Where’s the value added here?

There’s an interesting event tonight at Johns Hopkins, Communication Roundtable- Winning Hearts and Minds: American Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century:

What are the biggest challenges for American public diplomacy in the coming years? How will we engage with an increasingly younger and technologically savvy, global population as we move into this increasingly challenging century. Are we winning the battle for hearts and minds? And if so, whose hearts and minds are we winning?

Why is this interesting? Excluding the conversation that will take place during the two-hour event, this is interesting because of the framing by the organizers of the discourse. I’d say the biggest challenge for American public diplomacy today and the coming years is getting away from “battle for hearts and minds”, a quaint concept the event’s organizers are breathing life into. This is neither a battle to be “won” or “lost” nor do we care about their hearts and the implication of likability. The enduring struggle of the modern world is centered afar and is less about us than enemy propagandists would have us or their target audiences believe. We do not have the luxury of “winning” or “losing” and walking away to celebrate or mope.

Second, I found the selection of panelists interesting. You have one current State official – Alec Ross – who is not a part of the public diplomacy apparatus, even if some if not all of what he does is public diplomacy (a view rejected by many). You have someone from the Voice of America, an entity that several, including a Broadcasting Board Governor and a noted commentator on US government international broadcasting, have rejected is part of US public diplomacy. Then there’s a professor who was twice an Assistant Secretary of State, but neither time in the public diplomacy area (although the area is related, but unfortunately not all would agree they were/are). Lastly, you have perhaps the most obvious connection to public diplomacy: an academic / author who heads a public diplomacy research and scholarship center. In other words, depending on how you cut it, three of the four panelists are not public diplomacy operators or policy makers.

Having talked at length with Alec and Joan, I am confident good information will flow from the panelists (I know Phil, but not as well, and I do not know Ms. Oakley). It seems to me, however, that the “hearts and minds” sentences are throw-away statements that confuse and misdirect from the substance of the discussion. Of the top of my head, I think they should stick with the implied focus of technological outreach. It would be an interesting discussion that could combine Ms. Oakley’s likely knowledge of struggling regions, Joan’s perspective on broadcast issues (Joan: don’t forget to raise the issue of hindrance by Pakistan’s government), and Phil’s knowledge of communication.

Of course my suggestions assume the purpose is hosting a substantive discussion on particular issues at hand rather than (simply, albeit importantly) exposing students to general ideas.

If you attend the event this evening, I’m interested in your perspective on how it went.

3 thoughts on “Where’s the value added here?

  1. I attended and found it to be a very informative and lively discussion. You were right though that it was geared towards exposing students to general ideas, but that’s fine. It was a substantive discussion of what PD is and is not. You will also be happy to know that Smith-Mundt came up in the conversation.

  2. Mitch,To be clear, I’m not happy that Smith-Mundt merely comes up in conversation. I have found that too often it is invoked improperly, given the wrong context, and / or generally misunderstood in intent, effect, and resolution. What does make me happy is knowing Smith-Mundt is raised with the correct context, framing, and resolution, if any, to the issues it attempted to address and has been modified to create.

  3. It came up in the Q&A when one of the participants asked why the USG does not do more to inform the American public about events overseas. That led to a discussion of Smith-Mundt and a general belief that it should be repealed. Joan Mower made the interesting point that commercial networks do not have the budgets to cover Africa and places like it. She suggested that VOA or a similar entity could do that instead.

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