Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Public diplomacy

WHAT does the word ``diplomacy'' bring to mind? Striped pants, d'emarches, and foreign ministries, or TV anchor men, news articles, and Sunday morning TV talk shows? The correct answer should be ``all of the above.'' In the past few years diplomacy has increasingly ``gone public.'' Issues previously discussed behind closed doors in foreign ministries now become the top stories on television or in the newspapers. Modern technology permits the news media to carry an issue directly to the public. Governments are learning that while bilateral diplomacy has its place, a television special on a given policy issue can often have more impact on a foreign government's actions than a host of traditional diplomatic exchanges. In this sense, public diplomacy can be said to have come of age.

The United States government is only beginning to come to grips with the challenges and possibilities of public diplomacy. As a people, we are still uneasy with the concept of public diplomacy, since it smacks of manipulation, mind control, and ``propaganda.'' While we accept the principle that private enterprise and public-interest groups can make use of modern information techniques to convey their points of view, we have a healthy distrust of letting the government do the same except under controlled circumstances.

About these ads

Since public diplomacy is now a fact, we should focus on these controlled circumstances. In the foreign-affairs community, public diplomacy is still essentially an ad hoc operation. In the State Department, for example, responsibilities for public diplomacy are divided between a bureau of public affairs, separate public-affairs offices within geographic bureaus, a special adviser for public diplomacy -- excluding Latin America and the Caribbean, a separate special coordinator for Latin American and Caribbean public diplomacy, and various ad hoc groups convened to deal with specific questions such as Afghanistan. While these bodies cooperate, the lack of a single office to oversee public-diplomacy activities means a certain amount of stumbling and duplication.

At the Cabinet level, the situation is only slightly better. In January 1983, a presidential document (National Security Decision Document NSDD-77) nominally centralized public-diplomacy activities in a Special Planning Group chaired by the President's national-security adviser. Although in many instances this body has played an effective coordinating role, it is not being used to maximum effectiveness.

Public diplomacy can only be effective if all parts of the government, for that matter, all offices of one department, say the same thing. Where we have done so, we have been successful (for example, the deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe); where we have not, we have created a confused situation which our adversaries can exploit. Such confusion does a disservice to the public, since the picture presented by news media drawing on conflicting information may not reflect reality.

To correct this state of affairs, there should be in each agency a single office responsible for coordinating public diplomacy. In the State Department this would mean appointing a high-level official, perhaps an undersecretary, to be responsible for both public diplomacy (the ``big picture'') and public affairs, (the day-to-day management of information). This position would also have the advantage of providing a high-level policy contact with the United States Information Agency on a day-to-day basis.

The advent of public diplomacy doesn't mean that today's traditional diplomats will be out of a job. The uncertainties of the nuclear age call for diplomatic skills more than ever before. But these skills must include public-diplomacy essentials. As competent as the media professionals may be, the diplomacy of the 21st century is too important to be left in their hands alone.

Gilbert A. Robinson was until recently the secretary of state's special adviser for public diplomacy. He has now returned to his private business.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.