A capacity crowd filled a 6th floor lecture hall at George Washington University’s School of International Studies. It was the First Monday Forum on June 3 of public diplomacy specialists and GWU students. They came to hear Dr. Nicholas J. Cull of the University of Southern California, an internationally known scholar and advocate of the fine art known by practitioners as PD.
The occasion: Professor Cull’s official unveiling of his latest book, Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in a Digital Age. The publisher of the 217-page masterwork is Polity Press, Cambridge, U.K., and Medford, Massachusetts.
The key question: what aspects of PD are most likely to be most effective as its practitioners of people-to-people diplomacy look ahead?
Dr. Cull identified the key features as:
- Engaging with publics abroad or exchange visitors to the United States through: listening, advocacy, cultural exchanges, education, and international broadcasting, all vital components of effective people-to-people partnerships, worldwide.
- As Dr. Cull put it: “It’s not what we say, but whom can we empower? Finding similarities is a great driver of public diplomacy.”
In his masterwork, the latest of a host of books Nick has written or co-authored, he offers fascinating examples of PD that serves U.S. national interests. LISTENING, Dr. Cull says, “is the foundational skill.” He notes that America’s first public diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, was sent to Paris in the late 18th century A.D. “because of his dazzling rhetorical skills. But what most impressed the French”, Cull writes, “was his willingness to learn.”
“Looking at the full scope of ADVOCACY as an element of Public Diplomacy.” Cull writes, “one is struck by the extent to which public diplomacy now requires partnership.” At a White House summit in 2016 designed to combat violent extremism globally, the Obama administration said it would be partnering with other governments and the private sector to create civil society-led counter-narratives on line. Nick Cull’s example: a British Muslim and former radical named Abdullah X narrated a film depicting the horrors of ISIS rule in the crumbling ISIS territory last year.
“The advent of digital and then social media has changed the terrain of CULTURAL diplomacy,” the USC author-scholar says. It opens up new possibilities for collaboration, new platforms for engagement, and perhaps, most seriously, new challenges and opportunities to help one’s neighbors’ citizens cope with the digital world. Examples: the East-West Divan Orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said to unite musicians of Arab and Jewish origins. And, Cull writes: “The German NGO, the Robert Bosch Foundation, has worked to encourage such collaborations by awarding an annual prize specifically for projects made by cross-cultural teams.”
Public Diplomacy: Foundations for a Digital Age also examines in-depth EDUCATION and EXCHANGE programs and their impact. Famous participants in the U.S. International Visitor Leader Program include Britain’s Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, Teresa May, and Tony Blair, former South African President F.W. DeKlerk, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.
In the 21st century, U.S. visitor exchanges have reached out increasingly to students and potential leaders in the future. “Recent initiatives,” Nick Cull writes, “include the Bush-era Murrow Fellow program to cultivate journalists of other countries, and Obama-era launch of YALI (the Young African Leaders Initiative), which pays particular attention to emerging entrepreneurs. Southeast Asia is served by YSEALI (the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative) launched in 2013).
I also highly recommend Dr. Cull’s Chapter 6 on INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING. As one who has been associated with VOA for five and half decades, I particularly appreciated his assessment that “every now and again, an element of public diplomacy hits a vein of undisputed effectiveness. Many such moments have been claimed for international broadcasting.
“Consider the testimony of Mikail Gorbachev, thanking international broadcasters for keeping him informed during the coup attempt of 1991, or the graffiti spotted on a wall near the Russian parliament at the same time: ‘Thank you Voice of America for telling the truth’. Historically”, Nick Cull writes, “international broadcasting has been one of the most significant elements of global engagement, but by the same token, no element has been as challenged by technological change.”
Think of the changes in global media since the turn of the century:
- Billions of new cell phones, in remote areas, as well as in fast growing urban areas…
- Significantly greater on-scene transmission capabilities of foreign correspondents eager to get breaking news to their headquarters girdling the globe…
- The hugely expanded potential of ordinary citizens and opposition spokesmen and even NGO relief workers to share on-scene video, audio, and texts with a curious world.
This month marks the 30th anniversary of China’s infamous massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, when hundreds of its citizens were gunned down by PRC soldiers after weeks of demonstrations advocating democratic change.
New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof was there the night of June 3, 1989 and described what he termed “the unparalleled courage on the part of the most humble citizens.” He added: “I will never forget the rickshaw drivers, for whenever there was a pause in the gunfire, they would pedal their three-wheeled bicycle carts out toward the Chinese troops to pick up the wounded and rush them to the nearest hospital.
“I particularly recall one burly rickshaw driver pedaling furiously, his legs straining. He swerved toward me so that I could bear witness to his government’s brutality. As he passed me, he pleaded with me: Tell the world!”
That’s what international broadcasters, including those of VOA, the BBC and a host of others do, using all the 21st century innovations described above to reach millions girdling the globe. This is public diplomacy that truly matters, in broadcasting and other principal forms described in Dr. Cull’s massive study. For the first time, the Voice — then mostly a radio enterprise — garnished its coverage with vivid descriptions of TV coverage it had from Tiananmen. The Voice soon launched its first TV program ever to Ukraine. So you might say: June 3 marked not only the anniversary of a tragic massacre but the advent of television at our nation’s largest U.S. taxpayer-funded network.
In terms of the fine art that is public diplomacy, Nick Cull concludes with a need of all nations including smaller or newer ones — and by implication, even great powers — to build what he calls “representational security.” That means nations should strive for what he terms “a high ground in the global imagination.” Once established,” Cull writes, “when a challenge comes — from a neighbor contesting a country’s sovereignty, internal secession, or a natural threat like rising sea waters — the world cares.”
“Ukraine plainly lacked representational security. It was simply not understood (just a few years ago) by international audiences as sufficiently different from Russia as worthy of urgent concern about Moscow’s occupation of parts of Eastern Ukraine
Nick Cull’s masterful Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in a Digital Age notes: “The era of social media has opened up fresh possibilities, but it has not erased the relevance of the history of public diplomacy. On the contrary, the lessons of the past seem even more relevant in an age in which communications play an unprecedented role.”
What of the next generation? Is there hope that future practitioners will realize how far PD has come and its potential? In the introduction to his book, Nick Cull relates a story told by his eight-year-old son Olly. Olly was speaking to a fellow eight-year-old in an exchange that sums it all up:
Girl: Your Dad’s job is bogus. Public Diplomacy is not a real thing.
Olly: It certainly is. It has stopped a bunch of wars.
Girl: OK. Name them.
Olly: Easy. They were all called World War III.
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