It is time to create a center for public diplomacy discourse and research

The public diplomacy community requires a center for sharing ideas, resources, and research materials. Earlier this week I blogged about the forthcoming PD20.org website and suggested the model created by the Small Wars Journal as a starting point in the development of a collaborative portal. In this post, I’ll get more specific in what is necessary for the disparate tribes that support and engage in public diplomacy, strategic communication, public affairs, media diplomacy, or simply global engagement.

Before getting into my recommendation, let me explain why I think the Small War Journal’s “empire of knowledge” is a good example to build upon. SWJ, as of last year an official 501c3 non-profit, provides several tiers of discourse: a blog with both regular and guest contributors, discussion boards that foster a free flowing dialogue and knowledge sharing, and a magazine for longer, generally “academic-ish” articles. The topics include most of the issues that relate to America’s national security, from “traditional” warfare to insurgency, from humanitarian aid and disaster recovery to peace and stability operations, from tools, techniques, training, and procedures to real world experiences. SWJ is not the only resource, but it established itself as a neutral forum and has become a widely read public resource that has contributors and readers from across the spectrum from “mere” observers to practitioners writing from the field. It is not limited to American issues or American contributors and readers, but America is its focus.

In short, SWJ is the premier hub for discourse. Considering public diplomacy is about discourse, it’s about time we have a center of engagement for engagement. I believe that PD20.org can and should be that center.

That there is no hub now is deplorable but not surprising. It is of no great surprise that there are no central resources like SWJ to discuss the tools, techniques, training, and procedures of public diplomacy considering the lack of consensus and even the imperative of global engagement. This is about applying social media to the discussion and practice of public diplomacy, a field of practice that is based on collaboration and yet remains insular, sometimes defensively as it defends against those who do not understand it. But there is another reason for the failure to foster public discussion that is too often overlooked. Unlike the military with its many freely available publications and educational network, the State Department in general has never historically valued, or had the capacity to support or participate in, a system or means to publicly share and debate lessons learned and best practices.

Below is a list of features and capabilities I’d like to see. This is not comprehensive and I reserve the right to append and modify the list. I do not believe that any of these are overly burdensome or impossible.

Provide a multi-tiered discussion space. Provide fora for discussions, news analysis, knowledge sharing, posting of articles ranging from editorial to journal-length and format, and classifieds.

  • Discussion board: a place where everyone can post a question or item for review and comment. This is an open forum. See for example the Small Wars Council.
  • Blog: a place for “meatier” posts and community highlights. Comments are open but contributions are more moderated. See for example the SWJ Blog.
  • Journal: longer and more academic-style articles are published here. See for example the Small Wars Journal.

Provide a central library of resources. Each of the below resource types should be integrated with the discussion board to provide a forum for discussion (and maybe even rating like Amazon.com’s).

  • Books and reading lists. Recommended books, both in print and out of print. 
  • Reports. Links to publicly available reports or storage for not or no longer publicly available reports, including reports that were modified from the original to make them searchable.
  • Testimony. So often Congressional testimony is unavailable or hard to find and yet extremely relevant to understanding the purpose and direction of global engagement.
  • Articles from the web and hard copy.
  • Directory of groups, institutions, and people. This wiki-like repository is a community-updated and community-specific detail of relevant actors, from individuals to government agencies and bureaus to terrorist groups to NGO’s involved in exchanges. It would include an acronym list.

Calendaring.

  • Centralized calendaring for relevant activities from hearings to roundtables to conferences.

This center of discourse, resources, and research would understandably focus on the United States but it would not be restricted to the US as a topic. Non-US practitioners and organizations should be encouraged to participate and share.

Those who complain that the military has more lawyers than the State Department has foreign service officers should consider the other reality that the military as a community has been quicker to experiment with and adopt the tools of global engagement. The rise and impact of sites like SWJ, Company Commander, the Consortium for Complex Operations, the blog network at Leavenworth, and more are indicative of much more than resources (SWJ and Company Commander were private initiatives and SWJ remains such), but from private and outside-bureaucracy initiative.

This will not only raise the profile of global engagement, but improve its quality and bring together practitioners from across government, outside of government, and outside the United States, that have more in common than most realize. It is time the civilian-side of global engagement has its own center for discussion, resources, and research.

See also:

4 Replies to “It is time to create a center for public diplomacy discourse and research”

  1. This is an excellent idea. This administration seems to be more savvy with regards to the “struggle for minds and wills” than the last one so this may be a propitious time for reform and innovation in our public diplomacy institutions. Building a community akin to SWJ to discuss, share and explore ideas about PD now is a good move to try to take advantage of what could be a unique opportunity.

  2. Beautiful summary, Matt. You can certainly count on the Public Diplomacy Collaborative at Harvard to provide a “multi-tiered discussion space” (physical and vertical), which will be used to coordinate across sectors and US-allied nations.We’ll be calling you to help build the “central library.” Care to donate your brain?

  3. Sounds like a good idea. There are various fora for PD around the net but some centralization of resources would be a good thing.Questions though:
    How academic is ‘academic-style’? Peer reviewed? There is already the journal of Place Branding and Public Diplomacy but the emphasis there seems to be rather more on PB than PD and lacking in critical perspectives (I’m judging from titles and abstracts as I don’t have a subscription to it).
    PD remains something of a practitioner/think-tank dominated discourse and although the academic literature on the subject is large and growing it remains (in my opinion at least) theoretically and ideologically narrow.
    Would, for instance, this proposed journal publish an article (which is insightful, well written and of publishable standard) arguing against PD as an entity on the grounds of, say, cultural imperialism?
    In short, would there be room for subversives? Debate needs difference and the PD discourse lacks that right now – in my opinion.

  4. Percnon,By “academic-style” I mean longer essays with references and logical arguments. There will be a peer-review process.
    I envision this as a discussion space broader than my blog or other blogs journals that are out there. If you haven’t take a look at the Small Wars Journal (http://smallwarsjournal.com) and see the variety of conversations and the range of participants.
    My goal is to create a neutral ground to bring connect and discuss actors and concepts related to America’s engagement with the world. Primarily focused on the US, it has plenty of space for non-US participants and lessons learned. While we could call this engagement public diplomacy, public diplomacy has become tainted (echoes of Gullion’s statement on the coining of “public diplomacy”: “…would have rather called it propaganda…”).
    This middle place that is currently in development could just as well focus on “influence” just as much as “public diplomacy” for that is the ultimate goal. However, just as many don’t see themselves as participating in public diplomacy, many more refuse to accept that the ultimate purpose of their activities is to influence people.
    This network can be a key place to bring together traditional public diplomacy actors, from informational, educational, and cultural exchanges to PSYOP to development to foreign aid to humanitarian aid, media development, etc.
    Contrarian positions must be permitted. After all, the subject is discourse. Moreover, some see me as a subversive…

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