Remarks of Donald M. Bishop
Public Diplomacy Council First Monday Forum
“The History and Future of Public Diplomacy”
November 6, 2018
My colleagues on the panel will, I am confident, touch on the large issues that engage Public Diplomacy in the Foreign Service, serving America’s goals in the world – issues like democracy, exchanges, culture and the arts, education, countering violent extremism, and so on. Let me use my time a little differently, taking a look inward at the Public Diplomacy enterprise in the State Department. I begin with a blunt status report under four subheads.
Public Diplomacy in the State Department
First: there won’t be more money.
I’ve often heard from colleagues, “just give us the money we’ve always needed, and we can do more Fulbrights, more Visitors, more English teaching, more speakers, more press, more sports, more performing arts, sprinkle in Facebook, and we’ll do more good.”
I say it once again. This is “wishin’ and hopin.'” Given the enormous pressures on the budget, there’s no evidence that more funding and more people are coming our way.
This means Public Diplomacy has Lincoln’s choices: Do some of the things everywhere. Do all of the things in some places. But it’s not possible do all of the things in all of the places. The Integrated Country Strategy process helps U.S. missions make choices. But the lack of money also means that the Washington leadership of Public Diplomacy must do what any university president, foundation chair, or media executive must do – decide to sunset some programs in order to fund the new ones. I’m not optimistic.
Second: Public Diplomacy again waits for an Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
The insider lingo is “R” — to announce themes and set priorities. We wait and wait and wait. We’re waiting for Godot.
When after months the vacant position is filled, each new “R” is full of ideas, but little knowledge of Public Diplomacy, its organization, and its doctrines. They haven’t thought about limits and Lincoln’s choices. They don’t know, organizationally, how to get from where we are to where we ought to be. They pay scant attention to critical organizational issues like training and funding.
Third: Innovation, creativity, and changes in direction based on new national priorities confront an organizational reality.
Leaders in the three Public Diplomacy bureaus (and PAOs at Foreign Service posts) have organizations shaped and funded — often through earmarks that continue through many fiscal years — to address yesterday’s challenges. This inbuilt inertia in programs and funding ill suits our era of speed – of social change, of communication, of decision.
There’s a fourth trend in Public Diplomacy programming that needs to be re-thought. Many Public Diplomacy grants pursue, in small ways, large development and social change goals. Public Diplomacy resources are so paltry that Public Diplomacy grants cannot much effect social change, let alone transformation. This is the “drop in the bucket” issue. My own take is that undertaking minor league, farm team mini-initiatives in development or social change robs time from Public Diplomacy’s real strengths in communication, opinion, persuasion, and advocacy.
I now turn from my institutional meditations on Public Diplomacy to look at the challenges of the future. I am preoccupied by two large trends.
Trends of Public Diplomacy
American foreign and national security policy is undergoing a fundamental shift – away from the various forms of “engagement” to an era of “Great Power competition.” This is not simply Trumpian; it has been developing for years. And no matter what sundry pundits argue, it’s not somehow America’s fault.
Rather, in many countries nationalism is on the rise, and strong and willful leaders increase their power. They announce social threats, twist the arms of radio and television to communicate them, and give their political parties muscle to favor more authoritarian and personalist governance. This kind of politics and rule makes the international environment more unstable, especially when nations that challenge American leadership use informational instruments of power, “sharp power,” propaganda, and disinformation. Russia uses the old template of “active measures,” but their malign initiatives are now turbocharged by the internet and social media.
The greatest challenge for today’s Public Diplomacy is that America has become divided, indeed polarized, over fundamentals. If you look at any of the Public Diplomacy products of the past – used to “tell America’s story to the world” — they smoothed over our nation’s domestic differences and presented a consensus view of America. That consensus has broken down, and there’s no longer an agreed narrative of America’s history and role in the world. Foreign political leaders and opinion makers see the lack of consensus when they read our newspapers and view our tweets, and they lose confidence in the steadiness of American policy and our nation’s reliability as an ally or partner.
This is underway even while ubiquitous American entertainment exports distorted images of America. Americans who watch “House of Cards” understand that it is entertainment. But many Russians and Chinese perceive it to reveal the true nature of American governance. How can Public Diplomacy communicate American realities in the face of Hollywood’s enormous influence?
So, what’s to be done? Here’s my own list.
For the organizational issues generally neglected by administration appointees, the Foreign and Civil Service must own the problems. They must propose the needed reorganizations, the emphasis on training, and the shift of program priorities.
The Foreign Service can’t do much to change the fundamental divisions of the American people, but that doesn’t mean it can just throw up its hands.
What the Foreign Service does is “explain.” Public Diplomacy officers are experienced when administrations change between parties. How to explain America – society, government, policies — to people in another country, raised in another culture, is something the Foreign Service does best. It’s a worthy challenge.
Americans were divided in the early 1960s over civil rights, and the videos of Selma shook confidence in America everywhere. Not to mention that the Kremlin propagandists trembled with joy at the opportunities to torment and discredit the United States. The Foreign Service “explained,” generally following Edward R. Murrow’s lead, that Americans would work through their social problems using democratic means. It got us through those difficult times.
Now, the issues are different, the audiences are different, and there are new ways to communicate. Still, I believe in the old time religion – it’s the Public Diplomacy officers of the Foreign Service who can best meet the challenges.
Public Diplomacy practitioners, especially those who are retired, have the perspective to consider new themes – what has been spoken of as “the big idea” — to “submit to a candid world.” I confess a great affection for the “Four Freedoms” agenda that has under-girded Public Diplomacy since the Second World War, and while the Four Freedoms need refreshing, the principles will be evergreen. I was struck, however, by an article by Nick Cull’s colleague, Vasily Gatov. He proposed something new – focusing on “the Pursuit of Happiness” as an organizing theme. It’s worth some conferences, especially if they bring together the same mix of generations we see there today.
Let me conclude with some heart-to-heart words for those in the audience who are retired. We have the years. We have the perspective. Retired, we now have the freedom to say what we think. Our rich careers in foreign societies have given us insights no university can teach. No Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has our experience. We have the word power. And we have the love of country.
We live in momentous, even threatening times. Think not that our time has passed. It’s time to argue. It’s time to think. It’s time for speeches. It’s time to write. And it’s time to contend. We owe this to the generations who will follow us.
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.