Understanding the Purpose Public Diplomacy

Marc Lynch’s comments this week on my “powerful and pointed case” sparked a much needed discussion on what I see as the most significant piece of ignored legislation in all the reports and conversations on public diplomacy and strategic communications. My response is in two parts. This post looks at the definition and purpose of the thing called “public diplomacy” sparked by a statement by one of Marc’s readers. A second post responds directly to Marc’s “mixed feelings” of my critique of Smith-Mundt.

To start, Marc opened his post with a statement from Donna Marie Oglesby, a former counselor for the United States Information Agency in the Clinton Administration:

McCain appears less interested in public diplomacy than in what we used to call advocacy and is now called strategic communication. His interest is in the “war of ideas” and advancing American objectives in the global information battle-space."

While Public diplomacy is a nebulous concept without an agreed upon definition, a central tenant has always been to influence foreign audiences. At its heart, public diplomacy, and its precursors, has always been about advocating a position, inhibiting or preventing the adoption of adversarial positions, and is by nature a tool of national security, American or otherwise.

Ms. Oglesby's statement is unremarkable in the context of what public diplomacy had become by the 1980s and 1990s, and even until very recently.  American public diplomacy had devolved from a comprehensive effort to both understand and affect the behavior of individuals and groups through engagement and discourse to one of (almost immensely) passive “soft power.”  The soft power approach of “winning hearts and minds” amounted to a neutered beauty contest reliant on cultural exchanges and press releases in a naïve hope that increased knowledge and understanding would breed love for the United States.  "If they only knew us..." went the mantra.  American public diplomacy looked more like domestic political campaigns, but with a softer touch lest it be considered influence, and correspondingly failed to resonate with foreign audiences.

As a tool of national security, and whether called public diplomacy or not, public diplomacy is useful for more than combating terrorism, despite the emphasis of the many American reports on the subject. Public diplomacy, as practiced by most Western industrialize democracies, including the United States, is also a tool of economic security. Countries use grassroots efforts to shape and manage their “brand,” to protect and expand trade, and facilitate business (home) to business (foreign) connections to encourage foreign business to pressure their government to lower trade barriers. Simply put, public diplomacy is the very definition of advocacy.

Simultaneously, public diplomacy is about creating awareness. Beyond the economic example above, the most commonly thought of tool of public diplomacy is cultural exchange programs. Exchanges like Fulbright are about learning another society and culture and, whether intended or not, exposing your own culture and society to the host. In other words, awareness through cultural exchange is really an intelligence exercise by both parties to know the other.

Once a country has contact with the world beyond its borders, it must engage in public diplomacy to grow and be competitive in regional and global markets. This is especially true today as globalization increases physical accessibility and New Media creates virtual accessibility, eroding but not eliminating the autonomy of government bureaucracies.

Finding a definition of public diplomacy can be challenging. It’s been removed from the website of the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, probably as a result of the transition from Karen Hughes to Jim Glassman.  There is no definition, despite frequent mentions, in the 2008 Defense Sciences Board Report on Strategic Communication (pdf). In the oft-cited 2003 public diplomacy report by the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World titled “Changing Minds, Winning Peace,” more commonly referred to as the Drerejian Report, a definition of public diplomacy appears thirteen pages in:

Public diplomacy is the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging, and influencing people around the world.

An expanded definition from the United States Information Agency (USIA) is given another seven pages into the report, which added a broad “how-to”:

broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts.

Perhaps one of the most expansive and best characterizations of public diplomacy I’ve found is in the 2005 GAO report titled U.S. Public Diplomacy: Interagency Coordination Efforts Hampered by the Lack of a National Communication Strategy:

According to State Department officials, the goal of public diplomacy is to increase understanding of American values, policies, and initiatives and to counter anti-American sentiment and misinformation about the United States around the world. This includes reaching beyond foreign governments to promote better appreciation of the United States abroad, greater receptivity to U.S. policies among foreign publics, and sustained access and influence in important sectors of foreign societies. Public diplomacy is carried out through a wide range of government programs and activities that employ person-to-person contacts and attempts to reach mass audiences through print, broadcast, and electronic media. Coordinating these various efforts is critical to the short- and long-term success of U.S. public diplomacy efforts. As noted by the Defense Science Board in its 2001 review of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, coordinated information dissemination is an essential tool in a world where U.S. interests and long-term policies are often misunderstood, where issues are complex, and where efforts to undermine U.S. positions increasingly appeal to those who lack the means to challenge American power. Effective communications strategies and well-coordinated information systems can shape perceptions and promote foreign acceptance of U.S. strategic objectives.

The intent was to influence and inoculate in what presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower said in a 1952 campaign speech was a “psychological struggle for the minds and wills of men.” This was a central focus of his foreign policy and

As an ardent supporter of Smith-Mundt, twice testifying for its passage, Eisenhower consistently stressed the importance of disseminating the truth. In his campaign speeches, the “real psychological warfare” was to include

diplomacy, the spreading of ideas through every medium of communication, mutual economic, assistance, trade and barter, friendly contacts through travel and correspondence and sports.

He continued to argue that “every significant act of government” should be planned and coordinated to produce “maximum effect” and pledged to make this “psychological strategy” the focus of his administration. In August 1953, now President Eisenhower created USIA. It would be another dozen years before the term “public diplomacy” would come into being.

In 1965, Edmund Gullion coined “public diplomacy” even though he, in his words, “would have liked to call it ‘propaganda’” because “it seemed the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing.” Public diplomacy’s connection to propaganda was not accidental. As Christina Meyer wrote later, “Propaganda grants authority to its makers [and] once a group has the people’s ears and eyes, it can manipulate their minds.”

It is remarkable Ms. Oglesby suggests that public diplomacy is not about advocacy not about competing in the “war of ideas”. This is even more remarkable because of her tenure with USIA, but it reinforces a point I’ve made previously that the USIA we romanticize of the 1980s and 1990s was but a distant relative of the USIA of the 1950s.

If the purpose of public diplomacy, American or otherwise, is not to influence and to be a voice, passive or active, in the psychological struggle for minds and wills, also known as the battle of hearts and minds and the “war of ideas”, then what is the purpose? Public diplomacy, and the concepts that preceded it, were always part of a “global information battle-space.”

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