Defining Public Diplomacy

Previously, I offered a high level definition of public diplomacy. Below is a slightly modified:

Public diplomacy is the direct or indirect engagement of foreign publics in support of national security, political, cultural, and economic objectives.

Ok, so what about the following, more specific definition:

Public diplomacy involves understanding, influencing, developing relationships with and providing information to the general public and civic society abroad, in order to create a favorable environment for achieving national security, political, cultural and economic objectives

To many, the list at the end of both is in many ways redundant (e.g. economic security is essential for national security), but not to everybody. In the latter definition, public diplomacy is an indirect action that shapes the environment. The former includes a broader range of active persuasive techniques.

Either way, public diplomacy is a factor in all facets of international engagement and discourse. Everything we say and everything we do, as well as what we fail to say and do, has an impact in other lands. Spoken nearly sixty years ago by presidential candidate Eisenhower, the meaning is timeless.

It is one thing to have an organizing principle, what is necessary is an organizing principal. Under President-elect Obama, it is clear that we’ll have the latter. Get both and Congress will get onboard (and then funding). We have precedent. It’s called the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948.

Sixty years ago, Congress also had little confidence in the State Department’s ability to communicate overseas. They slashed the budget for international broadcasting in half. The final version the Smith-Mundt Bill that was passed was largely a response to this lack of confidence. Many safeguards were put into the Bill to address the (often appropriate) concerns of Congress, including a prohibition against domestic dissemination of information products produced by State for overseas publics, the most intense “loyalty” checks possible (security clearances), and oversight committees.

The result was a bill that sought to arm the United States in a “war of ideology” in South America, Europe, and elsewhere. After many hearings, amendments, and even a reintroduction (it was known as the Bloom Bill in the 79th Congress), the 80th Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Bill after witnessing first-hand the tempo and volume of enemy propaganda and misinformation that was attacking reconstruction and stabilization programs known as the Marshall Plan.

4 thoughts on “Defining Public Diplomacy

  1. The second definition is better because it excludes things like wars and Guantanamo prison. But it’s two-thirds about transmitting messages (influence, provide information) and only one-third about engagement (building relationships). If anything, those ratios should be the other way around. IMO the USIA definition comes closer to the right balance:

    Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.

    It still talks about doing things to publics (influencing, informing) but emphasizes the dialog part a little more.

  2. Hi. I understand your definition of public diplomacy. However, looking at the second definition, I do not see the difference when it comes to Public Affairs. Essentialy, this is what NATO PAs are being tasked with by doctrine. In a way I am sorry to say that the concept of PD and StratCom blur what communication is about by creating academical concepts that do not take us one step further.

  3. The understandings are appropriately similar. Isn’t the only real distinction between the modern interpretation of public affairs and public diplomacy the audience?

  4. I agree with your commentary on the second definition. However, the second definition is too limiting. It constrains the tools of influence and suggests continued compartmentalization of activities by discounting the value of deeds. Simply put, it continues the segmented approach to the struggle for minds and wills we know as PD today. Engagement in the former definition includes physical acts and indirect activities. The essence of public diplomacy is effective engagement by, with, and through populations to reach their peers. The USIA definition you cite is a modern definition and a product of the compartmentalization of engagement.

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