Psychological Struggle,  Public Diplomacy

Making Diplomacy Public

Continuing on the subject of defining public diplomacy, it’s important to recall that a key feature of international relations is and always has been the need for and ability of individuals to affect – and defend against – influence. Classic realpolitik authors from E.H. Carr, writing in The Twenty Years’ Crisis, and Hans Morgenthau, in Politics Among Nations, described the importance of public opinion and national morale in international relations.

Briefing 2.0 by Sean McCormack (see similar from the UK) and roundtable discussions by Under Secretary Jim Glassman are important to loop the public into the process. It can also spark an interest by the mainstream media, something the DOD Blogger Roundtable is rather proud of.

It is essential the public, both foreign and domestic, be realized as central to the enduring psychological struggle of minds and wills. They are not only the target the persuasion from information activities to cultural and educational exchanges, but the agents of influence themselves. As I wrote in the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy,

…diplomacy, private or public, is and must be a negotiation involving persuasion, dissuasion, coercion, and rewards. Its purpose is to influence the will of an actor through both anticipating and appropriately affecting the psychological responses of that actor to an event, image, or message. Today’s requirement is not better story telling or controlling the narrative, but mastering the discourse.

With insurgencies raging around the planet, shifting borders, and economic, military, and sociological threats are everywhere at once. The full impact of perception management, both friendly and unfriendly, must be realized. America increased its strategic influence by engaging in a discourse with both mass audiences and individuals with the goal of exposing the lies and deceit of the enemy. Populations were encouraged to become a participant in the bulwark that rejected the enemy.

In 1948, George Kennan developed a plan for “organized political warfare” to counter the Soviet Union’s growing power and influence. To be effective, it required the United States to employ all means possible to achieve its national objective, including overt activities such as political alliances, economic measures, and “white” propaganda, to covert operations such as clandestine support of foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare, to encouraging underground resistance movements in hostile states.

This was not the “diplomacy in public” we know today, but a full-spectrum “diplomacy with publics” that engaged people at all levels and with all means available. Seven years later, Nelson Rockefeller recognized the struggle as “shifting more than ever from the arena of power to the arena of ideas and international persuasion.” A then-young Henry Kissinger, stressing the importance of the people, noted the “predominant aspect of the new diplomacy is its psychological dimension.”

The early years of the Cold War period, before the first détente, was a period of total war even if armies were not yet engaged in open industrial warfare. With insurgencies around the globe, the Soviet Union taking Eastern Europe and the perception that China was lost to the Communists, the United States felt threatened to the core. Attempts to prove and dispel the propaganda and realities on both sides included very active information campaigns and “diplomacy of deeds” across economic, political, social, moral, scientific, and military spheres.

This was not a beauty contest to “win” by strutting on the catwalk, or a play for the emotions of the heart. It was a struggle of significance based on trust achieved by claiming the role of narrator. The goal was to inculcate allies, neutrals, and the home front against enemy subversion by showing the ruinous truth and lies of the enemy’s path. It also sought to go “behind the lines” to encourage dissent and political revolt.

We are always in a psychological struggle with some adversary, whether we know it or not. The threat can be economic, a natural disaster, a health emergency, a terrorist attack, or a more tangible geo-political competition over resources. The U.S. must be prepared to defend and counter these threats through connections established and made stronger through educational and cultural exchange, as well as informational engagement.

This includes being “pre-active”. While capable and timely reactions must be prepared and tested, trust and confidence must be established prior to an event. Establishing bono fides and communication pathways in the aftermath of an event is too time consuming and risky in an environment where first impressions matter. The same holds true for attempts to obfuscate or lie the truth.

There are national security implications that must be conveyed to Congress and the American public to create a constituency to support resourcing these efforts. History has its lessons. It is worthwhile to look back to the principles of the Smith-Mundt Act, the anchoring legislation for what eventually became known as public diplomacy, for advice for the future.