Historical Influences on US Public Diplomacy

September 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

There is a lot of PDing going on at the United Nations this week. (Yes, I just made Public Diplomacy a verb. Apologies.)

However, I promised to myself to return to an earlier question: If relations have always been important in diplomacy, why do they appear overlooked? Why the urgent call for “more relations?”

I also promised myself to respond to my PD colleague Robin Brown over at PD, Networks and Influence about “historical forms” of public diplomacy.

Perhaps I can hit three birds with one stone by looking at the US historical influences that help shape a US model of public diplomacy whose elements are evident in the public diplomacy at the UN this week.

First to Robin Brown. Brown speaks about “historical forms” of public diplomacy and suggests two historical genealogies of public diplomacy. One genealogy, which he links primarily to the U.S. and U.K.,  is a “story of the evolution of propaganda and psychological warfare that spans from the World Wars to the War on Terror.” A second genealogy,from “the last two centuries,” he expands to the field of diplomacy more generally and other countries that may not share the Anglo-American historical experience.

I think Brown hits the nail on the head with historical origins of a particular U.S. model of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy in the 20th century U.S. historical context is a product of the U.S. wartime experience. Whereas the flurry of diplomacy is often seen to forestall or mitigate hostilities, in the U.S. historical experience the flurry of public diplomacy has  been most active during times of war.

The wartime origins and other developments in the United States during the 20th century may have helped shape a vision of public diplomacy that runs counter to relationship building strategies or which are overshadowed by a focus on messaging strategies. I see prominent four attributes associated with this U.S. historical period.

1.      Adversarial – tool of wartime

As John Brown and others have noted, US public diplomacy has followed a rather predictable pattern. Since the time of the American revolution, US public diplomacy becomes active (or re-activated) with the start of war, and intensifies during hostilities, only to abruptly halt activities at the close of war. As a product of U.S. wartime experience, public diplomacy assumed an adversarial orientation rather than relational orientation. The primary motivation for communication was to defeat the enemy. Strategies focused on isolating the enemy and controlling the communication terrain, while tactics included deliberate deception and distortion of information as well as public emotion.

2.      Information – focus on the message

U.S. public diplomacy also early on appeared to emphasize information, rather than relations, as a core focus.  The names of various agencies charged with public diplomacy reflect the information orientation. During World War I President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information. Shortly before World War II, President Roosevelt established the Office of Coordinator of Information, followed by the US Foreign Information Service. During the Cold War, there was the US Information Service, whose name was later changed to the US Information Agency (USIA). Up until recently, US government reports, congressional testimony, and other documents on public diplomacy activities were referred to as “overseas information programs.”

3.      Instrument – goal oriented

As Robin Brown pointed out, US Public diplomacy emerged and developed at a time when persuasion, specifically propaganda, was the dominant focus of U.S. communication practice and research. During world war I, America and U.S.-allied troops witnessed the power of “propaganda” to influence troop morale. As a relatively unknown phenomenon, propaganda became the focus of study. Following World War II and the encounter with Nazi propaganda, U.S. research on persuasion, attitude change and public opinion intensified. As Chris Simpson detailed, the U.S. government sponsored research laid the foundation for communication scholarship. Propaganda, as a form of persuasive communication, is strongly instrumental and goal oriented. Information may be deliberately withheld or manipulated to achieve the persuasive goal. Elements such as trust, credibility, mutuality – what would be considered cornerstones for developing relations – were similarly manipulated to serve the goals of the communicator.  While public diplomacy has tried to shed the label of manipulation, it has retained its influence, goal-orientation.

4.     Impersonal – arm’s length, mediated communication

The growth of public diplomacy also coincided with the emergence of the mass media, first radio in the 1920s, followed by the television in the 1930s and 1940s.  In many ways, impersonal aspects of mass communication were antithetical to the personal touches of interpersonal communication that facilitate relationship building. Whereas interpersonal or face-to-face communication allowed for individually tailored messages for the listener, mass media messages often catered to the lowest common denominator to reach a mass audience. Whereas interpersonal communication assumed an active, immediately engaged audience, mass communication operated on a passive audience. Whereas interpersonal communication enjoys the immediacy of emotional and sensory engagement, mass communication limited to visual and auditory cues to stimulate engagement.

The adversarial, information, instrumental and impersonal orientation within which public diplomacy developed may have been further institutionalized by U.S. public diplomacy during the Cold War. The name of the agency charged with public diplomacy (U.S. Information Agency) as well as the agency’s motto (“Telling our Story”) underscores the informational orientation.  The adversarial orientation against the Soviet Union cast public diplomacy as a tool. The strategic objective is as Nicholas Cull observed was to attain information dominance. While relational initiatives such as the jazz and other cultural events were spotlighted as particularly effective  during the Cold War, their effectiveness is presented primarily in the adversarial context of defeating communism and winning the Cold War.

Given the historical origins of public diplomacy, it is perhaps not surprising that when public diplomacy re-emerged again in the U.S. context after the attacks of September 11, 2001, these features were also present beginning with the “us versus them” orientation and “battle for hearts and minds.”

As Robin Brown points out, other countries that don’t share the US history may have alternate associations for public diplomacy. In a paper at the International Studies Association, Brown noted that France has a more relational approach with its focus on cultural diplomacy that dates back to the 19th century.  Professor Yiwei Wang also described Chinese public diplomacy as more relational oriented due to Confucian influences.

… Which brings me back to all the PDing at the United Nations this week and hitting those three birds with one stone. If this was the historical roots that shaped US public diplomacy, what can be learned about the historical roots of other countries and how have those roots shaped alternative views of public diplomacy? And, is it a matter of messaging strategies versus relational strategies, or is it a perhaps diagonal thinking across strategies?

John Brown, Historical Patterns of US Government Overseas Propaganda, 1917-2007.

Robin Brown, Public Diplomacy and Social Networks, International Studies Association, Montreal, March 2011.

Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960, 1st ed. (Oxford University Press, USA, 1996).

Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Yiwei Wang, Public Diplomacy and the Rise of Chinese Soft Power, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2008, 616, 257-273.


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