It's been a while since I've dusted off the old soapbox and clambered up it to address the masses with the indispensable wisdom of my opinions, so today I'm addressing America's public diplomacy strategy, lifting liberally from my final exam in Public Diplomacy:
When the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs released its twenty-first century public diplomacy strategy, the document was criticized by some for lacking innovation and specificity.
The plan identified five "strategic imperatives" for public diplomacy: shaping global narratives; expanding and improving interpersonal relationships; combating violent extremism; ensuring foreign policy decisions are well informed; and improving structures, processes and resources for more coordinated and effective public diplomacy. These are good and important goals, but it is essential that the Office identify how this vision will be implemented.
U.S. public diplomacy resources are diverse and well established, including tools such as exchange programs, information and broadcasting bodies, cultural exhibits and social media outreach. However, these programs have historically been underfunded except for periods when the United States felt itself to be threatened by some foreign menace. The difficulties arising from low funding have been compounded in recent years by the dissolution of USIA and the lack of a clear coordinating body for public diplomacy activities. In addition, many public diplomacy programs are unidirectional, demonstrating greater adeptness at sharing information than gathering it from other countries.
Any strategic plan for public diplomacy must acknowledge these shortcomings and the fact that information and communication technologies are making rapid, inexpensive, broad-scale communication easier every day. Therefore, the Office's implementation of the new public diplomacy strategy must be coordinated and well funded, and its programs must emphasize listening to and collaborating with foreign publics. A successful public diplomacy program must engage foreign publics in general, not merely elites. It must celebrate the nation's culture and achievements without belittling those of other nations. And it must be based in wise and defensible foreign policy decisions. A presidential directive, like that described by Bruce Gregory in Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication could integrate policy and public diplomacy, ensuring that public diplomacy officials are involved in assessment, planning and evaluation of foreign policy.
The current strategy calls for structural reforms, but the result of the proposed changes is still a fragmented, uncoordinated collection of public diplomacy bodies. The Office should reconsider the existing restructuring proposal and focus instead on creating a new body to coordinate cultural diplomacy programs. The Department of State would continue to run its public diplomacy information programs. It is unrealistic, and excessively limiting, to expect all public diplomacy actions to be contained within one government body. After all, there is wisdom in USIA director Edward R. Murrow's strategy of encouraging citizen diplomats, foreign correspondents and others to tell the nation's story.
But it is equally unrealistic to expect that a message delivered by such a diverse body can be fully controlled. The State Department should create a branch devoted to facilitating communication between various public diplomacy agencies—formal and informal, governmental and non-governmental—but the branch should acknowledge that perfect coordination is impossible.