Authors: Catherine Stead | Conrad Smewing | Mark Leonard
This paper describes and discusses public diplomacy from the practitioner’s perspective.
I have been asked to describe and discuss public diplomacy from the practitioner’s perspective. Perhaps the invitation resulted in part from the fact that besides being a practitioner of public diplomacy for most of my professional life, I recently worked in a government “reinvention lab” at the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, where the newest ideas in management and communications technology were tested. This experience gives me, I like to think, a view of the future of public diplomacy as well as the present. In any case, I will speak from my experience and hope that you will see parallels and applications that might be relevant elsewhere. I would be happy to take questions and debate any of my assertions at the end of the presentation.
What is it?I’ll start with something very bureaucratic to explain what public diplomacy is – USIA’s mission statement, which defines public diplomacy as well as anything I’ve found: To understand, inform, and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions and their counterparts abroad. To accomplish this, we
- explain and advocate U.S. policies in terms that are credible and meaningful in foreign cultures;
- provide information about the U.S., its people, values, and institutions;
- build lasting relationships and mutual understanding through the exchange of people and ideas; and
- advise U.S. decision-makers on foreign attitudes and their implications for U.S. policies.
What’s our context?I’d like to outline the context for practicing public diplomacy today. You will not be surprised that this is essentially the same as the context for practicing “regular” diplomacy, except that with public diplomacy one throws a bit more communications technology into the mix. A number of foresightful people in our foreign affairs community – chiefly Barry Fulton, my recent boss and mentor in the Information Bureau at USIA – have observed that the era of the “wise men” has now ended. Diplomacy is undergoing changes as profound as those that established it as an art and science in the sixteenth century. For a host of reasons including the telecommunications revolution, decision-making about foreign policy (and about many aspects of life) is moving away from the center of government and out into society. Foreign affairs is no longer the preserve of a few elites, but increasingly is shared by regions, states, non-governmental organizations, businesses and other non-state actors. (Who is more influential – Bill Clinton or Bill Gates?) Jessica Matthews of the Council on Foreign Relations warns us of a forthcoming “emotional, cultural, and political earthquake” as a result of these changes. Parallel with the way decision-making is evolving is, of course, the revolution in technology – especially information technology – and the effect of this revolution on the social order. Dr. Fulton has drawn attention to a Canadian scholar, Harold Innis, who observed over fifty years ago that major changes in communications result in social change. He cites how Gutenburg’s invention of moveable type ended up challenging the authority of the Church, and he makes the case that each major change since then has had a similarly profound effect. To test this theory, I invite you to consider how progress in information technology affected human and official reactions to war:
- The U.S. learned about the events of our Civil War 130 years ago through, among other means, newly invented still photography;
- We learned about World War I through documentary film footage;
- We learned about World War II through nearly “real-time” radio bulletins;
- We learned about the Vietnam War from television;
- We learned about the crackdown at Tienanmen Square through the fax; and
- We learned about developments in the former Yugoslavia through e-mail.
Why do we need it?Now that we’ve defined public diplomacy and sketched the world in which it we practice it today, the question remains: why do we need it? The first and most important reason from my perspective is that the influence of public opinion on government decision-making is increasing steadily around the world. Publics in democratic countries have learned to wield influence on their governments in ever more effective ways – note the reasons the Vietnam War ended, for a classic example of this phenomenon. Meanwhile more and more countries appear to be in the act of becoming democratic and thus subject to the power of public opinion. There is little rationale for believing that either of these trends will fade away; in fact, it is more likely that they will intensify. Even the few closed societies that remain are finding themselves somewhat more attendant to public opinion than previously. I argue that where the influence of public opinion is growing, there should be a concomitant strengthening of public diplomacy. With the rise of the importance of public opinion, we find decreases in the proportion of government decisions taken behind closed doors, decreases in the proportion of government-to-government dealings that occur outside public view, and decreases in the proportion of government-to-government deals at all, vis-à-vis dealings in which the public is involved. Leaders now often use the media to talk to other leaders and publics – Iran’s Khatami, for example, appealed to the U.S. via CNN. Citizens similarly and routinely use public demonstrations, like those that often occur outside embassies, to convey their views, directly or via the media, to foreign governments. Leaders also bypass the closed circuits of traditional diplomacy to talk directly by phone, as Clinton and Blair seem in the habit of doing, often several times a week. What we’re seeing is a growing need for collaboration driving an increasing amount of dialogue between governments and publics. Most of this open-circuit communication is made possible by the modern revolution in information technology, and most of this is wonderful. It would be disastrous to conclude, however, that CNN does all of public diplomacy’s work. For one thing, the media are not always accurate and not always complete. For another, the media often sensationalize or slant a story in order to attract audiences in what is a fiercely competitive commercial battle for market share. Additionally, the profusion of sources and amounts of information available results in a public overwhelmed and confused by the welter of messages. What is true? What is real? Who has time to figure it out? One significant solution to this nexus of problems is a robust government public diplomacy program that organizes, conveys, verifies and authenticates information about its country, so that the interested public, including opinion-leaders, have a reliable source. A major