Defining Public Diplomacy: Preparing for a new Administration

What is public diplomacy? It can't be everything otherwise it is nothing. Is it a dialogue or a monologue? It is based on the speaker, the means of engagement, or the targeted audience? Is "convening" discourse between, within or between foreign audiences public diplomacy? What about the content or force of the message? Is public diplomacy passive hoping to "win hearts" or can it be actively engaged in a psychological struggle to change minds and encourage the will to act in an audience? Does it have to be focused on physical security or can it apply to all elements of national security from economics to global health?

In yesterday's Blogger Roundtable, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Jim Glassman spoke admirably about the "them versus them" movement in Colombia he recently visited, the No Mas FARC movement. So I asked the Under Secretary to define public diplomacy:

...public diplomacy is diplomacy that's aimed at publics and sometimes gets officials engaging with those publics. Sometimes it's our publics engaging with those publics, foreign publics. Sometimes it's actually other foreign publics engaging with those foreign publics. And they may be foreign publics that we have encouraged to engage.

So I think that it really is defined - I define it by the target audience and also try to distinguish it from official diplomacy which in general is our officials talking or interacting with their officials.

I'll take the liberty to refine the Under Secretary's answer and insert language from other conversation to come up with a more concise definition: public diplomacy is the direct or indirect engagement of foreign publics to support national security objectives.

How we engage and which part of government engages would overly narrow the definition when in fact, the government is not required to be a speaker. The goal of public diplomacy, after all, is to create proxy voices to relay and amplify a message against an adversary or adversarial idea. In other words, it is to propagate ideas by, with, and through people who are geographically, socially, or culturally "local" to the target audience.

Talking about public diplomacy necessarily brings up strategic communication, a term that has gained prominence as the Defense Department stepped into a void left by an ineffective or absent State Department. Depending on who you ask, public diplomacy and strategic communication are synonyms or a subset of one or the other.

The defense community typically views public diplomacy as a subset of strategic communication as they focus on the "fast" informational engagement with "slow" exchanges falling outside their time horizon. The Under Secretary holds the opposite view:

...I realize the military has a specific definition of strategic communications. I tend to use that term in - as a subset of public diplomacy and more interchangeably with war of ideas activities.

This creates a quandary, however, as it ignores the generally accepted understanding that strategic communication targets both US and non-US audiences while public diplomacy targets only non-US audiences. (see SC diagram here) Of course the bifurcation of global engagement by the U.S. is artificial, uniquely American, quaint, and ultimately not based on historical realities or modern requirements, as I've written before.

The War of Ideas is, by the Under Secretary's own admission, problematic. We must start moving away from the the immediate and narrow emphasis on countering ideological support for terrorism. While necessary and important, it is feeds the short-sighted view that we need only deal with threats manifested as attacks against our physical security. We need an effective and flexible arsenal of persuasion in the global information environment and global economic environment that goes beyond ideological support for terrorism and insurgency and into protecting economic and other interests.

So what do we do? Rebuilding the arsenal of persuasion is difficult, but it is even more so when people can't "hang their hat" on an idea. We need an organizing principle and an organizing principal. The Under Secretary has been the latter as he attacked the low hanging fruit in his short tenure to fix the easy problems and prepare for the next Administration. What we need now is the former.

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