What is Public Diplomacy?

Not too long ago, Marc Lynch and I had a back and forth on the utility and purposes of Smith-Mundt, a law that today is used not to give America a voice in a global informational struggle — the purpose for which it was passed — but to impose artificial constraints that are unique among our peers and our adversaries. 

That discussion included an interesting (and incredible) statement that public diplomacy was not about advocacy.  I completely disagree, as I wrote in Understanding the Purpose of Public Diplomacy.  Crucial to understanding the purpose of public diplomacy is understanding what it is. 

So, What is Public Diplomacy?

While the term itself originated as an alternative to "propaganda," by 1965, when Edmund Gullion coined it, public diplomacy was already well on its way to be something much different than propaganda.  The definition of public diplomacy back then is virtually indistinguishable from what today we call information operations, propaganda, or even psychological operations.

More recent American definitions of public diplomacy, when they exist, tend to ignore the purpose of the communication, leaving open the possibility that all political communications of a state (or non-state actor) is public diplomacy simply by virtue of the target, a foreign public.  That may have been implied by Gullion, but it isn’t what it is today and very much why the term "strategic communications" has come into fashion. 

If public diplomacy was simply the conveyance of information to influence a group of people, it would be indistinguishable from information operations or even psychological operations.  So what is it?

In a timely post on the State Department’s blog, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Colleen Graffy captured a key element of what differentiates public diplomacy:

"Hmm… Now what exactly is public diplomacy"? That is the question I am often asked.

I describe public diplomacy as the art of communicating a country’s policies, values and culture to other peoples. It is an attempt to explain why we have decided on certain measures, and beyond that, to explain who we are. [emphasis mine]

Public diplomacy is many things, but what differentiates it from information operations, the now traditional definition of propaganda, and political warfare, is an effort to create an understanding based on conveying a point of view. 

Cultural, educational, and even military exchanges are all about gathering intelligence and knowledge to create a foundation of putting words and deeds of an actor into an appropriate context. 

Consider this definition of public diplomacy from the United Kingdom:

work aiming to inform and engage individuals and organisations overseas, in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals

Communication must be "consistent with governmental…long terms goals."  In the absence of goals, strategy, or intent, actions are simply "acts of public diplomacy," as I like to call them.  The lone adventures of a diplomat (or minister or even lower), that may (or may not) have the support of the government, is simply an "act of public diplomacy" and does not constitute public diplomacy by the state.

And consider this definition from Sweden:

To understand, inform, influence and build relationships with people in other countries.  Through strategic communication and relationship building activities, the awareness of Sweden shall increase and a positive environment be created for Swedish economical, political and cultural aims.

To be effective, public diplomacy and propaganda must both incorporate customizing, or shaping, a message for the target audience based on understanding that target audience.  But while a poster (or political speech) may have the right images, colors, and text to resonate with the target audience, if the effort to "promote foreign acceptance of…strategic objectives" is not part of a larger campaign of building a relationship between the two groups, it is simply propaganda, the propagation of an idea.

Further, simply speaking to a public audience that is not your own is not public diplomacy.  We should be careful of labeling the words and deeds of some prominent leaders captured in global media as public diplomacy when in fact they are doing nothing more than diplomacy in public.  

Public diplomacy is already a nebulous and fuzzy concept without hard measurements, but the lack of an American government definition makes the situation that much worse.  The "definition" on the State Department’s website was remove sometime after the departure of Karen Hughes and remains missing in the limbo of Jim Glassman’s confirmation. 

There is no "computer that clicks" or "needle that moves" when public diplomacy is successful.  There are only subjective indicators, each of which have their own subtle influence.  Understanding what public diplomacy, and isn’t, will do a great deal in arming the U.S. in not only the "war of ideas" but in the unrestricted warfare that will threaten the economic of the United States.

See also:

One thought on “What is Public Diplomacy?

Comments are closed.