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About U.S. Public Diplomacy

USIS Baghdad

(Photo courtesy of Jim Bullock)

What public diplomacy is and is not

When, early in their careers, Anwar Sadat, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Helmut Schmidt, Raul Alfonsin, and Margaret Thatcher, among many other national leaders, visited the United States under the educational exchange programs of the United States government, U.S. public diplomacy was at work. When Latin Americans viewed a film called The Trip on their local television stations, depicting the dangers of illegal narcotics trafficking to all societies, including their own, they were watching a product made by USIA, the U.S. Government’s public diplomacy agency. When U.S. astronauts landed on the moon for the first time, it was the Voice of America, the radio service of USIA, that carried Neil Armstrong’s words to millions here on earth.

When a student or a scholar in a developing country conducts research in a U.S. information center in his capital city, he is utilizing one of the popular services provided by U.S. public diplomats in his country. When a newspaper correspondent in a country that has diplomatic relations with the U.S. asks for clarification of a statement allegedly made by a high-ranking U.S. official, he contacts the U.S. Embassy’s press attache — a U.S. public diplomat. When a student or an educator in a foreign country wants to know more about U.S. education in general or a specific college or university program in the U.S., it may be a U.S. public diplomat, or someone on his staff, to whom such a query can best be directed.

When a U.S. performing artist is on a foreign tour sponsored by the U.S. Government, U.S. public diplomats in the cities the artist visits will publicize the tour and make arrangements for his or her performances. When a need is perceived to publish a pamphlet in a particular country or group of countries on a subject of binational interest, U.S. public diplomats may plan such a pamphlet and arrange its publication and distribution. These are but a few of the various activities with which the practitioners of public diplomacy become involved, but they demonstrate the scope and variety of modern public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy defined

According to the Planning Group for Integration of USIA into the Dept. of State (June 20, 1997), public diplomacy is defined as follows:

“Public Diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences.”

The Planning Group distinguished Public Affairs from Public Diplomacy as follows:

“Public Affairs is the provision of information to the public, press and other institutions concerning the goals, policies and activities of the U.S. Government. Public affairs seeks to foster understanding of these goals through dialogue with individual citizens and other groups and institutions, and domestic and international media. However, the thrust of public affairs is to inform the domestic audience.”

According to Hans N. Tuch, author of Communicating With the World (St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1990), public diplomacy is defined as:

“Official government efforts to shape the communications environment overseas in which American foreign policy is played out, in order to reduce the degree to which misperceptions and misunderstandings complicate relations between the U.S. and other nations.”

“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.” (U.S. Department of State, Dictionary of International Relations Terms, 1987, p. 85)

USIA which was in the business of public diplomacy for more than forty years, defined PUBLIC DIPLOMACY as follows:

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.

Origins of the term Public Diplomacy

“According to a Library of Congress study of U.S. international and cultural programs and activities prepared for the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate, the term `public diplomacy’ was first used in 1965 by Dean Edmund Gullion of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. It was created with the establishment at Fletcher of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy.”

The Murrow Center, in one of its earlier brochures, described public diplomacy as follows:

“Public diplomacy . . . deals with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy; the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another; the reporting of foreign affairs and its impact on policy; communication between those whose job is communication, as between diplomats and foreign correspondents; and the processes of inter-cultural communications.

“Central to public diplomacy is the transnational flow of information and ideas.”

Public diplomacy and propaganda

To this day views differ as to whether or not “public diplomacy” and “propaganda” are similar.

Two examples:

  • In 1955, Oren Stephens, author of Facts to a Candid World: America’s Overseas Information Program, called such programs (now known as “public diplomacy”), “propaganda.” He referred to the Declaration of Independence as being “first and foremost a propaganda tract.”
  • In 1961, Wilson Dizard, in the first book to be written specifically about USIA, which was then about eight years old, wrote: The United States has been in the international propaganda business, off and on, for a long time . . . propaganda played a crucial role in the war of independence.”

In the years following these earlier views, some U.S. Government officials and others contended that U.S. public diplomacy programs are not propaganda. Others still contend, however, that since propaganda can be based on fact, public diplomacy can be equated with propaganda i.e. ideas, information, or other material disseminated to win people over to a given doctrine. If based on falsehoods and untruths, while still propaganda, it is best described as “disinformation.”

USIA officials always contended that their programs dealt with the known facts; to do otherwise would be counterproductive as their reliability would be questioned.

Edward R. Murrow, in May 1963, as the Director of USIA at the time, in testimony before a Congressional Committee, summed up this view best when he said:

“American traditions and the American ethic require us to be truthful, but the most important reason is that truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”

Public diplomacy and traditional diplomacy

Public diplomacy differs from traditional diplomacy in that public diplomacy deals not only with governments but primarily with non-governmental individuals and organizations. Furthermore, public diplomacy activities often present many differing views as represented by private American individuals and organizations in addition to official U.S. Government views.

Traditional diplomacy actively engages one government with another government. In traditional diplomacy, U.S. Embassy officials represent the U.S. Government in a host country primarily by maintaining relations and conducting official USG business with the officials of the host government whereas public diplomacy primarily engages many diverse non-government elements of a society.