Public diplomacy explained

In international relations, the term public diplomacy is a term coined in the 1960s to describe aspects of international diplomacy other than the interactions between national governments. It has been closely associated with the United States Information Agency, which used the term to define its mission. It was originally a euphemism for purportedly truthful propaganda.


Standard diplomacy might be described as the ways in which government leaders communicate with each other at the highest levels, the elite diplomacy we are all familiar with. Public diplomacy, by contrast focuses on the ways in which a country (or multi-lateral organization such as the United Nations) communicates with citizens in other societies.[1] A country may be acting deliberately or inadvertently, and through both official and private individuals and institutions. Effective public diplomacy starts from the premise that dialogue, rather than a sales pitch, is often central to achieving the goals of foreign policy: public diplomacy must be seen as a two-way street.

Film, television, music, sports, video games and other social/cultural activities are seen by public diplomacy advocates as enormously important avenues for otherwise diverse citizens to understand each other and integral to the international cultural understanding, which they state is a key goal of modern public diplomacy strategy. It involves not only shaping the message(s) that a country wishes to present abroad, but also analyzing and understanding the ways that the message is interpreted by diverse societies and developing the tools of listening and conversation as well as the tools of persuasion.

One of the most successful initiatives which embodies the principles of effective public diplomacy is the creation by international treaty in the 1950s of the European Coal and Steel Community which later became the European Union. Its original purpose after World War II was to tie the economies of Europe together so much that war would be impossible. Supporters of European integration see it as having achieved both this goal and the extra benefit of catalysing greater international understanding as European countries did more business together and the ties among member states' citizens increased. Opponents of European integration are leery of a loss of national sovereignty and greater centralization of power.

This traditional concept is expanded on with the idea of adopting what is called "population-centric foreign affairs" within which foreign populations assume a central component of foreign policy. Since people, not just states, are of global importance in a world where technology and migration increasinlgy face everyone, an entire new door of policy is opened.[2]

Public diplomacy as beyond propaganda

After the dissolution of the USIA in 1999, the term has continued to be used within the U.S. government, especially the United States Department of State. It has been used most often as the foreign policy equivalent of the term public relations, but embodies a much broader perspective than this. In the late 1940s, the Congress established the bipartisan United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy to provide oversight and report on the effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy activities.

Aside from the use of media like the Voice of America, it also includes other kinds of interaction with the public in other countries. Arranging student exchange programs, hosting seminars, and meeting with foreign business and academic leaders are all considered public diplomacy. Indirect public diplomacy includes the everyday activities of citizens internationally, such as everyday cultural activities and products such as films, tourism, theatre, and internet discussion.

The term public diplomacy clearly originated as a euphemism for propaganda. However, this definition is a somewhat dated definition, as more sensitive practitioners embody an intercultural, 'learning' approach to public diplomacy, with an emphasis on dialogue rather than propaganda.

Scholars do not fully agree on the definition of public diplomacy. But foreign ministries and governments have moved ahead of the theorists, and include in it all activities that are designed to appeal to publics, to enhance the home country's attractiveness or appeal. Governments also recognize that non-state actors, such as academic institutions, tourism entities, the media, and others who communicate with the publics, are all contributors to public diplomacy. Among the most effective public diplomacy is that which operates on the basis of public-private partnerships.

A history of the term "public diplomacy"

Nicholas J. Cull of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, wrote in his essay "'Public Diplomacy' Before Gullion: The Evolution of a Phrase:

The earliest use of the phrase "public diplomacy" to surface is actually not American at all but in a leader piece from The Times in January 1856. It is used merely as a synonym for civility in a piece criticizing the posturing of President Franklin Pierce.

According to, a website sponsored by the USIA Alumni Association,

The term public diplomacy was first used in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, a career diplomat, in connection with the foundation of the Edward R. Murrow Center at Tufts University's The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The Murrow Center brochure described public diplomacy as:

the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy . . . [including] the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another . . . (and) the transnational flow of information and ideas.

While Gullion and the Murrow Center were the first to use the term public diplomacy, their definition remains contested and controversial. Today, there is no one definition of public diplomacy, there are many definitions (links to other definitions).

The dictionary definition of the word propaganda is "The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause." Notice that the definition says nothing about whether the material is or is not true; the essence of propaganda is that it is distributed with the intention of supporting a cause. The word literally means "that which ought to be propagated" and originated in the Catholic Church to describe the church agency responsible for evangelising. See the article on propaganda for more detail.

In the United States, however, the word "propaganda" carried and carries the connotation of falsehood. The USIA has always maintained that its agencies, such as the Voice of America, are truthful. In a famous remark, Edward R. Murrow, then director of the USIA, said:

Truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.

Nevertheless the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 still prevents the distribution within the United States of official American information which was intended for foreign audiences, for example exempting Voice of America from releasing transcripts in response to FOIA requests.

Broadly speaking, then, until recent times, the term public diplomacy has traditionally been used by those supporting it to mean truthful propaganda. But critics, such as the editors of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, have viewed it in more nefarious terms, as a form of "covert propaganda." They also report that "the bipartisan report of the Congressional Iran-Contra committees (November 1987, p. 34) found that '[i]n fact, "public diplomacy" turned out to mean public relations-lobbying, all at taxpayers’ expense.'"

See also


Other relevant articles

External links

Notes and References

  1. USC Center on Public Diplomacy
  2. Transnational Crisis Project