power is going to be the subject of discussion and controversy no matter what it does. It is going to wish to have some direct input into that discussion, and it can do so through public diplomacy. This has not changed with the passing into history of the bipolar world of the Cold War. In fact, the multipolar world, rife with less predictable threats – terrorism, ethnic rivalries, contentious trade disputes among allies and adversaries alike, catastrophic environmental degradation and so on – forces the major powers into simultaneous efforts to win public support for a variety of their positions. This isn’t easy and we don’t always succeed. I believe we could have had more productive global debate and a better outcome on global warming prior to the Kyoto conference, for example, if we had mounted a concerted public diplomacy campaign explaining the U.S. position. Generally, the smaller powers do not enter the global public discussion unless a crisis or scandal envelops them. It is unfortunate, but these seem to be the events that attract the global media and interest the mass audiences to which they cater. Perhaps it is for this very reason that smaller powers need public diplomacy programs, just as major powers do. The task for the smaller powers is to be heard on the stories that matter to them, to explain their positions and aspirations during the non-crisis moments, and to do so in a way that captures attention. The demise of the bipolar world and the rise of the new paradigm appear to mean that major and smaller powers both find themselves in new relationships and collaborations with other nations. Power and prosperity don’t mainly depend any more on who has the most missiles, the most land or the largest population. Power and prosperity depend, instead, at least as much and maybe more, on a healthy economy, access to markets, and leadership in the creation of marketable services and products. As a result, diplomacy is no longer about gaining surreptitious advantage over one’s enemies or negotiating treaties closeted in some Foreign Ministry conference room. Diplomacy has become the art of achieving agreements among entities whose mutual advantage is served by collaborative effort. Public support is essential.
How to do it?I hope by now I may have persuaded you that public diplomacy has an important place in foreign affairs in today’s world. Now I intend to describe how public diplomacy programs are conducted, drawing on my own experience as an American practitioner. Other countries with energetic public diplomacy programs, which most of the major powers have, would offer interesting variations, and I certainly invite you to examine them. I will start with information programs and proceed to cultural and educational activities. Information programs concentrate on the fast-moving actions and decisions of government and aim dissemination of materials to international journalists, government officials, and those academics and other opinion-shapers who follow the daily agenda of world affairs. For the U.S. this includes the following efforts:
- In Washington at our headquarters we gather all the speeches, public position papers, transcripts of press conferences or other public pronouncements of the U.S. government that could possibly be of interest to audiences anywhere in the world.
- Within hours of these materials becoming available, we compile them and send them electronically to each U.S. embassy. We also mount them on our Website so that the overseas public has direct and immediate access to them. Additionally, we translate many of these materials into world languages – French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, with recent additions of Chinese and Portuguese. We do all this centrally because it saves time.
- Also centrally, we develop strategies on how best to convey U.S. positions on issues of global concern. The U.S. position on NATO expansion, for example, was explained and clarified in a number of countries simultaneously, thanks to materials formulated in Washington.
- At our embassies overseas, we have people like me in London or, here in Malta, like Keith Peterson, who manage the dissemination locally of all this material coming from Washington. We also absorb it so that we can explain it in person, ideally with sensitivity to local issues and concerns and by means of using the local language with some fluency. In large media centers like London, we have a larger staff, of course, with several American officers each specializing in, say, broadcast or print media, and with locally hired experts to assist them.
- Our embassy operations in large media centers also become adept at handling the press-related requirements of VIP visits. In London, where the number of visiting U.S. officials is overwhelming, we can and do very frequently put on press conferences and set up facilities for the traveling White House or State Department press. In the last couple of months, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met frequently in London with Cook, Netanyahu and Arafat, and each time she held a press conference afterward, thus confirming the observation that the public side of diplomacy is at least as important as the private side. Actually, in Malta I should not neglect the fact that high-visibility events come to small countries, too: remember that it was off Malta that Bush and Gorbachev held an important meeting one stormy December. The press arrangements were just as crucial and considerably more challenging than if they had met in London.
- The information side of public diplomacy also includes the writing of speeches, either for senior officers of the embassy or oneself. Our Ambassador in London, for example, is asked to give far more public statements than any one person could generate alone, if he intended also to keep time aside for such other tasks as running the embassy, acting as liaison between the two governments or staying abreast of policy developments. So my office provides him with background information, research and other materials on which to draw.
- Finally, but by no means least, a government information program also must respond in some fashion to public inquiries about one’s country. In a large embassy, this means acting as the information front-end of the U.S. government by responding to hundreds of phone calls, letters and research inquiries each week. The questions run the gamut from a British tourist asking “What’s the temperature in Florida when I’m going on vacation?” to a Member of Parliament requesting detailed information about Wisconsin’s welfare reforms, which will be useful input to the debate on welfare reform in the U.K. Our offerings must run this same gamut: from a London-based Website that has answers to frequently asked questions, to a sophisticated electronic retrieval system that accesses legislative databases in the U.S.