Joe Biden’s election as president is prompting broad reexamination of the United States’ diplomacy under the glare of a skeptical world. The U.S. electorate voted for an improvement in relations with traditional allies as well as for greater respect around the globe, and President Biden’s experience and approach to governing will go a long way in that regard.
The president-elect will need sound public diplomacy that reflects his approach. That starts with setting the right tone.
What you say, and how you say it
On the USC blog, senior practitioner Elizabeth McKay asserted: “Effective public diplomacy to rebuild national credibility abroad can be facilitated by using public diplomacy fundamentals at home.“ She recalled a moment of similar challenge to our nation’s reputation .
“During the Vietnam War, U.S. diplomats acknowledged our shortcomings rather than denying them and embraced the challenges of working toward a more perfect union. This transparency made us stronger as a nation and served as a potent public diplomacy message.“
In addition to the tone of public statements and diplomatic engagement, we must pay attention to the underlying ethics and principles behind the conduct of public diplomacy. People watch how we do things more than what we say. There will be many cogent proposals to make PD practice more effective (see Don Bishop’s blog post earlier this week.) But it’s time for a fresh look at how our practice incorporates the qualities of honesty and transparency.
“Public diplomacy” was born in the United States, but in recent years the term has been globalized and generalized, making it so slippery as to be meaningless. Nations around the world have incorporated appeals to the public into their foreign policy, most claiming to practice PD – but with their own interpretation. For example, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would profess strong belief in PD. Xi Jinping is surely a fan. So are many other regimes which hire public relations firms to supplement their embassies’ outreach.
Most of the Council’s members, I think, embrace the original concept of public diplomacy developed here in the mid-20th Century. Here are a few basic markers of PD American-style.
- Public diplomacy works together with but is distinct from public affairs, which aims to explain U.S. foreign policy to a domestic and global audience. Public diplomacy, on the other hand, presents to foreign audiences a range of responsible American opinion in addition to the official policy so as to provide background and context.
- It also strives to strengthen and expand ties between U.S. citizens and organizations and counterparts abroad by facilitating contact, in the knowledge that Americans learn from others as they learn from us.
- Public diplomacy messaging and events are designed to persuade but not to deceive. They never employ falsehoods and they avoid propaganda. They are always accurately identified.
- U.S.-funded broadcasters, currently under the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), offer news services that are fully independent of policy makers to maintain credibility with their foreign audiences. They seek to accurately portray U.S. policy just as commercial “mainstream” media do, but also cover political opposition and other news whether it is welcome to their USG “sponsor” or not. Any official messages, such as editorials on the Voice of America, are identified as such.
- We choose participants in our major exchange programs on merit and use transparent selection processes, modeling our national norms of fairness and rule of law. Our visitor exchange programs aim to show all aspects of America to foreign visitors.
- Our government values the contributions and benefits of foreign students and seeks to increase their numbers.
These principles need restating at a high level. And they need to be translated into concrete guidance for how media, exchange and cultural programs operate at both State and USAGM.
Advocating a renewed American PD
The Public Diplomacy Council is placing renewed emphasis on advocacy, one of the three cardinal points on our vision statement.
Our new Advocacy page indicates a variety of ways that PD Council members promote PD. For some, it means meeting with congressional staff or writing members of Congress. Our President Dr. Sherry Mueller and Board Member Michael McCarry wrote eloquently about the need to cultivate relationships with congressional members and staff to make our points effectively. For others, advocacy means posting on our blog or submitting an article to the local paper. The Council itself issues statements from time to time. Surely collaboration with like-minded organizations plays a part in advocacy. Among our new offerings is a Tool Kit offering suggestions and contact points for all these activities. We plan to add to the resources there.
For many years American policymakers and diplomats embodied their values in the conduct of public diplomacy; in its day, the U.S. Information Agency served as the guardian of American PD. It is now time to remind Congress and foreign policy leaders of public diplomacy’s ethics and heritage as we debate how to support and enable a Biden foreign policy.
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More