Readings on Public Diplomacy, #1 (Updated)

In just a couple of weeks and barring any last minute problems, a colleague (Yael Swerdlow) and I will be the first in the U.S. (the world?) to be earn a Masters in Public Diplomacy. So what does one do with such a unique, yet extremely timely, degree? Good question. That’s a very good question. Of course I’m actively looking now and I’m open for suggestions (or offers ;).

Partly because I’m being introspective and partly motivated by Abu Muqawama’s counterinsurgency book club, this is the first of an occasional series on books and resources (that may or may not have been used in my program) I found particularly useful. In the spirit of James Traub’s NYT Magazine article this weekend, this series kicks off with one of my recent favorites. 

totalcoldwarKenneth Osgood’s Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home And Abroad is a timely read on the original intents and purpose of what has been stripped and twisted into the public diplomacy we know today. Shaped by Charlotte Beers and Karen Hughes, public diplomacy as it is commonly understood today is a far cry from what it was. Osgood gets into the gritty details of why and how the whole of government approach toward the psychological struggle for minds and wills was developed. It was a Total War. 

While the National Security Act of 1947 was debated, revised, and subsequently passed, Public Law 402, otherwise known as the Smith-Mundt Act, was also being debated, modified, and then passed in the following year. A few years later, presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower would attack President Truman for being soft in the ideological war. Experienced in PSYOP, Eisenhower knew the importance of the "psychological struggle over minds and wills" and included such in his speeches on foreign policy.

The former general was attacking President Harry S Truman for ignoring the grass roots, the battleground where the enemy was present. Truman, however, was set on engaging people through the international institutions he was busy promoting, such as the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and even the Marshall Plan. We might call that soft power (although economics were explicitly excluded from Joseph Nye’s original definition of soft power). None of these "looked" like the public diplomacy we talk about today. In the struggle for minds and wills, these institutions effectively supported and enhanced the image and impact of the West, albeit in primarily in contested spaces that culturally similar.

In the 1950’s, to those paying attention, policy and propaganda were inextricably intertwined. Morganthau recognized the importance of national morale and the quality of diplomacy as the world struggle shifted from the arena of power to the arena of ideas and international persuasion. Osgood walks you through a time when Smith-Mundt was not about protecting the American public from the government, but about competing against a different threat than the traditional territorial threat. As Osgood puts it, the

primary threat was not that the Soviet Union would take territory through military force, but…capitalize on economic and social unrest, expanding its power through subversion and manipulation.

Understanding the history and evolution of public diplomacy is important when critiquing and suggesting changes to it today. Returning to history is important if we seek "causes, sources,and conditions of overt changes of patterns and structures in society" as well its systems.

Osgood’s book will give you a strong appreciation of what was public diplomacy before Edward Gullion coined the term (because, as Gullion put it, "propaganda was already taken"), as well as the creation of USIA and USAID. The neutered beauty contest we know today was both more vertical and horizontal, cutting across the whole of government and relied less on muscular approaches in contested spaces both abroad and in the home front. Back then, it wasn’t about "hearts" even if communism played on the hopes for a better life (sidenote: contrast with the hope of communism today with the fear peddled today by AQ). There was no love to be gained or earned, but respect and ideological attractiveness (probably the source of ‘love’). 

How we’ve traveled from that original path is for another post, however.

I strongly suggest most of this book for anyone interested in public diplomacy or strategic communications. My copy is full of flags and highlights.