The Kitchen Debate of 1959: more than just two guys talking

I recommend listening to NPR’s story this morning on the “Kitchen Debate” between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon at the 1959 American exhibition in Moscow. The reporter, Gregory Feifer, notes the “hostility and distrust toward America and Americans among ordinary Russians is much stronger than it was when Nixon debated Khrushchev 50 years ago.” Those that participated in the American exhibitions, Feifer continued, “believe they can be a useful model for President Obama as he seeks to improve ties with Moscow.”

While true, Feifer left out a significant detail: there was a whole enterprise working across the government and around the world that supported the personal engagement before, during, and after the exhibition. The “Kitchen Debate” would have had a much, much lower impact both locally and globally had an infrastructure of personnel and communications not been available.

Public diplomacy, even personal diplomacy conducted in public between leaders, cannot be supported solely on organic reporting and delivery of events and news. The charisma of the leaders or participants cannot ensure the reception and digestion of facts by global audiences. But the success of the Kitchen Debate is more than the ability to hold or broadcast the event. What came before the Debate is equally if not more important than the Debate itself.

Back when we acknowledged we were in a psychological struggle for minds and wills on a global scale against an adversary we couldn’t negotiate with, we built, empowered, and funded “legions” of public diplomats. We created the Bretton Woods institutions, planned on UNESCO becoming a tool of Western (e.g. American) public diplomacy, passed the Marshall Plan (and before it the Truman Plan), reorganized American public diplomacy with the establishment of USIA, and on and on. We understood the value of direct engagement on the global stage and those were all elements (except perhaps the Peace Corps, which would be created two years later) of a comprehensive and dynamic engagement with the world to counter what was viewed as an extremist ideology. This “war of ideology… a war unto death” was taken seriously. The Kitchen Debate was a pinnacle event that was ultimately a culmination of all the public diplomacy programs that had gone on before.

What are we doing to ensure that future Kitchen Debates that occur in foreign homes or huts, in fields or alley, or online are successful?

See also: