I am a decade retired, but 31 years in the Foreign Service, 25 overseas, give me a feel for the difficulties – no, the agonies — of the Public Diplomacy officer now serving abroad. Everyone in the world with a smartphone has witnessed the horrific killing of George Floyd. All have seen the protests, tear gas, and pepper bullets. These images overwhelm the years of patient explanation of American values, institutions, and policies to foreign audiences. In every future conversation on human rights, rolling eyes will tell Public Diplomacy officers that their interlocutors hear only American hypocrisy. When State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus tweeted that the Chinese Communist Party “has flagrantly broken its promises to the people of Hong Kong,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying simply replied, “I can’t breathe.”
At this time of confusion and American demoralization, it may be helpful to recall that Public Diplomacy faced similar circumstances during the early 1960s. Television carried the images of brute force, police truncheons, and tear gas in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, into every home in America — and overseas. On May 3, the use of fire hoses and police dogs against civil rights marchers in Birmingham similarly shocked the nation and the world. How did Public Diplomacy respond?
Thinking about then
President Kennedy’s director of the U.S. Information Agency, Edward R. Murrow, had been counseling President Kennedy on the civil rights issue since he joined the new administration. When he gave a speech on the work of USIA at the National Press Club on May 24, 1961, the shocking images of Selma and Birmingham were still two years in the future. But Murrow illustrated how the dissonance between American ideals and reality affected foreign audiences. As diplomats from newly-independent African nations began to arrive in Washington, “they find it near impossible to live in the capital of our nation. Landlords will not rent to them; schools refuse their children; stores will not let them try on clothes; beaches bar their families.” He continued, “For in this damaging indignity there is blame enough for us all. And let us remember, this is not something the Communists did to us. We do it ourselves in our own capital.”
PDC members Nicholas Cull and Gregory Tomlin have studied how Murrow helped shape the Kennedy administration’s portrayal of civil rights, demonstrations, and unrest to international audiences. Then, citizens received their news and views from newspapers, the wires, radio, television, and film. Now, the social media accelerate the velocity of criticism even as they reduce what we might dub the “context quotient” of international and cross-cultural communication. Even so, Murrow’s premises have enduring relevance. This essay is too brief to portray them fully, but here are some wave tops.
The dilemma, Murrow told Congress, is that “[ours is] an open pluralistic society, where we cannot conceal our difficulties or our controversies, even though we would like, and if we do not report them responsibility and accurately, they will be reported by other sources and, perhaps, distorted.”
A reader easily discerns Murrow’s hand in President Kennedy’s speech to employees of the Voice of America on February 26, 1962. “This is an extremely difficult and sensitive task,” he told them. “On the one hand as an arm of the government and therefore an arm of the nation . . . it is [VOA’s] task to bring our story around the world in its most favorable light. But on the other hand, as part of the cause of freedom, and the arm of freedom, we are obliged to tell our story in a truthful way, to tell it, as Oliver Cromwell said about his portrait, ‘Paint us with all our blemishes and warts, all those things about us that may not be so immediately attractive.”
In the aftermath of Selma and Birmingham, Murrow praised a July 1963 memorandum by John Pauker of USIA’s office of policy that defined three challenges: a “genuine misunderstanding” by foreigners of the complexities of American society; commercial media dwelling on “sensational developments” while overlooking the nonviolent, legal aspects of the movement; and “deliberate distortion by our enemies [to promote] an impression of pervasive injustice and intolerance in the United States.” There is still misunderstanding; the media still communicate the sensational; and America’s rivals still brush American society as unjust and intolerant. That list of three challenges can help Public Diplomacy begin to think through how to respond today.
More from Murrow: Platitudes will not do. “We must rid ourselves of our allergy to unpleasant and disturbing information.” “We cannot be effective in telling the American story abroad if we tell it only in superlatives.” We cannot make good news out of bad practice. “People will be more receptive to positive information when they also hear bad news from the same source.” Truth is the best propaganda.
Also: While administration speeches address the domestic crisis, they must also consider international audiences. “We must never take the attitude that we have reached the complete and final conclusion in all our problems, social, economic, and political.”
President Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, wrote that Murrow’s approach to civil rights had three thrusts: face the problem head on, report race relations in depth, and treat African-Americans as equal participants in a multiethnic society.”
Murrow’s recommendations were grounded on these principles, but he knew that it was the President who could most influence opinion at home and abroad. Historians still debate President Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights, some judging it hesitant, tepid, and lukewarm, too mindful of political opposition from the southern Democrats in Congress. By late 1962, however, events brought civil rights to the fore, strengthening the President’s commitment. The nation and the President witnessed the courage of Dr. King, Medgar Evers, and the Freedom riders; Murrow helped the President respond. During his years as a journalist he had reported the disadvantaged circumstances of black Americans, and his years overseas gave him key insights on how American was perceived abroad.
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy spoke to the nation in plain, direct words, remarkable for their candor. The entire speech merits re-reading in the administration, Congress, and the Foreign Service.
“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?”
From then to now
In his letter from Birmingham jail in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote that “The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” George Floyd’s death has created “a situation so crisis packed.” The gate to negotiation has swung open.
Hundreds of voices will proffer remedies. Some will focus on the police. Others will take up the inequalities in opportunity, income, jobs, education, and health. Congress may or may not pass legislation that addresses fundamental causes, but thousands of local governments will adopt concrete measures to address police misconduct; so will 50 state legislatures. America’s thirteen thousand school boards will debate what role their own educators should play. This is federalism and separation of powers in action. Scholars in fields as diverse as criminal justice, law, political philosophy, sociology, and polls and surveys will weigh in. New studies will encourage some and vex others; all will deepen the American conversation.
Focusing on these many local debates, measures, experiments, and responses can balance reporting that too often focuses only on the White House, savior or demon. FSOs should keep abreast of local approaches and best practices, so that when they speak in foreign societies they can give evidence of how negotiations, change, and reform unfolds within the constitutional system.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist bloc – conveniently ignoring their own prejudices against minorities and the abuses of their own police states — pounced on American discrimination; they endlessly pointed to racial inequality to discredit the United States and blunt its appeal. Now, every adversary of the United States hopes for some advantage from the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest. Public Diplomacy officers must report whether malign disinformation gains traction in other societies.
A generation earlier, soon after the close of World War II, George Kennan wrote his famous “Long Telegram” that advocated a strategy of containment toward the Soviet Union. While he was focused on Moscow, however, he added these thoughts:
“Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit–Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies.”
Public diplomacy cannot make bad policies look good. Rather, good policies make for good Public Diplomacy. Easing the current agonies felt by Public Diplomacy officers depends, then, on wise and prudent changes in American society, coming sooner not later. While Public Diplomacy can perhaps moderate sensationalism, explain the context of events, add facts to international discussions, flag disinformation, and illustrate the positive effects of separation of powers and federalism, it fundamentally relies on American society’s willingness to heal its own divisions. While the White House, Congress, and the courts all have influence, healing in my judgment depends less on government than on civil society, faiths, schools, civic groups, neighborhoods, professional associations, businesses, social media circles, and families – in other words, on American consciences and American democracy.
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.