Thirty years ago, a group of retired and active foreign service officers founded the Public Diplomacy Foundation. Their successors held a round-table November 5 at George Washington University (GWU), a close-up assessment of the state of this fine art of people-to- people dialogues today.
The event was co-sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Council, successor to the Foundation; the PDAA, an association of public diplomacy professionals; and the University of Southern California (USC).
The term public diplomacy was first widely circulated by Edmund A. Gullion, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. The distinguished scholar and diplomat founded the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1965.
According to Nicholas J. Cull of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Gullion’s definition of public diplomacy (PD) deals principally with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policy, beyond traditional diplomacy. It’s the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with their counterparts in another. The key: listening to others and enhancing a nation’s traditional diplomacy through citizen-to-citizen contacts.
Among the most notable tools of PD these days are educational and cultural exchanges in a rainbow of fields, as well as international broadcasting. All are operating in a rapidly evolving global 21st century communications environment. Yet people-to-people dialogues remain vital to ultimate success in the art of persuasion.
Dr. Cull and four veteran U.S. diplomats participated in the 30th anniversary round-table at GWU. Dr. Michael Schneider, who directs the Washington Public Diplomacy Program at Syracuse University, chaired the discussion. In introductory remarks, he described the gathering as an update on “the hopes and fears” for public diplomacy.
One of the most urgent issues today, according to panelist and former PDC President Don Bishop, is that an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs be nominated by the White House and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. This is vital to all PD programs nearly two years into the Trump administration.
There’s a critical need, Mr. Bishop said, to counter in an organized fashion so-called “sharp media” by largely anti-Western sources in Russia and China, which hourly denigrate democratic systems the world over, foremost among them the United States.
Ambassador Greta Morris, PDC vice president and recent president of the PDAA, asserted: “Our public diplomacy today is so scattershot. We don’t have a whole of government or even whole of State Department approach. When will we get back to promoting the core values of democracy that have served us so well?” As an example, Ambassador Morris cited a Freedom House report of 2017 that showed a decline of freedom in 71 countries, compared with gains in only about half that number — the eleventh straight year of declining freedom globally.
PDAA’s President, Ambassador Cynthia Efird, appealed for more research on the impact of U.S. public diplomacy programs abroad. As she put it: “We must look at social media critically… let’s find ways to entice groups to come to us in a positive way.” Because of the Marshall Plan and other postwar initiatives 70 years ago, she added, the United States came to be regarded as a definer globally of democracy’s core values. Today we should restore that through training of journalists, re-institution of daily State Department briefings, and strengthening such programs as the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and the Young Southeastern Asia Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). These highly informative summer programs bring future leaders in those regions to the United States for dialogue with Americans in Washington and communities across the country.
Dr. Cull credited the former U.S. Information Agency, consolidated within the State Department in 1999, as “a critical factor in stressing what all nations could do together.” Too often, the USC professor said, the focus of domestic and international media is on differences. “Yet,” he added, “surveys of the last couple of years have shown America is still the first or second most-admired nation in the world despite sharp differences here at home.”
An Exemplary Lifesaving Public Diplomacy Effort
Dr. Schneider, near the conclusion of the round-table, told the story of a joint team of U.S. officials and volunteers who saved hundreds of thousands of potential victims of the Ebola virus in West Africa from 2014 through 2016. When the Ebola outbreak occurred, the U.S. embassies in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea realized that medical advice from American doctors was essential to controlling the disease. They teamed up to appeal for help from U.S. specialists, and a number traveled to Africa over several months to help stem the crisis.
Initial projections were that million people would die if the epidemic couldn’t be controlled. The American teams insisted on rigorous measures to ensure isolation of infected residents in those three West African countries – measures that flew in the face of local customs and beliefs. Public diplomacy efforts on the ground found messages and strategies to secure cooperation from the people.
International broadcasters joined in the campaign. The Voice of America and BBC exchanged public service announcements on Ebola prevention in more than a dozen languages, each using a combination of these in their online, video and radio transmissions to Africa.
The communication campaign limited the death toll to approximately 10,000 — still horrific but a lifesaving miracle for the populations of the three African countries and their neighbors. That’s a stunning trans-Atlantic victory of public diplomacy teamwork that could be a model for future crises in this 21st century digital age.
Read Don Bishop’s opening remarks here.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More