs has revamped traditional American Spaces from libraries to cool interactive spaces with technology, English teaching, and educational advising.

As public diplomacy integrates more with U.S. foreign policy priorities, we need to demonstrate our impact. We are prioritizing audience research, impact analysis, and strategic evaluation. The Under Secretary’s Office of Policy, Planning and Resources (R/PPR) is looking at the training and tools needed for today’s networked, information-heavy environment. R/PPR has also created a strategic advisor for human resources to look at PD as a discipline. This will help ensure we are hiring the right people for the right skills and giving them the tools they need throughout their career.

Public diplomacy is a marathon, not a sprint. We don’t speed around an insulated track but meander through local roads and villages. It’s not a discipline for instant gratification. That may be why our non-PD colleagues over the years have underestimated us. Done right, public diplomacy connects the Unites States with people all over the world. Those people-to-people connections build trust and understanding – or at least an openness to hear our side of the story. We can no longer rely on foreign governments or official media to help support our policy priorities. We should engage directly with the public, which has been PD’s sweet spot all along.

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

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <h2><h3><h4><h5><h6><a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <u> <span> <p class=""><img>

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Stay Connected

Follow the Public Diplomacy Council on Facebook and YouTube and share your opinion about up-to-date issues with us. 

For more public diplomacy events, check out PDAA's website.