Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future, edited by Deborah L. Trent, Ph.D., originally published by the Public Diplomacy Council in 2016, is now available online.
Soon after 9/11, the late Representative Henry Hyde, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, saw something was awry in America’s Public Diplomacy. “Few would assert,” he said, that “our existing programs have been effective in achieving even the modest goals set for them. I do not believe that piecemeal reforms are likely to produce major improvements. Nor do I believe that the problems we confront can be solved simply by spending more money on ineffective programs . . . . we must reexamine our entire approach to the subject.”
Were Congressman Hyde still with us today, I am confident he would say his anxieties remain, and the re-examination is taking too long. He would be pleased, though, to see the volume edited by Dr. Trent. Re-examining “our entire approach to the subject” necessarily depends on review, experimentation, and debate, and this collection of essays provides plenty to chew on.
It describes new programs such as MOOCs, the Public Diplomacy collaboratory, the prospect for public-private initiatives, and transnational applied public diplomacy networks. There are examinations of new communication with religious communities, the embrace of scientific cooperation, and the interest of the armed forces in Public Diplomacy and persuasion. These discussions of the “non-traditional” are helpfully framed by reviews of American Public Diplomacy’s origins and some of its enduring tensions. There are also looks to the future.
What’s in the Book
Ambassador Anthony Quainton’s opening chapter is as good an introduction to the continuing debates over Public Diplomacy’s definition – which is at heart a discussion of purposes – as I have seen. He leavens the review with some experiences. I felt his pain when he saw American graffiti artists, brought to Kuwait, a city of white and marble walls, by USIA to demonstrate American artistic freedom. Their “defacing” an Embassy wall “bewildered and horrified my guests.”
Dr. John Brown’s look at the different personalities, temperaments, and backgrounds of George Creel (head of the Committee on Public Information during World War I), Walter Lippman, and Woodrow Wilson covers a lot of intellectual ground and illuminates issues that are still relevant to Public Diplomacy in this century. Before reading Brown’s essay, I hadn’t thought of Charles Z. Wick’s parallels with George Creel, nor had I connected Creel with a Catholic sensibility in his approach to selling America’s war effort.
Richard Virden’s chapter brings the rich reflections of a practitioner to bear on Public Diplomacy’s role in war and peace. His two tours in Thailand, during and after the war in Vietnam, will interest any current diplomat or soldier concerned with insurgencies in Iraq or Afghanistan. His recollection of two tours in Poland gives testimony to how Public Diplomacy encouraged the Poles during the Cold War. He concludes with some carry-in-your-backpack advice: listen more, understand more, preach less. (Yes, Americans can be immodestly preachy.)
Carol Balassa reviews the debates in the runup to the passage of the UNESCO Cultural Diversity Convention of 2005. It stemmed from other nations’ resentment of the dominance of Hollywood films in the world’s theaters. In the final vote, the U.S. lost, 146-2. This case study provides a lesson – the highest levels of the State Department failed to engage on an important Public Diplomacy issue until it was too late. Her essay also helped me better understand how Public Diplomacy relates to American soft power writ large. Hollywood, for well or ill, conveys powerful images of the United States to foreign publics.
To my mind, the lesson of Dr. Robert Albro’s chapter is that public diplomacy practitioners – usually generalists – need to keep up on the new insights of scholarship. There’s an inertia of concepts and programs among PD practitioners, who need, in his view, to understand that “collaboration” and “networks” need to replace “telling.”
Here’s just one Albro sentence that gives me a jolt.
“U.S. approaches to cultural diplomacy are often preoccupied with zero-sum goals of national representation, the importance of message projection, and identification of common starting points for cooperation, usually articulated as ‘shared values,’ in order to advance national interests.”
Count me, as one practitioner, guilty as charged.
