What is the role of Public Diplomacy to U.S. Foreign Policy?

“There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind.”
– Napolean Bonaparte

Sun-Tzu, Napolean Bonaparte, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower are but a few of the legendary military strategists who continue to fascinate the political and military leaders of tomorrow. Such leaders are notable not only for their numerous personal and historical successes, but also a concept integral to those successes: the identification and importance of achieving the balance between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power.

Joseph Nye, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government and author of the recent work The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t go it Alone (2002), argues that America can no longer afford to rely on its well established military capacities and global presence in furthering the national interest. In a post cold war and post 9-11 environment, Nye believes, the United States can only successfully achieve its national interest by promulgating various cultural and economic factors unique to the United States.

In a testimony delivered recently to the U.S. Congress regarding public diplomacy programs, Ambassador David M. Abshire stated: ‘Our public diplomacy strategy must be recognized as equal in importance to our military and diplomatic strategies.’ This statement reveals the central thrust of this discussion: how can the current foreign policy of the United States – widely perceived as aggressive and unilateral – operate in relation to ‘public diplomacy’ efforts. In addition, that for public diplomacy initiatives to be successful, there must be a sustained consistency to the message being disseminated. This dichotomy is enlarged at the present time as the role of public diplomacy and its definitions, stature and value to the U.S. foreign policy apparatus are being re-evaluated.

Established at the request of Congress in 2003, the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World published their findings under the title Changing Minds, Winning Peace. Reporting directly to the House Appropriations Committee, they defined Public Diplomacy and its potential role as:

[Public diplomacy is] the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging, and influencing people around the world. Public diplomacy helped win the Cold War, and it has the potential to help win the war on terror.

Many former practitioners and participants of the Cold War diplomatic establishment, specifically those working under the aegis of public diplomacy, relate with passionate regret the consolidation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) into the State Department. Former member of the U.S. Board for International Broadcasting, Barry Zorthian, explains:

The end of the Cold War revealed an ugly political truth. American public diplomacy was about our achievements in education, art, culture, social issues, and the finding of common political ground between diverse traditions. However, political support for public diplomacy, at least in the Congress, stopped at the end of the Cold War.

Public diplomacy, as a definition, was unavailable to foreign policy practitioners until the twentieth century. Without the technological and communications advances that accelerated after World War II, the machinery needed to promote public diplomacy would not exist. These were available in ample supply to the United States during the Cold War, and public diplomacy enjoyed an unlimited amount of success in projecting America’s national interest abroad.

Organs of the public diplomacy body during the cold war included options as diverse as the Voice of America to the CIA’s ‘phoenix’ program waged during the Vietnam War. While there is room to discuss these individual initiatives and their merits, it would be fair to concur with Zorthian’s assessment that public diplomacy played a significant role in helping America enjoy her current status as a superpower.

Along with the benefits of this hegemony, however, came the price of resentment. Disenfranchised nations across the globe, including the Middle East, came to look at America’s economic and social riches not as a viable goal for their own societies, but as an impetus for latent hostility to focus on a common enemy. For America, William Yeats’ The Second Coming held a resounding significance on September 11, 2001, when ‘mere anarchy was loosed upon the world.’

President Bush signaled a ‘revolution’ in U.S. foreign policy when he declared so vehemently: ‘Either you are with us. Or you are with the terrorists.’ The foreign policy focus of the United States – based ideologically within the latter’s narrow constraints – has been to create a ‘war on terrorism.’ This has resulted in a bizarre amalgamation of previously effective Cold War policies including ‘containment’; ‘rollback’; ‘realpolitik’; and ‘linkage.’ Under the rubric of this unlimited war on terrorism we have seen the creation of an ‘axis of evil’; the ‘pre-emptive’ strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq; and what Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay identify as America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy:

What precisely was the Bush revolution in foreign policy? At its broadest level, it rested on two beliefs. The first was that in a dangerous world the best – if not the only – way to ensure America’s security was to shed the constraints imposed by friends, allies, and international institutions…The second belief was that an America Unbound should use its strength to change the status quo in the world.

