Monday, August 20, 2018

Updated (8/29/2018) Preliminary Thoughts on "The Vanishing Act of American Public Diplomacy (PD)"

Image result for lady vanishes
image from

One of the great wonders/temptations? about the Internet -- for all its faults -- is that one can share "inchoate thoughts" with known/unknown persons of potentially similar/dissimilar interests -- and even the public at large; for a "non-scholarly" treatment on the subject topic, see "The Anti-Propaganda Tradition in the United States," which does contain a bibliography. 

So here are my inchoate thoughts for a draft article, "The Vanishing Act of American Public Diplomacy (PD)."

As I think about such a piece, here are my very preliminary, non-footnoted points (check my PD blog for my references):

--PD as a term -- It first appeared in the 19th century in The London Times (January 1856); thank you, scholar Nicholas Cull -- was "formalised" (Americanized?) in the mid-1960s by Dean Edmund Gullion of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy:
Even beyond the organ of the Government set up to handle information about the United States and to explain our policies, what is important today is the interaction of groups, peoples, and cultures beyond national borders, influencing the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments.

To connote this activity, we at the Fletcher School tried to find a name. I would have liked to call it “propaganda.” It seemed like the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing. But “propaganda” has always a pejorative connotation in this country. To describe the whole range of communications, information, and propaganda, we hit upon “public diplomacy.
 --PD thus became, to some, a "gentle" -- "gentleman's"? -- non-physically violent all-the-way USA way to "fight" Soviet lies/disinformation during the Cold War, with, of course, recurring to the use of words (and especially images) -- and not the latest weaponry (especially nuclear weapons, which would have blown up both God-fearing capitalists and God-hating communists; this they both sides -- no idiots -- understood).

--BTW, George Allen, who was the director of the "public diplomacy" agency USIA [see below] from 1957 to 1960 (he later was president of the Tobacco Institute, 1960-1966) had this to say, after WWII, when he was Assistant Secretary of State (1949):
"propaganda on an immense scale is here to stay. We Americans must become informed and adept at its use, defensively and offensively, or we may find ourselves as archaic as the belted knight who refused to take gunpowder seriously 500 years ago."
George V Allen 1924.jpg
image (from Wikipedia) of George Venable Allen

--From an article by scholar Nicholas Cull (2006):

Free first page
[JB: internet entry ends here; full article not provided]

--With the end of the Cold War, PD and the "executive agency" that ran it, The United States Information Agency (USIA, founded at the height of the Cold War, 1953), was considered anachronistic by inside-the-beltway political functionaries/bean-counters (on both sides of the Democratic-Republican "divide").

--Since, as pundit Francis Fukuyama essentially argued, America had triumphed over communism, thus bringing about the "end of history" -- the phrase (not his, actually) used by Fukuyama that made him famous -- and the indubitable victory of the West. (Why waste money on defeated commies?).

--This perspective led (directly/indirectly?) -- among the minor bureaucratic/political turf wars that characterize the imperial capital -- to the "consolidation," in the late 90s, of the USIA into the State Department, thanks to a deal, I guess mostly budget-related (not important enough, on Capitol Hill, I guess again, about "who's REALLY trying, to s--- me), between a Republican senator and the Secretary of State, a politically-savvy lady serving in the Clinton Administration, born -- ironically enough -- in by-then, thanks in part to American "propaganda"--  "liberated" Eastern Europe (Madeline Albright's country of birth, no longer in existence, was known as Czechoslovakia).

In 1999, when USIA was consolidated into the State Department, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright placed the former agency firmly in the U.S. anti-propaganda tradition, publicly praising its work of "almost half a century" as being that of "the most effective anti-propaganda institution on the face of the earth."


--With the so-called "War on Terror" after 9/11, "public diplomacy" was again in the headlines. Hear USA diplomat Richard Holbrooke proclaim:
How could a mass murderer who publicly praised the terrorists of Sept. 11 be winning the hearts and minds of anyone? How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?
What was needed to offset terrorists, Holbrooke wrote,
was “public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or – if you really want to be blunt – propaganda.”
Richard Holbrooke sits with an unidentified member of the Kosovo Liberation Army at KLA headquarters in Junik, southwest of Pristina, during a shuttle diplomatic effort to stop violence in Kosovo on June 24, 1998.
Image from, with caption:  Richard Holbrooke sits with an unidentified member of the Kosovo Liberation Army at KLA headquarters in Junik, southwest of Pristina, during a shuttle diplomatic effort to stop violence in Kosovo on June 24, 1998.

There were doubts about Holbrooke and propaganda, eloquently put by a 
by US admiral Michael Mullen:
To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.
I also hope we learn to be more humble, to listen more. Because what we are after in the end—or should be after—are actions that speak for themselves, that speak for us.

--Meanwhile, in our Trumpian Error (no typo), US public diplomacy lies dormant at the State Department/White House, since (during?) the Obama years, whose last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, former Time editor Richard Stengel (his "news" magazine was once referred to, by a scholar, as "canned information") admitted (was it a faux pas on Stengel's part?), when he was no longer in this position, that:
Basically every country creates their own narrative story and, you know, my old job at the State Department was what people used to joke as the chief propagandist job. We haven’t talked about propaganda. Propaganda — I’m not against propaganda. Every country does it, and they have to do it to their own population, and I don’t necessarily think it’s that awful ..."
--Today, The position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is "officially" vacant; but of course there is an "Acting" Secretary, Heather Nauert (image from)

Image result for heather nauert

--And a USA venerable academic institution -- the USC Center on Public Diplomacy -- is endlessly coming up with other, imaginative terms to describe (avoid using?) the words that describe its putative focus -- "public diplomacy." Just check the USC website ... A latest term from USC PD is "border diplomacy" (another, earlier one, is memorable: "skateboard diplomacy").  Well, why not -- nothing lasts forever, and vanishing may be a blessing.

Image result for skateboard diplomacy
USC PD image from

--And meanwhile, again, as many American dips and academics in our social media age change the adjective before the d-noun (hey, we're "digital," not "public") other nations are trumpeting (no pun intended) their version of "public diplomacy" -- just read the non-USA-centered news: South Korea, Japan, China, India, Ethiopia; but so far as I can tell, PD is not a diplo-fashion in South America or parts of Europe (Catalonia an exception; but the French have not found [ever wanted to find?] a way to translate "public diplomacy") ...

Just preliminary thoughts.

Check my nearly daily blogs/references for details.

No comments: