What is the purpose of Public Diplomacy if not to influence?

Briefly, as I explore different definitions for public diplomacy (see here and here and here), one thing is constant: the purpose of public diplomacy is to convince people of something. Thus, the below quote, with all due to respect, struck me as patently false:

"The aim of public diplomacy is not to convince but to communicate, not to declare but to listen." Manuel Castells (source)

I like Professor Castells (and not just because he gave me an A a few years ago) but this statement, shared by a surprising many, is part of what is wrong with America’s global engagement. It harkens to the (amazing) belief that you can inform without influence and is, I believe, a carry-over from decades of increasing passivity and misunderstanding of public diplomacy in which we failed to understand the global environment (who we were was self-evident) and a lack of insight and foresight into the global security situation (information as a weapon).

The aim of public diplomacy is most certainly to convince people of certain ideas and to undermine support of others, if passively at times, through the availability of news and information and through personal encounters. 

We do not fund public diplomacy, nor did we institutionalize it over sixty years ago, just for the heck of it. The aim of public diplomacy is most certainly to increase our national security. Call it public diplomacy, or strategic communication, or global engagement, is to successfully engage in the struggle for minds to affect the will to act through a spectrum of means that may have immediate to very long term results. Public diplomacy must be based on concepts of returns on engagements that are so often immeasurable by standard assessments but must be analyzed through a variety of (sometimes subjective) lens. The tactics of public diplomacy may often require indirect enabling of “local” (not necessarily in the geographic sense) networks of proponents (witting or not) who may only “activate” in a crisis situation.

Public diplomacy is about listening and declaring. It is is a two-way intelligence activity. This is most obvious in the area of exchanges where the aim is to take future and current leaders and insert them into a situation to understand and at the same time influence another culture. There is give and take, listening and declaring, adjusting and understanding.

Public diplomacy must declare certain principles and objectives as well as listen, calibrate, and inform policy makers (which includes the American public, like it or not) to create a better understanding of the world around. If the aim was to simply listen, then the National Security Agency should be in charge.

It is time we had a strategic view of public diplomacy and integrated it into our strategic planning. Public diplomacy is not just about creating a forum for listening or dialogue. That is not a purpose but a means of engagement.

As the State Department and the Defense Department go through their quadrennial planning (good on State to start its own, it’s long overdue), they must incorporate the fundamental importance of information-based engagement as a pillar to perhaps their entire purpose. At least consider the importance of information to our adversaries who predominately if not exclusively exist on their successful peddling of perceptions through actions and words, sometimes without resorting to lies.

5 thoughts on “What is the purpose of Public Diplomacy if not to influence?

  1. I think Matt misunderstands the quote regarding communicating versus influence. Our strategic communication efforts should be focused on improving the understanding of the U.S. intent with our various engagements. We should approach the non-kinetic engagement like a dialog and not a linear, one-way download of information (our effort to influence). Changing hearts and minds occurs when attitudes change and attitudes are affective in nature not cognitive, which is the real problem with our strategic communication/public diplomacy efforts. Change the way they feel about something the behavior will change in kind. The whole influence approach works well on a tactical, case-by-case basis but doesn’t work at all over the long-term.

  2. Dr. Berry,I agree our efforts should include improving the understanding of US intent. It should, as it did, include addressing other vectors and results of adversarial (intentionally or not) efforts to affect perceptions and beliefs. I agree it should be based on a dialog of listening and that listening informs both the speaking and the understanding of the purpose of the “speaking.”
    I disagree, however, the influence approach does not work over the long-term. What then is the purpose of cultural and educational exchanges? In the information sphere of activities, there is still a long-term impact from perceptions anchored variously in truth or misinformation or disinformation. Perhaps your alluding to highly tactical (and dubious and ultimately damaging) distortions or lies?
    So, seeing how we are generally in agreement, I am not clear how the quote from Professor Castell’s agrees with either you or I.

  3. Matt,I think Dr. Castell’s point rests with intent. I am presently consulting DoD on their efforts and they are not too interested in the listening piece that you surface. You are right, from your note, we are in agreement but focusing the government’s effort on increasing the world’s understanding and allowing that understanding to change necessary behavior is what I think Dr. Castell’s quote was alluding too. This does not mean being passive but merely willing to engage in a way that we are seen as being interested in establishing relationships not just have our point of view accepted. Having said all of that, you were his student, so you may very well have more of an insight behind his intent. Thanks for providing this forum! It is needed.
    All my best

  4. Rich,”Not too interested” is of course a relative statement. To be effective in any information activity you must understand the listening being created as well as the subsequent actions is causes, but that’s a different kind of listening that is less on dialog and more on monitoring.
    I won’t pretend to know the intent or assume the full context of Professor Castell’s quote, so I can’t comment beyond want my friend Dr. Nancy Snow posted on Twitter (who I suppose I will blame if his intent and context paint a different picture than I drew ;).
    Thanks for the compliment and for taking the time to comment.

  5. Larry Danaher, a nationally renowned police expertand retired officer from Lafayette, Indiana, recently gave a similiar perspective at a law enforcement conference. I was surprised at his views that public diplomacy is the start of understanding the international dynamics of terorism and gang activity. To paraphase Danaher, “a protected citizenry is the best asset a community or nation can have, and it all starts with public diplomacy.” In his view economic globaliztion as opened the doors just as wide to international crime organizations.

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