Public Diplomacy

Although practiced for centuries, the term “public diplomacy” has only been in use since the 1960’s.  In the United States it is usually defined with language such as the following:

“Public diplomacy is the means by which governments seek to advance their nations’ interests through understanding, informing and influencing broader publics in foreign countries.”

For many countries, such as the United States, the practice of public diplomacy includes not only one-way communications but also promotion of cultural, educational and citizen interchange

Public diplomacy differs from traditional government-to-government diplomacy in that it deals not only with foreign officials but also with nongovernmental individuals and institutions, as well as mass audiences.  Depending for its long-term success on candor, credibility and open interchange, public diplomacy does not include black propaganda, psychological warfare or other forms of covert action, which by their nature seek tactical and short-term gain.  Nor, by most definitions, does it refer to activities of private citizens and organizations (such as media and educational institutions) that take place without government financial support.  In short, much of public diplomacy can be viewed as the purposeful exploitation of what Joseph Nye calls a nation’s nonmilitary “soft power.”

Referring to the relationship between truth and propaganda, Edward R. Murrow, U.S. Information Agency Director in 1961-63 said:

“American traditions and the American ethic require us to be truthful, but the most important reason is that truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”

Within the U. S. State Department public diplomacy is considered a separate function from public affairs. The latter focuses on reaching domestic audiences, while public diplomacy deals with overseas audiences.  The two terms, however, are used interchangeably at U.S. missions abroad, where the public diplomacy unit is known as the Public Affairs Section (PAS) and is led by the embassy or consulate’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO).

Although this portion of the website focuses primarily on the United States, it should be noted that virtually every country in the world uses public diplomacy to advance its interests, employing such tools of the trade as international broadcasting, publications, press conferences, Internet websites and cultural events.

Brief History

Efforts to use the arts of persuasion to gain political or military advantage have existed since the dawn of recorded history.  In more modern times the French revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath made sophisticated use of the tools of public diplomacy, as did England’s pre-World War II campaign to persuade Americans to support the British struggle against Hitler.  Through much of the 20th century the Soviet Union, with its ideological emphasis on “the masses,” gave high priority not only to the covert instruments of agitation and propaganda but also to overt public diplomacy.  

Since its earliest days the United States has benefited from many able practitioners of public diplomacy.  America’s first diplomats, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, imaginatively used their access to both elite circles and the media of France and England to promote the revolutionary cause.   

During World War I, the Committee on Public Information (known as the Creel Committee) was established as a propaganda arm of the U.S. war effort.  Although considered effective, it received considerable criticism for its aggressive attempts to influence American public opinion, and was abolished after the termination of hostilities. 

In subsequent years, major landmarks in the evolution of America’s public diplomacy included: the inauguration of a vigorous cultural exchanges program with Latin America in the late 1930s, the launching of the Voice of America (VOA) on February 24, 1942, the establishment of the Office of War Information (OWI) during World War II (with its overseas component called the United States Information Service, or USIS)  and the beginning of the Fulbright Exchange Program in 1946.  Overseas information programs were removed from the State Department with the establishment of an independent U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1953, and the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (CU) was merged with USIA in 1977 to form what was for the next four years known as the U.S. International Communications Agency (USICA).

With the exception of VOA, all of USIA was reintegrated back into the State Department on October 1, 1999, and most of its operational elements were put under a newly-created Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R) (see http://www.state.gov/r).  At that time the Voice of America was placed under the Bureau of International Broadcasting (IBB) within the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) structure.  (www.voanews.com and www.bbg.gov).  Although beyond the immediate responsibility of personnel in the field, all of the BBG’s broadcasting elements are important components of U.S. public diplomacy.

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Practice

With the 1999 consolidation, the overseas USIS offices were renamed Public Affairs Sections (PAS).  However, through all the organizational changes in Washington, the structure and functions of public diplomacy offices at embassies abroad have not changed appreciably over recent decades as they continue to promote objectives that are either informational or devoted to cultural and educational exchanges.  To serve these ends, Public Afffairs Sections are typically divided into an Information Section and a Cultural Section.

Information Section

The information section (known in the embassies of many countries simply as the press office) is the base of operations for the embassy’s press attaché (or mission spokesman/spokesperson).  In carrying out its media relations functions a U.S. embassy’s information section is supported by press guidances, official texts and other materials provided by Washington.  Up-to-date information on U.S. foreign policy positions is also readily accessible on http://www.america.gov/. Information sections maintain close contact with local media, provide information on current U.S. policies (and the background for such policies), and arrange interviews, briefings and press conferences for U.S., third-country and host-country journalists. 

In addition to assisting resident or visiting U.S. correspondents of private print, broadcast and web-based media, information sections also support U.S. Government-sponsored broadcasting services such as the worldwide VOA, Radio Free Asia (RFA), Cuba-focused Radio and TV Marti, and the Arabic-language Radio SAWA and Alhurra TV. 

In addition to assisting resident or visiting U.S. correspondents of private print, broadcast and web-based media, Information Sections also support U.S. Government-sponsored broadcasting services such as the worldwide VOA, Radio Free Asia (RFA), Cuba-focused Radio and TV Marti, and the Arabic-language Radio SAWA and Alhurra TV. 