Transnational challenges like climate change policy, Albro argues, might be better met through “transnational applied cultural networks.” Reading his chapter, I wanted to shout the need for more mid-career education in the Foreign Service. For decades, studies and reports have documented the lack of professional development for Foreign Service Officers – compared to the opportunities for our military counterparts at their command and staff schools and war colleges. This means that FSO’s miss insights, like Albro’s, that come from academe.
There’s a great distance between the ordinary practice of U.S. Public Diplomacy at embassies and consulates and Rob Albro’s concept, and I’m not sure we can easily get from here to there. But his is a timely challenge to the current way of doing things.
There’s been a lot of talk and hand-wringing about Public Diplomacy’s blind spot – dealing with faiths and religious communities. Dr. Peter Kovach’s chapter endorses the necessity of religious engagement and lays out the challenges. He reviews USAID’s “rule” of 2004 and the State Department’s major initiatives.
Together they represent a considerable movement away from a rigid view of what the First Amendment permits — what I have in the past criticized as “vulgar separationism.” That’s not vulgar meaning “obscene” or “lewd,” but vulgar meaning “common” or “unsophisticated.” Dr. Kovach calls it “First Amendmentitis.” While more flexibility marks progress, the Foreign Service Institute’s training lite on religion is an indicator of how far the State Department must go.
Helle Dale of The Heritage Foundation is to be commended for her chapter laying out the disarray of American attempts to communicate goals and visions for the future to the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan. She patiently reviewed the discouraging sequence of new initiatives, concepts, and reboots – as well as the jarring effect of Abu Ghraib and civilian casualties. As a former PAO in Kabul, I can easily get quite agitated in discussing these same issues, and I join her in asking, “Is the State Department prepared to deal with this threat, which requires even sharper tools in the U.S. strategic communications tool kit?”
The volume’s editor, Dr. Deborah L. Trent, reviewed the potential for “cultural diplomacy partnerships.” Her essay looked back at Duke Ellington as a Public Diplomacy good will ambassador; her careful teasing out of the lessons of his travel is quite useful. So is her discussion of dance as a case study. She reminds us how a commitment to cultural programming has been a significant part of Public Diplomacy since the Second World War. While sending the New York Philharmonic or the Alvin Ailey Dance Company to perform in other nations now exceeds public diplomacy’s reach – and budgets – she explores new modalities.
Dr. Craig Hayden’s chapter usefully focuses on the education dimension of Public Diplomacy. Traditionally we thought of this as English teaching, sponsoring the exchange of Fulbrighters, university partnerships, and overseas programs (and sometimes campuses) of American universities. He explores using MOOCs and other new program modalities to achieve the effects. Along the way he challenges some of the traditional thinking about the value of exchanges.
My principal takeaway from Dr. Jong-on Hahm’s chapter on Public Diplomacy and Science Diplomacy is to acknowledge the siloing of the two. At large embassies, international scientific collaboration is handled by the Economics, Science, and Technology attache, which is another way of saying it is siloed. First, I am not sure these silos can be broken down, and second, a larger Public Diplomacy role in scientific collaboration would require new funding sources – more easily conceived than executed and legislated. That said, this is a valuable chapter, and if I were still a PAO I would – at the minimum – work to give existing cooperation more public affairs visibility.
Ambassador Brian Carlson’s essay on Public Diplomacy after 9/11 focuses on how the armed forces responded with public affairs and information operations when State’s Public Diplomacy could not respond on the scale and speed necessary. There’s some overlap of his views with Helle Dale’s. Ambassador Carlson nicely balances the opening chapter by Ambassador Tony Quainton, restating enduring theoretical and operational themes in Public Diplomacy.
Embracing definitions, concepts, organization, and programs, the volume pushes some of the boundaries of Public Diplomacy and provides glimpses of the ferment of concepts that now marks the field.
One metric of the vigor of a profession is how zealously its members read and publish. Another is how an organization’s leaders react to vigorous professional discussion that challenges conventional wisdom, the customary way of doing things, and silos. In this regard, Dr. Trent and the several chapter authors are leading the way. Let Public Diplomacy engage and debate all of their ideas.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.