School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Public diplomacy: seven lessons for its future from its past by Nick Cull

Public diplomacy: seven lessons for its future from its past
Dr Nicholas J. Cull, Professor of Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California

Executive summary

This essay examines the history of public diplomacy and identifies seven lessons from that history. These are:

1. Public diplomacy begins with listening.
2. Public diplomacy must be connected to policy.
3. Public diplomacy is not a performance for domestic consumption.
4. Effective public diplomacy requires credibility, but that has implications for the bureaucratic structure around the activity.
5. Sometimes the most credible voice in public diplomacy is not one's own.
6. Public diplomacy is not always 'about you'.
7. Public diplomacy is everyone's business.

The essay considers the relevance of these lessons for the 'new public diplomacy' that has emerged over the last decade. It concludes that this new era has opened up fresh possibilities, but has not erased the relevance of the history of public diplomacy. On the contrary, the lessons of the past seem even more relevant in an age in which communications play an unprecedented role.

Edmund Gullion had a problem. It was the spring of 1965 and, newly retired from a distinguished diplomatic career crowned by service as the US ambassador to the Congo, he had accepted the post of Dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. He was eager to set up a research and teaching centre to focus on an emerging dimension of international relations - that which concerned the conduct of foreign policy through engagement with international publics.

In the past he had toyed with the term 'total diplomacy' for such work, but the phrase seemed clumsy and did not carry the nuance that he needed. The term that sprang most often to his mind was 'propaganda', but its negative connotations - shades of Dr Goebbels - placed it beyond the pale. In the event, he picked a phrase that had been bubbling under the surface since the days of Woodrow Wilson: 'public diplomacy'.

For Gullion and his colleagues this term was sufficiently new to allow them to develop their own definition and fill it with benign meaning. Henceforth Americans would do public diplomacy and the communists were left peddling propaganda.¹

While the term was new, the activity was old. States had sought to engage foreign publics for centuries. The core practices of public diplomacy - listening, advocacy, cultural and exchange diplomacy, and even international broadcasting - all had deep roots in the statecraft of Europe and Asia. It is easy to see the Roman practice of educating the sons of 'friendly kings' on their borders as the forebear of modern educational exchange programmes; or the Greek construction of the great library of Alexandria as a forerunner of the British Council or Confucius Institute; or the newsletters circulated by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as a medieval 'World Service'.²

Public diplomacy activity is less a new chapter in the history of foreign policy than an element of foreign policy - identifiable in all times and places - which has simply become more prominent with the increased role of the public in the affairs of state and the proliferation of mechanisms for communication.

Gullion's original sense of 'public diplomacy' as a more acceptable term for 'propaganda' reflected the extreme circumstances of the Cold War. Since that moment of coining, the differences between the two concepts have become more evident and the two terms are not now seen as synonyms. Like propaganda, public diplomacy is about 'influence'; but unlike propaganda, in public diplomacy influence is not necessarily a one-way street from the speaker to his or her target. At its best, public diplomacy is a two-way street: a process of mutual influence whereby a state (or other international player) facilitates engagement between publics or tunes its own policies to the map of foreign public opinion. In the ideal case, public diplomacy treats the foreign public as an active participant - not just as a flock of sheep waiting to be ideologically shorn. The 40 years that have passed since Gullion's phrase-making constitute a formidable historical record; and, while that record can be interpreted in a number of ways, seven lessons for today's public diplomats may be readily discerned.³

Lesson One: public diplomacy begins with listening
For most governments contemplating public diplomacy, their first thought is to speak. This is a mistake. The best public diplomacy begins with listening: systematically collecting and analysing the opinions of foreign publics.

Cases of governments failing to listen and pursuing a foreign policy with no attention to world opinion abound. North Korea, for example, has spent decades ignoring world opinion. Cases where listening has shaped the highest levels of policy are harder to find. Postwar Germany had no alternative but to listen, when it began the slow ascent from its international pariah status, and has kept the habit. The United States listened successfully in the 1950s and early 1960s as an awareness of international concern over American racism drove first Eisenhower and then Kennedy not merely to speak differently about civil rights, but to take practical steps to address the problem.t

The best listening must be seen to be done. And it must be genuine. The chief pitfall in listening is that it becomes merely a ritual, like the nagged spouse simply nodding and saying 'yes, dear' to a litany of instruction or complaint. Listening that does not appear to inform the policy process can quickly be interpreted as patronising and can become counterproductive. This was the experience of the US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes, when, on taking up her position in mid-2005, she undertook a 'listening tour' of the Middle East, during which she was, unfortunately, perceived by many in the region as attempting principally to defend the American way of life. Actually, she was listening and apparently, as a direct result, stressed the importance of the Palestinian issue to the President on her return; but the poor images of the tour overshadowed positive moves behind the scenes.