To the international community, the intentions of the United States seem clear. They have been demonstrated in the dismantling of long standing ties to key allies; an obvious contempt for the United Nations; and an aggressive global military campaign. Voices of dissent are met with the refutation: ‘…when America leads, few follow.’

Despite this worrying development in global politics, a voice of reason has emerged in the form of a reinvigorated definition of public diplomacy. Presently, massive efforts are being made to overhaul and implement U.S. foreign policy in a new direction. Initiatives begun at the highest levels from the Executive Branch have begun to permeate into basic, but ultimately effective, suggestions such as an improved demeanour and basic courtesy on the part of immigration officers. As Winston Churchill wisely stated when assessing Korean War negotiations: “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.”

This author witnessed first hand the developments in U.S. public diplomacy while involved in the Center for the Study of the Presidency’s (CSP) Communicating America project. This project aimed to assuage tensions between the Muslim world and America by attempting to identify universal links between those regions. CSP collaborated with a number of bodies to urge their awareness of public diplomacy goals and implement specific recommendations. The response – from Hollywood to the White House – was not only enthusiastic, but sincere. While the methods employed to go about this task were meticulous in their execution and intent, I was forced to question the legitimacy of the message being broadcast.

In the first instance, conveying a nations national identity is not as simple as selling a product. As Jarol Manheim states in Strategic Public Diplomacy and American Foreign Policy:

…even the most effective public relations effort is unlikely to possess the power to overcome substantial historical forces once they have been set in motion against the interests of the client.

The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed great achievements on the part

of the United States, but they also produced great injustices. For the Muslim world, this tension is harnessed in the Arab-Israeli conflict, where American support for Israel embodies Arab perceptions of America’s national interest. Simply informing an Egyptian or a Palestinian that Americans share their concerns will not actually aid in the process of healing long standing rifts, no matter in how elaborate a package the message is delivered. In addition, if nations have a collective consciousness, then the United States seems incapable of recognising that:

To perceive the deep cultural and psychological tendencies that make up a national character it helps to experience them oneself; but national character is so amorphous that it also helps to have an outsider’s perspective in order to see its distinctive shape.

If the United States is truly committed to promoting a better understanding of itself to the world then it must resist the temptation to simply find bigger and better means of communicating outwardly. Better radio and television communications are useful devices, yet smaller efforts, which allow sustained human contact, are as valuable. For instance, setting up the Office of Global Communications assists the executive Branch in censoring President Bush, yet without an appreciation of the consequences of communication, this office remains redundant. As many academics mentioned at CSP, combined efforts spanning years of time and effort can be undone when the President of the United States declares: ‘Ariel Sharon is a man of Peace.’

There is, then, something inherently ‘American’ about their approach to public diplomacy:

…[c]onsumer perceptions of car brands are very close to the brand images of the countries they come from: Italy: flamboyant, stylish but erratic; Sweden: safe but dull; or Germany: efficient but dull.

America is a consumerist society, a product of its historical infancy. Until an appreciation develops as to the meaning of the word communication, anti-Americanism will continue to plague their national consciousness. That is to say that ‘communication’ implies a two way street built on a genuine desire to understand other cultures and respond accordingly. In addition, and as the above quote implies, that even consumer perceptions of products necessitate an equal balance of good and bad interpretation. Anti-Americanism is not – as perceived – an indictment of who Americans are, but the consequence of some of their foreign policy actions. Until Anti-Americanism is understood by the American consciousness as a healthy by-product of communication, public diplomacy can only serve as a public relations exercise.