Educational and Cultural Programs

While countries of diverse size and character all tend to handle the information side of public diplomacy in similar fashion, their cultural activities (or “cultural diplomacy”) may vary considerably.  For example, some seek to avoid any appearance that their cultural programs promote short-term political (or propagandistic) objectives.  The United Kingdom’s British Council, France’s Alliance Francaise and Centres Culturels, and the German Goethe Institute function as such non-political institutions. 

In contrast, U.S. libraries and similar institutions – whether called Cultural Centers, American Centers or (more recently) Information Resource Centers – have consistently identified themselves with the official American presence and have not shied away from fostering dialogue on sometimes contentious foreign policy issues as well as sponsoring “softer” cultural events.  Although the United States established or strongly supported many jointly managed Binational Centers (BNCs) in the 1940s and 50s that were mainly engaged in apolitical English teaching activities, most of those institutions have since either closed their doors or now operate without official U.S. involvement.. 

A distinctive feature of U.S. educational and cultural exchange activity has been its emphasis on the American learning experience (i.e., exposing Americans to foreign countries) component of promoting mutual understanding.  Since the 1930s this goal has been strongly supported by foundations and educational institutions, as well as key members of Congress.  For this reason, a substantial proportion of the exchanges account is devoted to providing opportunities for U.S. citizens to travel abroad for study and other educational purposes, including establishing institutional linkages for ongoing interchange.

The cultural section of a U.S. embassy, headed by the mission’s cultural affairs officer (CAO), who also has the title of cultural attaché, fosters a vast range of cultural and educational exchanges, working in close cooperation with host country institutions as well as U.S. academic and other nongovernmental organizations committed to academic, cultural and citizen interchange.

The Cultural Section of a U.S. embassy, headed by the mission’s Cultural Affairs Officer (CAO), who also has the title of Cultural Attache, fosters a vast range of cultural and educational exchanges, working in close cooperation with host country institutions as well as U.S. academic and other non-governmental organizations committed to academic, cultural and citizen interchange.

Two exchange programs of particular note in the cultural diplomacy efforts of the United States are the International Visitors (IV) Program and the Fulbright Exchange Program, both of which come under the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

International Visitors Program

The IV Program, whose origins trace back to before World War II, annually brings about 5,000 current or potential leaders from other countries to the United States for periods ranging from a few days to weeks.  The IVs meet with experts and counterparts in their own areas of specialization and explore areas of particular personal interest.  In addition to regular IVs, individuals already planning to visit the United States under other auspices may be considered Voluntary Visitors (VVs) and given special treatment during days added to their original schedules.  Many distinguished foreign nationals have participated in this program over the years, including more than 200 current and former chiefs of state.  Nominations for this program are typically made by an embassy’s IV Committee, which is chaired by the deputy chief of mission (DCM).  The program relies heavily on volunteers throughout the United States who are part of a remarkable network of some 95 Councils for International Visitors (CIVs).

Fulbright Exchanges

The Fulbright Exchange Program, long considered the flagship international educational program of the U.S. Government, was started in 1946 as part of legislation introduced by Senator J. William Fulbright at the end of World War II, using funds generated by the sale of surplus war materials.  Its purpose is to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”  Since the first grantees traveled in 1947, the Fulbright Program has assisted the exchange of some 250,000 students, scholars, researchers and other participants.  About 6,000 grants are awarded annually.  Management of the program in the field is typically handled by the cultural section at small embassies, or by a binational Fulbright Commission in countries with large programs.  Most Fulbright programs receive some funding or in-kind contributions from the host country and local private citizens, as well as the monies appropriated by Congress.

Supporting all of the U.S. exchange operations is a vast network of cooperating private institutionsthat typically sponsor their own activities and also carry out programs funded by the U.S. Government.   Some 73 such organizations are part of an umbrella lobbying and information-sharing body called the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange.

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Issues

U.S. public diplomacy has been the focus of considerable attention by Congress, scholars, media commentators and others interested in determining how it could be made more effective in building stronger international support for American policies in the post-9/11 era. President George W. Bush placed a great deal of emphasis on public outreach efforts, particularly to the Muslim world, appointing Karen Hughes, a powerful member of his inner circle, as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. This effort has intensified under the Obama administration, as public diplomacy is at the heart of what Secretary of State Clinton calls “smart power.” Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have delivered several major addresses to foreign audiences and used new technologies, including text messaging and podcasting, to maximize the impact of their message. Another subject of continuing concern and comment is the way that public diplomacy is – or should be – lodged within the Department of State.  Since 2003, numerous outside studies have addressed this issue, but as of 2009 no major changes had been made to the consolidation arrangements put in place in 1999.  The website of the Public Diplomaty Alumni Association (http://www.publicdiplomacy.org) has links to studies on the subject and other public diplomacy issues of current interest.

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bookArndt, Richard T.  The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century.  Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005.

bookDizard, Wilson. Inventing Public Diplomacy: The Story of the U.S. Information Agency. Bolder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004.

bookHeil, Alan Jr. Voice of America: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

bookNinkovich, Frank A.  The Diplomacy of Ideas: U.S. Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

bookNye, Joseph S., Jr.  Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

bookTuch, Hans. Communicating with the World: U.S. Public Diplomacy Overseas. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.  

The Foreign Service Journal of October 2006 (http://www.afsa.org/FSJ/1006/index.html) contains five informative articles on contemporary public diplomacy:

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