Response to Public Diplomacy Dialogue

Public diplomacy includes the government-sponsored cultural, educational, and informational programs, citizen exchanges, and broadcasts used to promote the national interest of a country through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign audiences. My view of the field, similar to what we are doing at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, is to broaden that definition. While I recognize that “track two” diplomacy will never replace official diplomatic efforts, we’ve barely tapped the possibilities of what the United States might accomplish in gaining credibility if we shifted focus away from foreign policy lectures to international understanding.

Attitudes toward the United States are shaped and reinforced to a large extent by the policies we’ve adopted. Putting the public back in public diplomacy is an effort to gain a clearer understanding of how our government institutions and media messages as well as our policies are being perceived by global publics. An active public—theirs and ours—will not replace the official public diplomat. But if I had to roll the dice between international exchanges and cultural diplomacy and media propaganda campaigns that favor broadcast television and radio or listening tours by political appointees, then I’d bet on the former. I say that as a lifetime member of the Fulbright Association. The Fulbright ideal, similar to the public diplomacy ideal, is about effective and open dialogue with global publics. What’s needed is equal parts humility, a consideration of other perspectives, and the possibility of having one’s mind changed. Such dialogue is not always with a particular strategic outcome in mind, but it can be.

There is plenty of room for track two relations to coordinate with track one objectives, but let’s save some living room space for unofficial exchanges and dialogue that offer foreign policy critique and options for changing policies that either perpetuate negative attitudes or work to the disadvantage of our international negotiation strategies. For instance, the immediate linking of official public diplomacy with the declared war on terror was a mistake right from the start. It defined us as a nation concerned strictly with our own national security objectives rather than as a nation that could learn from how other countries and peoples have had to deal with terrorism. We lost our perceived advantages in international negotiation from the United Nations and North Korea to Israel and Palestine. We’re now more isolated than ever, the lonely superpower on the hill, a far cry from the “shining city upon the hill,” most-favored nation of the 20 th Century.

The British Foreign Office decision to drop the phrase “war on terror” should be matched by our own State Department’s decision to tell its diplomats to dropkick the phrase. But then, I’m just one private citizen with a simple dream to have us regain our good graces with the rest of the world. So far the State Department has said it will not drop the phrase, yet another illustration of why we need more people-first engagements and less policy-centered approaches in public diplomacy. Our official public diplomacy efforts have focused so narrowly on the Middle East that many feel they are being singled out as targets in the U.S.-led war on terror. I look forward to a time when we can engage in U.S. public diplomacy efforts that are driven less by such bulls-eyes tactics and more by eyes open wide. To do that, we’ll need far more sets of eyes than just official diplomacy efforts can offer.

FPIF contributor Nancy Snow is associate professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton and a senior fellow at the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. Her latest book is The Arrogance of American Power (Rowman & Littlefield).