In the interest of informed debate on Public Diplomacy

By Craig Hayden

I am curious to hear the following statement, made by one of America’s preeminent critics of public diplomacy thinking, clarified a bit more:

All too many academic theories about PD are incomprehensible, pompously-expressed “concepts” from persons — among them rightfully esteemed tenured professors whose intelligence is all too often joined with a tactless inability to handle the last three feet of person-to-person contact — who have never actually worked as diplomats in the field of “public diplomacy,” which they pontificate about, often too assuredly, from their ivory towers on comfortable campuses so distant from what some call the “real world.”

The quote appeared in a recent article on the Huffington Post. Truth be told, I am admittedly a fan of John Brown and his frequent skewerings of pretension (unless, of course, such barbs are leveled at my alma mater, then I’m shamelessly hypocritical). But it made me pause. Perhaps Dr. Brown was being polite, but I think we need to put some sort of name to the real troublemakers that Brown is alluding to.

Put another way – what is the real problem that bothers Dr. Brown? What sort of creeping threat is posed by public diplomacy theorists? Is it a particular theory and or scholar that threatens the bedrock of practical pedagogy in public diplomacy? Is it the pervasive valorization of technological approaches to public diplomacy, which might focus state sponsors to direct scarce resources away from proven public diplomacy practice and training?

I think there is more to this sweeping indictment of the academic study of public diplomacy than meets the eye. At first glance, it makes me feel a bit defensive (since I happen to be one of those academics who has never been in the foreign service). It’s practically discouraging – and seems to perpetuate the persistent scholar-practitioner divide that looms between teachers of international relations and diplomats. And to be fair – both sides contribute to this divide. So really I ask – what’s the big deal? Should scholars interested in public diplomacy pack up their bags and join the foreign service? Barring that, is the Huffington Post essay really a reminder to keep scholars in their place?

The critique of academics is also oddly out of place, since Brown’s essay is ostensibly a reaction to the recent NYT Times article about practitioners of social media-based engagement and “21st Century Statecraft” at the State Department.

I say let’s keep the diplomacy between the camps going. I will start this process with an olive branch in the form of a question to skeptical policy veterans: “What would the practitioners of public diplomacy have the scholars of public diplomacy study, research, and teach?”

p.s. – I actually think Brown’s objections about “abstraction” reflect a long-standing debate amongst academics on the philosophy of social science inquiry. Do we scholars pursue deductive-nomethetic prescriptions, covering laws about the workings of social world, or, should the purpose of social science (and scholarly investigation more generally) be geared towards more middle-range theories applicable to the complex and messy realities of foreign policy. As I have stated before, I really doubt there is such theorizing about public diplomacy at the level Brown is concerned about – though I agree with his skepticism in a purely academic sense. And for the record, I’m fine with people making claims about theory and the standards of inquiry outside of the academy. Insert winking emoticon here.

Craig Hayden is an Assistant Professor in the International Communication Program at the School of International Service at American University. He also blogs at His forthcoming book, "The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts" will be published in Spring 2011 by Lexington Books.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

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4 thoughts on “In the interest of informed debate on Public Diplomacy

  1. As someone who has practiced public diplomacy in five countries — Germany, Laos, Poland, Austria, and the Soviet Union – I fail to understand what the theorists have to tell us practitioners or would-be practitioners. Public diplomacy was practiced by Edmund A. Gullion and other Foreign Service Officers long before the term was devised by Gullion in 1965 when he was dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School.Every country is different, as is every national or religious culture, and what works in one country may not work in another. Moreover, public diplomacy is something that was invented in the field, not in Washington or in academia. For example, I practiced “nation building” in Laos 1954-56 where the population did not know that they had a country, before the term was devised to describe what many of my colleagues were doing in Africa.

  2. I agree that public diplomacy was created in the field. That’s why anecdotal evidence has been so essential to scholars who are interested in public diplomacy. But here’s where I think some distinctions should be made. It’s one thing to be a scholar of public diplomacy – someone who studies its history, its methods, its relationto other practices of foreign policy and international relations. I think we agree that’s perfectly fine (and hey, I’ll be using Richmond’s book in my PD class next year). It’s another thing to say that all scholars are in the business of developing theories about public diplomacy, or, that theories are useless for PD. Even soft power isn’t a theory of public diplomacy. It is a theory of politics that justifies public diplomacy.
    PD scholars do not, for the most part, sit back and arbitrarily concoct theories about PD. Most PD scholars are in fact interdisciplinary academics who find PD an interesting subject that straddles international relations, intercultural communications, media studies, political communication, rhetoric, public relations etc..
    (the list could go on and on). As such, academics probably make sense of what goes in the various aspects of PD through theories. Theory serves both as an explanatory lens and as a vocabulary to help with analysis and understanding. Sure, public diplomacy is a practical art. It’s an art that represents a number of competencies (interpersonal communication, journalism, public relations, etc). But let’s not forget that these component parts of PD come already loaded with theory because they’ve been studied outside the context of PD.
    I think theory is perfectly fine in the study of public diplomacy. I daresay it’s a necessary tool in the academic trade. My advice to worried practitioners: ignore or engage the ones you find questionable. And for the record – there really isn’t any “Theory of Public Diplomacy” (besides the very thoughtful work in communication studies by RS Zaharna).
    I do not think that since public diplomacy is a practical art that it is is somehow beyond the ken of academics; that we should exalt the subject to a rarefied field of study only open to those lucky enough to have done the work of public diplomacy. As I have said many times – now is not the time to rebuff people interested in public diplomacy; we should not close the door on new approaches to knowledge creation – whether for the advancement of academic understanding or perhaps more importantly, the improvement of practice in a changing world.

  3. As Craig suggests, we have danced around this mulberry bush before. In that summer spirit, my comment is on Winnowing Fan in a post called “The Gardening Life.”

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