Defining Public Diplomacy: Preparing for a new Administration

What is public diplomacy? It can’t be everything otherwise it is nothing. Is it a dialogue or a monologue? It is based on the speaker, the means of engagement, or the targeted audience? Is “convening” discourse between, within or between foreign audiences public diplomacy? What about the content or force of the message? Is public diplomacy passive hoping to “win hearts” or can it be actively engaged in a psychological struggle to change minds and encourage the will to act in an audience? Does it have to be focused on physical security or can it apply to all elements of national security from economics to global health?

In yesterday’s Blogger Roundtable, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Jim Glassman spoke admirably about the “them versus them” movement in Colombia he recently visited, the No Mas FARC movement. So I asked the Under Secretary to define public diplomacy:

…public diplomacy is diplomacy that’s aimed at publics and sometimes gets officials engaging with those publics. Sometimes it’s our publics engaging with those publics, foreign publics. Sometimes it’s actually other foreign publics engaging with those foreign publics. And they may be foreign publics that we have encouraged to engage.

So I think that it really is defined – I define it by the target audience and also try to distinguish it from official diplomacy which in general is our officials talking or interacting with their officials.

I’ll take the liberty to refine the Under Secretary’s answer and insert language from other conversation to come up with a more concise definition: public diplomacy is the direct or indirect engagement of foreign publics to support national security objectives.

How we engage and which part of government engages would overly narrow the definition when in fact, the government is not required to be a speaker. The goal of public diplomacy, after all, is to create proxy voices to relay and amplify a message against an adversary or adversarial idea. In other words, it is to propagate ideas by, with, and through people who are geographically, socially, or culturally “local” to the target audience.

Talking about public diplomacy necessarily brings up strategic communication, a term that has gained prominence as the Defense Department stepped into a void left by an ineffective or absent State Department. Depending on who you ask, public diplomacy and strategic communication are synonyms or a subset of one or the other.

The defense community typically views public diplomacy as a subset of strategic communication as they focus on the “fast” informational engagement with “slow” exchanges falling outside their time horizon. The Under Secretary holds the opposite view:

…I realize the military has a specific definition of strategic communications. I tend to use that term in – as a subset of public diplomacy and more interchangeably with war of ideas activities.

This creates a quandary, however, as it ignores the generally accepted understanding that strategic communication targets both US and non-US audiences while public diplomacy targets only non-US audiences. (see SC diagram here) Of course, the bifurcation of global engagement by the U.S. is artificial, uniquely American, quaint, and ultimately not based on historical realities or modern requirements, as I’ve written before.

The War of Ideas is, by the Under Secretary’s own admission, problematic. We must start moving away from the immediate and narrow emphasis on countering ideological support for terrorism. While necessary and important, it feeds the short-sighted view that we need only deal with threats manifested as attacks against our physical security. We need an effective and flexible arsenal of persuasion in the global information environment and global economic environment that goes beyond ideological support for terrorism and insurgency and into protecting economic and other interests.

So what do we do? Rebuilding the arsenal of persuasion is difficult, but it is even more so when people can’t “hang their hat” on an idea. We need an organizing principle and an organizing principal. The Under Secretary has been the latter as he attacked the low hanging fruit in his short tenure to fix the easy problems and prepare for the next Administration. What we need now is the former.

8 thoughts on “Defining Public Diplomacy: Preparing for a new Administration

  1. No quandry, Matt. Public Diplomacy is only a part of SC, the part that (openly) targets foreign audiences. As you point out, the distinction between foreign and domestic isn’t really that clean in the end, but that doesn’t make it unreasonable to say that SC is the broader concept. The issue is that Glassman has it upside down, as Bud pointed out.

  2. Andy, how else would you extend it? Aren’t programs from sister cities to jazz concerts may not at first glance have much to do with national security but isn’t national security the ultimate root of governmental support? Doesn’t this include the British Council as well?

  3. MattI like your concise definition for Public Diplomacy but I would look at extending it to cover a range of priorities, rather than just national security.