Better public diplomacy value can be found in volunteer service programs such as the Peace Corps, now a faded incarnation of John F. Kennedy’s legacy. Unfortunately, these rather unglamorous initiatives are the ones that can provide the most success. For example, take Seeds of Peace, a non-profit organization based in New York. That organization takes Arab and Israeli children out of the conflict zone and into an American summer camp. By doing so, it transplants future leaders from the negative aspects of their own socio-economic experiences and offers them a realistic vision of an ‘American’ experience. Furthermore, it does so at a time when they are impressionable and can carry those positive experiences back to share with others. Juxtaposed against a grand scheme to stifle the export of the show Baywatch to other cultures – as the entertainment industry is being urged to do so at the moment – organizations like Seeds of Peace promotelegitimacy.

The lesson of all this is clear – without legitimacy, the exercise of power alone can only get you so far. With legitimacy comes international support and assistance – and a cushion of good will when events go awry. Without legitimacy, you are on your own, making successes that much less likely. Legitimacy, in short, is not a luxury for the powerful and a necessity of the weak, as some argue – it is what is necessary to translate power into success.

Presently, U.S. foreign policy is working within a neo-conservative paradigm. At its core, neo-conservatism places the world into two categories: the ruling and the ruled. Neo-conservatism also provides rather ridiculous answers to legitimate questions such as why the United States invaded Iraq: ‘The regimes themselves are weapons of mass destruction.’ When President Bush took the decision to staff his foreign policy apparatus with individuals like Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld, he was making a foreign policy decision. Essentially, this was to be informed by a misguided view of international affairs. In reality, this view transforms into unlimited U.S. troop deployment in parallel with an unlimited spending of the U.S. budget. Global crises are seen only through the lens of the American national interest, driven on one level by an insatiable appetite for materialism. There is, in itself, nothing wrong with this. But the price is legitimacy, and for Americans legitimacy often translates into justification.

Witness the ‘war on terrorism.’ In actuality, this de facto ‘war’ is the construction of a very dangerous game with very dangerous stakes, Kissinger-esque in its approach to non-state actor threats. Dr. Kissinger, on the other hand, had the luxury of engaging a rather brilliant mind before putting perception into reaction. The policy of ‘linkage’ he espoused was fermented in a thorough strategy aimed to pacify America’s needs during the Vietnam era, and that of the international community.

In the Vietnam period, America was obliged to come to grips with its limits. For most of its history, America’s exceptionalism had proclaimed a moral superiority which was backed by the nation’s material abundance. But in Vietnam, America found itself involved in a war which became morally ambiguous, and in which America’s material superiority was largely irrelevant.

Though Kissinger was speaking for a different time and different war, the comparisons seem striking. Already, the Democratic nominee to run against President Bush is resurfacing Vietnam War ghosts in as simple a vehicle as his initials: JFK. For John Kerry’s bid to be successful, he need only tap into his predecessor’s dictum: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ With this is mind, the explosion of public diplomacy efforts across the United States become a clear national reaction to the machinations of a power elite that the Bush dynasty upholds.

While the Bush Administration’s policies conceivably imbue some of the worst elements of American society, the explosion of efforts to make public diplomacy effective are an indication of the best of America’s mores and milieu. If the underlying exercise of diplomacy is to promote viable international security then public diplomacy is the most important weapon in the U.S. arsenal. However, until the foreign policy apparatus recognizes this, public diplomacy will easily become a public relations fiasco. Coca-Cola’s ingredients have not changed significantly since the removal of cocaine in 1929, America’s national identity is slightly more complex and less palatable on the tongue.


Abshire, David (2004), ‘Statement of Ambassador David M. Abshire, Committee on Appropriations, Public Diplomacy Programs’, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies of the House Appropriations Committee, http://www.iwar.org.uk/psyops/resources/ publicdiplomacyprograms/David_Abshire_testimony.pdf

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Yeats, William (1865-1939) ‘The Second Coming’


Zorthian, Barry & Burnett, Stanton (2001), ‘Public Diplomacy: How America Communicates With Others’ in (Editor) Abshire, David Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency: Seventy-Six Case Studies in Presidential Leadership (Washington D.C.: Center for the Study of the Presidency)

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