Whither public diplomacy?

For the practice, theory and organization of public diplomacy, is it helpful for the activities of a foreign government – or non-governmental organization for that matter – in the United States (or elsewhere) to be labeled as public diplomacy? Applying this label could contribute to increased understanding of public diplomacy’s methods and value in the Congress, the White House, the public and the media? Or it could be a harmful link to foreign “propaganda” and our own engagement efforts abroad?

This is not merely an academic question. As the quantity, volume and variety of informational, cultural and others activities directed at the American public increases, in other words, is the failure to appreciate these acts for what they are undermining our own ability to authorize and fund the same?

The contrast in describing the activities of China today in support of President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States, and those of the U.S. abroad is stunningly stark. It is impressive how American media has so effectively avoided the phrase “public diplomacy” in describing the Chinese government information, cultural and business engagement in the U.S. Whether these are semantic gymnastics to avoid using the “public diplomacy” label or simply ignorance is important.

Instead of “public diplomacy,” we read and hear about a “charm offensive,” “marketing” and “promotion” to influence “public opinion” and overall perceptions of China to affect change in policy and attitude.

A recent NPR story on Chinese language learning for children is one example where “cultural diplomacy” or “public diplomacy” begged to be used but was not. A Chinese language school in the DC area, in part funded by the Chinese government through its cultural diplomacy outfit the Confucius Institute (an organization similar to the United Kingdom’s British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute) was invited to the White House to help welcome President Hu. The British Council would be shouting the from rooftops if it accomplished the same coup. 

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City Room”, a blog of The New York Times, did use “public diplomacy” but it was only quoting a Xinhua article describing a “promotional video” that is part of “public diplomacy campaign by the Chinese government.” The video is being shown on giant video screens at Times Square, the new U.S. headquarters for Xinhua, the Chinese government media giant. According to Xinhua, “1.7 million people pass through the landmark every day, making it a prime location to promote major brands – or, in China’s case, a national image.”

The WNYC news blog does note there is a “soft power push or public diplomacy campaign” from China, but this is the exception.

It is worthwhile to mention that foreign government activities within the U.S. had at one time required registration. Until 1994, much of these overt activities would have been labeled propaganda under the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938. Now, Xinhua is based in Times Square, Radio China International owns a radio station in Texas, and Russia Today is available on seemingly every cable network in the U.S. 

Meanwhile, we have an amusing hypocrisy: the American public may be freely engaged by foreign governments but “charm offensives” paid for and on behalf of American taxpayers is deemed too dangerous to be known at home under an amended Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. For example, we’re told Michelle Kwan is our “public diplomat” and off to China, but does anyone know what she’s doing there, her impact, or similar, less high-profile, efforts to engage publics abroad?

There is another important element in the failure of the media – and the U.S. Government – to establish some sort of common practical ground of engagement. In the struggle for minds and wills, the Chinese has the upper hand in being able to report on and engage the American public. According to a report by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) last year, Xinhua alone has more than 70 reporters in the U.S. (likely more surrounding President Hu’s trip) and 3 bureaus. The Chinese government permits only 2 Voice of America reporters and only one bureau in China. The U.S. has issued over 2,900 media visas to Chinese journalists since 2007. (Note that President Hu’s remarks in the U.S. are censored in China, something U.S. public diplomacy could and should fix, at least under the rubric of providing access to news and information.)

So, back to the question: is the failure to ascribe Chinese activities – among others – to “public diplomacy” in some way limiting to U.S. public diplomacy? Or is it good to continue to separate our activities from those of a foreign government, much like how “propaganda” label came to be used: “they” did propaganda, we informed. But with the neutral – even positive – descriptions of Chinese activities in the media, are U.S. efforts abroad further sidelined?

What are your thoughts?