  4. Does Strategic Communication incorporate the “slow” engagement of IMET, ECA, etc? I don’t recall seeing that in the definition.As for Bud’s well-thought out response, I disagree with his implied time horizon, means of engagement, and limited audience. The target of the so-called War of Ideas is not simply the violent extremists, just like the information warfare by violent extremists is not targeted simply at their core constituency.
    Further, public diplomacy is a goal-oriented operating paradigm. Bud’s vision of PD is based on on the Beers / Hughes model rather than the “smart” engagement based more on the psychology of the audience than the psychology of the speaker, which was the original intent of public diplomacy and I believe Glassman’s interpretation of PD.
    As for audiences, what became known as public diplomacy also became focused on exclusively foreign audiences, but that wasn’t the intent. It is arguable that public diplomacy was an extension of public affairs, but over time and for reasons unrelated to influencing American audiences, a firewall was raised, as I point out in Rethinking Smith-Mundt.

  5. Matt, I don’t know what I said to inspire your linkage of my comments to the Beers/Hughes model. That outdated model is precisely the model I am arguing against. By contrast, I favor a “strategic ambiguity” and “rugged landscape” model instead, both of which recognize that locals (not just violent extremists nor necessarily foreigners) interpret messages and meanings within their own cultural, economic, and religious frames of reference, which, at least lately, has not been in sync with our preferred frame of reference. More about these models is readily available on our COMOPS website, but here are the specific links to the white papers:Strategic Ambiguity:
    Rugged Landscapes:
    Unlike the Beers/Hughes approach of “selling” America based on a tightly controlled message that gets “echoed” throughout the world, we favor a multiple messages, multiple audiences, multiple interpretations framework that loosens controls, empowers locals, and builds in existing and emergent resistance to our narratives as part of the strategy. In this way, our approach works as the method of communication by which and through which public diplomacy is accomplished.

  6. Purpleslog: I don’t believe “overt” must appear when the basic premise of public diplomacy is truthful engagement to build credibility and trust. Specifying this operational parameters is unnecessary and possibly restraining the indirect influence toolkit.Bud: I agree with your comment that multiple messages / audiences / interpretive frameworks are necessary and acknowledge that you favor and encourage that. Your criticism of PD however, is based on Beers/Hughes-style public diplomacy. This is, not unsurprisingly, the foundation of the Strategic Ambiguity paper. That paper lists the two major reasons for “failures of communication in public diplomacy” as “reliance on a one-way model of influence” and dynamic adversarial propaganda that colors interpretation of our propaganda (the P-word used, as always on this blog, as a neutral, not pejorative, label). Both criticisms are being actively addressed in both DOD and DOS, although admittedly there’s more institutional friction in DOS that requires both money and greater leadership beyond (and above) Glassman to overcome.
    I also disagree with the construction of the argument that public diplomacy a subset to strategic communication because SC is global while PD is not. Examining the global application of both and the reverse comes out: PD has held a global focus with too little attention to tactical environment, which is, ironically considering the name, where strategic communication can claim ‘ownership’ as it incorporates those ‘dirty’ tools like IO and PSYOP.
    Direct comparisons of SC to PD is muddled because of the challenge of having both “fast” and “slow” engagement under the same PD umbrella, but not under SC. These different toolkits, and not the audiences or the time horizon, means the relationship between the two concepts would best be depicted by a Venn diagram of overlapping spheres.
    Let’s not confuse the problems of PD with a lack of leadership and resources. PD officers do remarkable things with the lack of resources, if only their leadership would support them and go to bat for them, but that requires understanding the people-level struggle, but I digress. The purpose of my research into Smith-Mundt and the early days of the First War of Ideas is to show what became known as PD was at one time a real arsenal of persuasion, which the formation of the USIA improved and extended. It was that framework of engagement in which your suggestions were effectively used.

  7. A point of clarification to my earlier comment. The statement above “Your criticism of PD however, is based on Beers/Hughes-style public diplomacy.” is ambiguous and requires clarification. I did not mean to suggest that Bud advocates the Beers/Hughes style, but that the criticism on which arguments, including those in the paper Strategic Ambiguity, are proper criticisms of the Beers/Hughes model. I agree with the arguments against the Beers/Hughes model but feel we have moved far enough away from it, with your recommendations already largely adopted or internalized. So much so so that references to the arguments are mostly moot or must be updated. That was the essence of that sentence that could have been worded better.

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