GWA Repost: Back to the Future of Public Diplomacy

Back to the Future of Public Diplomacy

This week we are in New York City for United Nations Week.  We thought we would revisit blog posts from previous UN Weeks discussing communications and foreign policy.  Our managing director Talia Whyte wrote this popular blog post in 2012 about the past, present and future of public diplomacy.

In preparation for my “busy season” – UN Week – I do my usual research on the latest trends in public diplomacy, media development and strategic communication.  As you may recall from last year, I did some interviews with those working in those fields and wrote an article on how technology is redefining diplomatic relations.  New media has created some opportunities, as well as new challenges, for public diplomacy officers worldwide.  However, in order to understand the future of this ever-changing field, you have to also understand the history of strategic global communications, especially with regards to the United States.

The latest book I was given to review is also relevant to my research.  Justin Hart’s new book, Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy, covers the origins of the “America Century, a period between 1936 and 1953 first introduced by media mogul Henry Luce, when foreign policymakers began to think about America’s image in the world and how to shape it.

Public diplomacy is a very broad term, and means different things in different countries.  For the purposes of this article, I will use definitions used by the U.S. State Department over the years.

According to the Planning Group for Integration of USIA into the State Department (June 20, 1997), “Public Diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences.”

The United States Information Agency (USIA), the U.S. government’s public diplomacy arm and, from 1953 to 1999, the largest full service public relation organization in the world said this about their mission: “Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.”

Also, “Public Diplomacy refers to government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries; its chief instruments are publications, motion pictures, cultural exchanges, radio and television,” according to the 1987 edition of the Dictionary of International Relations Terms.

big stick diplomacy

According to Empire of Ideas, the United States unofficially started doing public diplomacy with China in 1900 through educational exchanges in accordance to the Open Door Policy of 1899.  However, American public diplomacy began in earnest following the Buenos Aires Conference in 1936, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America.  The policy was an effort to project the United States as a promoter of goodwill instead of the commonly held view at the time that it was the “Big Stick” interventionist to the North.

It was interesting to read that there were many discussions at the time about what that goodwill should look like.  Should the United States promote high culture (poetry readings, art exhibits) or popular culture (jazz music)?  Vice President Henry Wallace championed the need for more technical assistance over educational exchanges, as most of the Latin American populace worked in the agrarian sector.  Coincidentally, Wallace, a former Security of Agriculture and a farming business owner, introduced the Honeydew melon to China in the 1940s where it is still referred to today as the Wallace melon.  Wallace’s technical assistance proposals made an impact in how U.S. development aid is orchestrated today.

Since the beginning of the “America Century,” public diplomats have had to straddle the fine line between information sharing and propaganda.  There was always this dilemma of at what point does information become disinformation and a loss of credibility.  Should unfavorable information about America be countered with favorable information, avoid any appearance of justification, or should it simply be ignored?  Should American public diplomats distribute unfavorable information about America if domestic and/or foreign media is or isn’t reporting about it first?

The overarching unfavorable information the United States had to deal with internationally over the years is its dark racial history.  During World War II public diplomats had to grapple with the hypocrisy of promoting the United States as a beacon of democracy and equality to the world while at the same time treating African-Americans poorly under Jim Crow.  American public diplomats were the first U.S. policymakers to address the negative effect of American racism on the country’s image because they were the first to methodically look at image as a foreign policy issue.

The Office of War Information (OWI) created films like “The Negro Soldier” and “Negroes and the War,” as well as a 70-page pamphlet to go with the latter film, to present better images of African-Americans and boost morale.  “Negroes and the War” was intended to show white Americans the important role black soldiers played in World War II, while getting African-Americans to support the fight and this idea of “democracy.”  The OWI spent more money on “Negroes and the War” than on any other wartime material at the time. However, it back-fired as African-Americans found it patronizing and white Southerners thought it was promoting “racial equality.”  Meanwhile, “The Negro Soldier” is now considered a breakthrough film that not only rallied civilians of all races to enlist at the time, but it also changed the way African-Americans were portrayed in films going forward.

Likewise, OWI had to deal with how people of color around the world viewed the United States.  Japanese public diplomats advertised their country as the “champion of the darker races” and were fighting to expel Western colonialism to audiences in other Asian nations and, to a lesser extent, African-Americans.

Not only were American public diplomats not able to defeat Japan’s “empire of ideas,” but they were never able to effectively deal with the racial and colonial politics in the postwar era and the emerging Cold War.

When Mao Zedong’s Chinese Revolution happened in 1949, American public diplomats didn’t know how to deal with it and, in a really bad move, treated the rise of China and its concerns as if they were the same concerns as other poor countries.  Also, America’s Euro-centric approach to foreign policy didn’t help things either. When the United States developed the Marshall Plan for Europe, the colonial world viewed the project as an effort to strengthen Western colonial powers and embolden American interests.  Soviet public diplomats were able to seize on this opportunity to undermine America’s credibility by promoting the idea that the United States didn’t care about advancing the economic and development interests of the Third World.

American public diplomats also struggled with the hypocritical idea of “democracy” during the McCarthy era, when books written by suspected Communists were censored or banned altogether in USIA overseas libraries, and Congressional hearings investigated alleged Communists working for Voice of America. Public diplomats also attempted to censor Hollywood films that portrayed America in a negative light.

Today with all the new technologies available, it is easier for the U.S. government to strategically reach previously untapped populations worldwide.  From President Obama’s Cairo speech to Arab audiences, to Twitter and Facebook chats hosted by U.S. ambassadors, the Obama administration has run the most tech-savvy public diplomacy campaign in American history.

While the communication tools may have changed, the message remains the same.  Nonetheless, American public diplomats today still have to deal with going around the same unfavorable information.  Despite having an African-American president, the Trayvon Martin case and New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” policy convey to the world that America still has a race problem.  The United States promotes this idea of “democracy” and human rights, but many people around the world still believe the United States is a neo-colonial “big stick” interventionist.  The United States government promotes the idea of protecting the civil liberties of its citizens, while it allows its National Security Agency to spy on the emails and phone calls of ordinary Americans.

President Obama’s recent trip to Africa is a perfect example of modern American public diplomacy.  The main goal of the trip was to promote better economic and development ties with the continent; however, there were a few teachable moments.  The first one happened in Senegal when Obama held a very awkward joint press conference with the country’s president, Macky Sall.  A day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA); Obama took the opportunity to say that Africa should also embrace gay marriage and human rights for LGBT individuals.  To the contrary, President Sall said that the Muslim country is tolerant, but doesn’t condone homosexuality.  Furthermore, Sall pointed out that Senegal has eliminated the death penalty and that the United States hasn’t, and that both countries should respect their differences.  Many Senegalese applauded Sall standing his ground.

Obama’s faux pas can be viewed in two ways: one, by Obama imposing his own values onto another country and not understanding the full cultural context of that country; and two, Obama’s assumption that gay marriage is a universally accepted human right.  Interestingly, it is hard to find any online video of the Obama/Sall exchange.  And it is also not surprising to find very little video footage – and American media coverage – of the anti-Obama protests in South Africa.  Finally, Obama’s US$7 billion energy plan for the continent can be viewed as a goodwill contribution, or a desperate effort to catch up with the growing Chinese dominance in Africa.

So what does this all say about the future of American public diplomacy?  In order to create an effective public diplomacy campaign, the United States might need to seriously re-evaluate its own domestic and foreign policies that create unfavorable information.  As the old saying from Winston Churchill goes: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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