Thursday, March 24, 2016

Public Diplomacy: Networked Engagement

Public Diplomacy: Networked Engagement -- Quick notes on the Talk/Discussion with Amb. Matthew W. Barzun at George Washington University (March 24)

Barzun image from

Mr. Barzun spoke on the topic for about 50 minutes. Some 70-90 people in attendance, students and faculty. Media not visibly present. Nothing about the presentation being "off the record." The politically-appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James made brief intro remarks and then took questions. Boyish-looking and unpretentious, he has an engaging, all-American presence. Enthusiastic applause. Admiring glances from the young ladies in the room and "you're-one-of us" smiles on the faces of male students. It would be hard to write a "report" on his presentation, as it was not a "policy" speech.

But here are some takeaways:

--He mentioned several times that he'd worked for the Obama presidential campaign. When he asked Obama on what he should do as an ambassador, the president's advice was "listen."

--He's against hierarchical, "forced-march thinking." Everyone makes mistakes, he said.

--Leaders should "ask," not "task." ("Task" being a word, he noted, that is part of the St. Dept. vocabulary).

--Re measuring the impact of public diplomacy, he quoted his grandfather Jacques Barzun, the eminent Columbia historian: "precise is not necessarily accurate."

--Very important for a U.S. Embassy to build up a "reservoir of good will" among the local population.

--A diplomat/the U.S.overseas should aim for "understanding," not automatically "being understood."

--"Outreach" is not an adequate or even desirable word to describe public diplomacy, as PD is more than just sending a message or arranging a program.

--"Public diplomacy" is not an oxymoron, given how "public" diplomacy has become.

--Wikipedia has immensely increased our knowledge, and makes it available to everyone. The Encyclopedia Britannica also makes mistakes. And correcting mistakes on Wiki is far easier than doing so in the published version of the EB.

--Digital vs. analog: Digital is with us, but face-to-face interaction is still an essential part of public diplomacy.

--Try to describe "tying a shoe" with words. A video can do so more effectively.

--U.S public diplomacy must deal with special spheres overseas, including the "Ministry" and the "public."

--Numerous high schools students in the U.K. he's talked with; he's very supportive of the program "Young British leaders" (link re the program could not be accessed [3/24/2016, 4:29 PM] on Google).

--Alec Ross's latest book: he "liked" it.

--A whiteboard -- he likes it for his presentations -- but he's no fan of PowerPoint.

--No policy comment on the Middle East (the question from the audience was on the divide in the ME between the digital world and the governments).

--As a political appointee, he candidly noted, he can move on to other activities beyond serving as an ambassador, unlike -- he suggested -- Foreign Service Officers (whom he quite clearly respects) intending to make a career out of a decades-long employment service to the State Department.

--He mentioned his mother (a propos of mobile phones) and Kentucky, where he has lived [Note: and presumably maintains a residence].


Steven Erlanger, "American Ambassador Builds Diplomatic Bridges With British Teenagers," New York Times (2005)


Full disclosure: I am a graduate (class '66) of the New England school the Ambassador attended, St. Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire. My nostalgic, but not universally liked (to say the least), article on this school: "John Kerry and St. Paul's School - An Outsider's Recollections."

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