School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


PD: what it is, why it's needed and how it could work for America again by P H Kushlis & P L Sharpe

Tuesday, 01 September 2009
Public Diplomacy: What It Is, Why It's Needed and How It Could Work Well for America Again

Part One

By Patricia H. Kushlis and Patricia Lee Sharpe

This is the first of a four part series that will, on successive Wednesdays, (1) define some of the special characteristics and powers of public diplomacy as such, (2) examine some of the missteps that have brought American public diplomacy into disrepute and made it ineffectual, (3) look at some demonstrably successful best practices that may form the basis of a rehabilitated public diplomacy capacity and (4) suggest some organizational reforms that would integrate public diplomacy insights into the foreign policy process in ways that would enormously enhance U.S. interactions with the world.

Music, art, drama, literature---there are so many way of sharing culture across national borders. Our lives are enormously broadened, deepened and enriched when we learn from one another, and governments often make it possible, through subsidies and various complex negotiations, for exhibits and performances to be mounted in distant countries. To the extent that familiarity increases mutual respect and understanding, the world benefits from a multiplicity of such interactions, and public diplomacy uses some of these cultural and intellectual resources to good effect.

However, the purpose of public diplomacy, which employs other media as well as the arts, and the reason it deserves strong support and generous funding by the American people has little to do with idealism or purely benevolent inclinations, however much the authors of this article are delighted to encourage and enjoy the arts as private citizens.

Public diplomacy is what America does when the U.S. needs popular support in other countries for American policy, which is almost always the case. Public diplomacy, well done, pressures governments to do what leaders might be less inclined to do behind the closed doors of traditional diplomacy. In short, cultural and intellectual interaction for public diplomacy purposes isn't chummy chitchat. It's a carefully articulated, infinitely modulated, multi-media campaign for achieving essential national goals. Public diplomacy, along with traditional diplomacy, works hard to avoid that hideous waste of life and resources called war, which is seldom as cheap or conclusive as habitual hawks would have us believe.

Government-to-government diplomacy is an ancient and essential function, but public diplomacy is a newer tool that only governments with good things to share and relatively little to hide can use effectively. As the diplomatic tool par excellence of democracy, public diplomacy operates by precept and example. Public diplomats disseminate information that can stand up to critical or even hostile examination - and when truth penetrates secretive or corrupt regimes the hold of tyranny erodes. Conversely, should an exemplar of good governance fall into patterns of deceit, dishonesty, abuse of power, corruption or hypocrisy, the way back is difficult. Credibility has been lost. "Psychological operations" won't regenerate confidence in U.S. leadership. Smarter policy and intellectually-respectable public diplomacy may.

The Shambles that's U.S. PD Today

The ramshackle public diplomacy architecture created in 1999, when the functionally-coherent Unites States Information Agency (USIA), a world-respected advocate for American values and policy, was married, shotgun-style, to the State Department, has never performed as its cost-cutting designers promised. Bits and pieces of a once coordinated whole were scattered dysfunctionally among the offices and bureaus of a chronically underfunded State Department. Even the once authoritative VOA was devalued and dismembered, its remains hardly differentiated from the proliferation of voices aimed manipulatively at slivers of audience here and there.

Although the tried and true educational exchanges and international visitor programs housed in the bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs may appear to have been unaffected during this post-USIA decade, since they are funded and staffed through a separate budget line, ECA's programs have been more or less privatized. They are subject to the whims of competing sub-contractors, each intent on delivering less for more. Many influential programs, such as university-to-university exchanges, therefore, no longer exist. Even the enormously popular Sister City program is now under the gun.

Even worse lay in store for USIA's information function, which was protected by no budgetary firewalls after consolidation. Worse, it had no lucrative contracts on offer. Working unheralded for fifty years, thanks to the Smith-Mundt Act's restrictions against "propagandizing" the American public, USIA information officers funneled accurate, timely information to audiences abroad. These finely tuned mechanisms for providing contextually-sophisticated materials to foreign media didn't just languish under the new dispensation. Although the State Department now ostentatiously revels in a quick adopter approach to new communications devices, America's ability to design and transmit policy imperatives to carefully picked foreign audiences was allowed to atrophy by traditional diplomats who never appreciated the value of open communications with foreign publics. After 9/11, the Pentagon leapt to fill this vacuum, throwing billions at untested contractors for "strategic communications" programs, some intentionally deceptive, as war propaganda tends to be, others merely inept, all tending to undermine the credibility of U.S. information programs overall. According to an AP story on 2/9/09, the Pentagon planned to spend $4.7 billion - in one fiscal year! - for its overt and covert information operations. Budgeting ever more for propaganda masquerading as information, the Pentagon reaps skeptics not friends. What thrifty little old USIA could have done with money like that!

Unfortunately, merely redirecting money from Defense to State won't improve the quality and impact of American public information programs quickly, because many of the experienced information officers who could pull things together are gone. As public diplomacy under the State Department was downgraded, denatured and defunded, many devoted and skilled officers retired early. Others just resigned out of misuse or disgust. The recruitment, training and assignment process now in place has not replaced this lost generation with a capable new cadre. Foreign service recruits aren't dumb, and not enough of them have seen a future in public diplomacy. In 1986 there were 1742 PD-designated positions. Today there are 1332, a reduction of 24%. Worse yet, too many of these slots are filled by generalists with little training and less experience in public diplomacy. The Pentagon, by contrast, employs 27,000 for "recruitment, advertising and public relations - almost as many as the total State Department workforce." And the attrition of State's public diplomacy specialists continues.

The State Department's organization chart tells all. There is no coherent well-integrated public diplomacy function with an attractive career ladder for specialists who may rise to share in major foreign policy decision-making. Public diplomacy used to have a well-organized, high morale home in an independent agency run by the likes of the legendary Edward R. Murrow. Who of his national stature would be willing to assume the powerless position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy these days? None that we have seen. And when under-qualified people fill this critical position, America's PD capacity erodes that much more. No wonder the Obama Administration has set up a White House Global Engagement Directorate to compensate for the skill and vision gap within the State Department, although we are not entirely surprised. An in-house PR capacity will always tempt a powerful executive.

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