Lesson Two: public diplomacy must be connected to policy

The golden rule of public diplomacy is that what counts is not what you say but what you do. There is no substitute for sound policy, and a ruler with the reputation for sound policy will find his or her power in the world enhanced. This was noted by Confucius 2,500 years ago, when he spoke of wise emperors 'attracting by virtue': 'it is for this reason that, when distant subjects are not submissive, one cultivates one's moral quality in order to attract them'.u This is the insight at the heart of Joseph Nye's concept of 'soft power'.

By extension, the most important link in any public diplomacy structure is that which connects 'listening' to policy-making and ensures that foreign opinion is weighed in the foreign policy process. Edward R. Murrow, Director of the US Information Agency in the early 1960s, recognised this when he famously told President Kennedy that his agency had to be 'in on the take-offs of policy' if it was going to be expected to be 'in on the crash landings'.

It is also possible for sound policies to make no difference to a nation's influence, if they are not publicised or coordinated with public diplomacy. There is, in addition, a need to coordinate with partners whose role could be considered 'public diplomacy by deed' - for example, international development agencies.

Lesson Three: public diplomacy is not a performance for domestic consumption

One of the major problems facing public diplomats today is the tendency of some governments to conceive of their work not as a means to engage international publics but rather as a mechanism to impress domestic audiences. These governments are keen to show their own people all that is being done to educate the world or to correct the misperceptions of 'ignorant foreigners'. They conduct public diplomacy overseas for the purposes of propaganda at home. Some nations have built up immense bureaucracies, whose aim is not to engage foreigners but to build a reassuring (but fictitious) image, for domestic consumption, of global admiration for their country. This was the case with Brezhnev-era Soviet public diplomacy and seems to be the dominant motive of contemporary Chinese public diplomacy.

Today, the political context of much public diplomacy requires that it yield measurable results, which in turn threatens to create a bias towards those elements of public diplomacy that can most easily show short-term effectiveness. This bias has placed cultural diplomacy - with its long horizon - at a disadvantage.

Lesson Four: effective public diplomacy requires credibility, but that has implications . . .

It is obvious that effective public diplomacy requires credibility. The value of credibility has been proverbial since the day Aesop's shepherd first cried 'Wolf!' Perhaps the strongest example of the value of a reputation for credibility is the reputation of the BBC, which through its telling of bad news - as well as good - throughout the Second World War effectively reversed the reputation for creativity with the truth that Britain had earned in the First World War.

The problem is that the ways of achieving credibility differ from one element of public diplomacy to another. International broadcasters are credible when they adhere to journalistic ethics and are perceived to be free from political influence. Listening and advocacy elements are credible when they are perceived as being close to the source of foreign policy and hence able to feed into policy or speak about it with real authority. Agents of cultural diplomacy draw credibility from their artistic integrity and are harmed by any perception of politicisation. Exchange programmes are also harmed by politicisation and draw credibility from the symmetry of their reciprocity. Many public diplomats have discovered to their cost that all aspects of their work are harmed if it is tainted by practices of covert information-gathering, intelligence work or psychological warfare.

The incompatibility of the various elements of public diplomacy has led to intense difficulties in devising effective structures to manage the work. The history of public diplomacy agencies around the world often seems like an endless tussle between centrifugal impulses towards independence of action and the centripetal pull of policy coordination. This is especially obvious in the history of the Voice of America and its struggle to operate under a charter equivalent to that which protects the editorial independence of the BBC.v The structure of public diplomacy adopted within the UK, with a clear division of labour by function - Foreign and Commonwealth Office for listening and advocacy, British Council for culture and exchange, BBC for international broadcasting - with its agreed firewalls and a sensible system of strategic cooperation at the executive level, seems like an excellent model which others would do well to consider.

Lesson Five: sometimes the most credible voice is not one's own

The understandable desire to be seen to be effective has been one of the factors that have historically pushed governments to place themselves at centre stage in their public diplomacy - regardless of whether their voice is best suited to advance the cause they wish to help. Some of the most effective cases of public diplomacy have occurred when the state has stepped back or empowered others to tell its story.

For example, Britain's highly successful public diplomacy towards the neutral United States before Pearl Harbor rested in the first instance on assisting American journalists to cover the war from London. In the 1980s, when 23 the United States needed to bring European opinion round to accepting the deployment of intermediate nuclear forces, it wisely chose to avoid a direct approach and to allow the case to be made by local voices. The key figure in the campaign, the US ambassador to NATO David Abshire, worked with regional opinion-makers, especially journalists and think-tankers with whom he had particular credibility as the founder of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. The campaign did not succeed in getting Europeans to love cruise missiles, but it shifted opinion enough to allow the weapons to be deployed - a manoeuvre that now looks like the winning move in bringing the Soviet Union back to the negotiating table for the final act of the Cold War.w

State public diplomacy sometimes does well to privilege voices from its regions, as in the British Council's work overseas with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voices.x

Lesson Six: public diplomacy is not always 'about you'

Public diplomacy is about advancing foreign policy, and that foreign policy may not necessarily concern the image of the state: it may be directed rather at engineering a general improvement of the international environment, or empowering indigenous voices within a target state or states. A historical example of innovative work of this kind that falls within the category of exchange is the work of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office's conference centre Wilton Park as a zone for free international exchange of views on key issues of the day - issues that may have nothing directly to do with Britain. This facility played a special role in postwar German democratisation and Anglo-German reconciliation.y

Contemporary British public diplomacy has, since the Carter review of 2005,¹p turned decisively towards a concentration on issues, focusing British work on a small number of strategic objectives, such as climate security or nuclear non-proliferation, rather than on the project of teaching the world to value Albion.

Lesson Seven: public diplomacy is everyone's business

It is tempting to compartmentalise public diplomacy as the exclusive preserve of those who draw salary cheques for working in the field; but this is to ignore both the contribution of 'citizen diplomats' and the 'people-to-people' public diplomacy carried out through work like town twinning. Arguably the greatest achievement of public diplomacy in the last half-century is the reconciliation between Germany and France - a process in which the local town-to-town exchanges preceded the nationally organised youth exchange schemes of the 1963 Élysée Treaty by over a decade and a half.¹¹

No less significantly, the citizen plays a role in promoting the message or image which the public diplomat is seeking to project to the world. Just as public diplomacy is vulnerable to bad policy, so it is vulnerable to bad people. If a nation fails to conform to its 'brand', any messaging will be undermined. A small number of people can cause a great deal of damage, as witnessed by the impact of the small number of Americans and Britons prosecuted for human rights violations in the Iraq War on the overall reputation of their respective nations. Sometimes the key battle in public diplomacy lies not in projecting a reputation overseas, but rather in persuading the population at home to live up to a reputation that they already have.

The relevance of these lessons for the new public diplomacy

Scholars now speak of 'the new public diplomacy'.¹² This term draws attention to changes in the context and practice of public diplomacy over the last decade or so. These shifts include: the end of the bipolar Cold War world; the proliferation of international actors (including international organisations, non-governmental organisations and corporations); the arrival of global digital and real-time technologies, which have blurred the lines between the domestic and international news spheres; and the rise of theoretical models derived from marketing, such as 'place branding'.

Yet none of these changes is as challenging as the reorientation of public diplomacy away from the top-down communication patterns of the Cold War era to an even greater emphasis on people-to-people contact, especially given the rise of peer-to-peer media. The rise of the new public diplomacy does not negate the lessons of the old; rather, it redoubles their significance.

Public diplomacy begins with listening

New technology has made listening easier for public diplomats. Software is now available to monitor blogs in real time and track the treatment of an issue around the world on a daily basis. The need to be seen to be listening remains undiminished; if anything, it is increased by the new risk that technology may somehow place new distance between the public diplomat and his or her target audience. In public diplomacy, human relationships remain paramount.

Public diplomacy must be connected to policy

It is more important than ever that public diplomacy has a role in the formation of policy. In the world of global real-time news, where boundaries between the various theatres of news around the world have largely collapsed, a policy error is not restricted to any one region but can be seen globally, instantly.

Public diplomacy is not a performance for domestic consumption

We now live in a world where a speech crafted for Kansas or Liverpool is heard in Kandahar, and one in which clumsy attempts to address a domestic audience can have negative consequences abroad. For public diplomacy to remain distinct from the clamour of short-term political gain will require restraint on the part of political leaders and effective firewalls between the various elements of public diplomacy.

Effective public diplomacy requires credibility, but that has implications . . .

Credibility remains the foundation of all effective public diplomacy, and the world of the new public diplomacy provides even greater scope for that credibility to resonate. As the volume of information available over the internet grows, the provenance of that information becomes ever more significant. Public diplomacy has its own brands - in the case of the UK, the Foreign Office, the British Council and the BBC are the most obvious; information provided under those brands has special authority and is consequently more likely to be voluntarily passed by one internet user to a peer, so long as the credibility of those brands is upheld.

Sometimes the most credible voice is not one's own

In the era of peer-to-peer technology, the ultimate credibility seems to rest with 'people like me'.¹³ This means that effective public diplomacy will be that which enrols 'people like me' and provides them with information that they can pass to their peers. The corresponding conceptualisation of public diplomacy is that of a mechanism not for making single communications to a target audience, but for introducing a reproducible idea into a matrix so that it can be passed among a target group.

Public diplomacy is not always 'about you'

Once liberated from a narrow obsession with national image, the new public diplomacy holds the potential to address a wide range of global issues. It is one of the few tools available to the state or any other international actor wishing to establish an interface with the international public - who hold the fate of the earth in their hands as never before.

Public diplomacy is everyone's business

This final point is also writ large in the world of the new public diplomacy. Government-sponsored messages are only one mechanism by which to communicate across frontiers today. Opinion is also built by the direct experience of individuals meeting in cyberspace or in the real world.

A country's image can be shaped as much by the experience of a returning migrant or asylum seeker as by the words of its highest-ranking officials. There is less opportunity to maintain an image that is not underwritten by demonstrable experience. For a society to prosper in the international marketplace of ideas, it is necessary not only to strive to say the right thing or even to do the right thing, but, in the concluding words of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to 'be the right thing inside'.


The world of the new public diplomacy has opened up fresh possibilities, but it has not erased the relevance of the history of public diplomacy. On the contrary, the lessons of the past seem even more relevant in an age in which communications play an unprecedented role. Whether the communications travel digitally at the speed of light or in hand-delivered notes written with quills, the foundations of public diplomacy, and the seven central lessons, remain as valid today as they were when the term 'public diplomacy' was coined in the 1960s - or as they were in the previous centuries, when generations practised the art oblivious to its name.


1. For an account of Gullion and the origins of the term 'public diplomacy', see Nicholas J. Cull, '"Public Diplomacy" before Gullion: the evolution of a phrase', in Nancy Snow and Philip M. Taylor, eds, The handbook of public diplomacy (London: Routledge, forthcoming); available online at

2. This taxonomy is explored in Nicholas J. Cull, 'Public diplomacy: taxonomies and histories,' Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 616: 1, March 2008, special issue on 'Public diplomacy in a changing world', co-edited with Geoffrey Cowan.

3. The conclusion to Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American propaganda and public diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2008) also identifies seven lessons from the history of US public diplomacy, many of which are US-specific. The international scope of the present volume has enabled more general observations to be made and a wider set of lessons to be drawn here.

4. The classic exposition of this case is Mary Dudziak, Cold War civil rights: race and the image of American democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

5. Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu) XVI: 1 (434).

6. For a detailed history, see Alan L. Heil Jr, Voice of America: a history (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

7. This case is explored in Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency.

8. For a case-study of recent use of Scottish voices, see Nicholas J. Cull, The National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch: theatre as cultural diplomacy (London and Los Angeles: University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy/British Council, 2008); available online at

9. For a detailed study, see Richard Mayne, In victory, magnanimity, in peace, goodwill: a history of Wilton Park (London: Frank Cass, 2003).

10. Lord Carter of Coles was asked by the Foreign Secretary and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to conduct 'an independent review of Public Diplomacy' and examine the effectiveness of current public diplomacy activities. His Public diplomacy review was completed in December 2005.

11. See Ulrich Krotz, Ties that bind: the parapublic underpinnings of Franco-German relations as construction of international value (Cambridge, MA: Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University, Oct. 2002); available online at Also Antoine Vion, 'Europe from the bottom up: town twinning in France during the Cold War', Contemporary European History 2: 4 (2002), pp. 623-40.

12. The key exploration of this idea is Jan Melissen, ed., The new public diplomacy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

13. On the credibility of 'people like me', as indicated by the Edelman Trust Barometer survey, see

© Copyright Leeds 2014