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Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey

Reviewed by John Brown

Yale Richmond, Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008. 175 pages. $29.95.

After 9/11 — in an effort to answer President Bush's question, “why do they hate us” overseas — a multitude of reports appeared on U.S. public diplomacy and its failures. Public diplomacy became a hot topic of the media, as well as part of the curriculum at a number of universities. A term coined by Dean Edmund A. Gullion of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1965, public diplomacy is now entrenched in the general American vocabulary.

What public diplomacy actually entails, however, remains something of a mystery to most people. There is no universally accepted definition, although the State Department homepage says it is “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences.” Theoretical works on statecraft consider public diplomacy a form of “strategic communications,” but what “strategic communications” itself is remains problematical.

In his memoir, Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey, Yale Richmond tells us what public diplomacy is in a lively and personal way, by recounting his many experiences, in Asia and Eastern Europe (as well as Washington, DC), as a Foreign Service officer (FSO) handling press, educational, and cultural affairs during the second half of the past century. Thanks to his subtle, engaging, and witty narrative about his distinguished 30-year career, the reader learns a great deal about how public diplomacy is carried out in the field by a model FSO (for what overarching policy purposes, however, is not covered in detail by this slim volume).

Richmond's elucidating anecdotes about the key persons he met throughout his career abroad underscore that public diplomacy — as Edward R. Murrow, the Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) during the Kennedy administration, famously said — “is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. … The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation." Focusing on individuals (rather than governments), public diplomacy encompasses an infinite variety of activities, some of which can have important (but hard to quantify) long-term consequences: from building “national consciousness in a new country” (Richmond on what he did while posted in Laos in 1954-1956) to organizing educational exchanges, a “vital part of Public Diplomacy” (to cite Richmond again) which (in the case of the Soviet Union, where Richmond served 1967-1969) can be effective “in bringing about change in a country that had isolated itself from the West for so many years.”

An important theme in Richmond's book is that public diplomacy practitioners, if they are to be effective in serving U.S. national interests, must be given leeway to carry out their duties. As he suggests in the chapter on his dealings with Frank Shakespeare, USIA Director in 1969-1973, interference by ill-informed Washington political appointees about how to run overseas programs can have unfortunate consequences. During a visit to Russia, Richmond points out, Shakespeare “said, in a room that we assumed had to be bugged by the KGB, that our mission was to overthrow the Soviet government … That was a very damaging statement by the first cabinet-level member of the new Nixon administration to visit the Soviet Union.”

Richmond ends his instructive book (much more enlightening about down-to-earth public diplomacy than a training manual or abstract academic treatise can ever be) by noting that “we now live in a much different world with an explosion of information, thanks to computers, the internet, and satellite television, but we can still employ some of the public activities that proved their worth in the past.” Among these he lists exchanges of people, information activities, exhibitions, performing arts exchanges, and English teaching.

For all its wisdom, however, this delightful volume — made all the more so by the author's admirable modesty — fails to mention one key element for a successful American public diplomacy in our new century: More diplomats like Yale Richmond.

Excerpt from Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey

A Soviet Salute
It's not often that an American cultural attaché gets to visit a Soviet army camp, but I was probably the first, and the last, to do so.

It was an election day in Poland in 1960, and accompanied by my wife, I was part of an embassy effort to see how the Poles were going to the polls. In western Poland, where I was assigned to observe the elections, the Russians had several military camps, one of which I stumbled upon as I drove down a rural road. As I approached the camp entrance, I noticed a Soviet soldier, in baggy pants, peaked cap, and a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, standing guard by the gate.

Shto delat'? (What to do?), as the Russians would say. To come to a screeching halt and turn around would certainly have attracted the guard's attention, and perhaps a few rounds from his Kalashnikov. So I continued my slow approach to the camp, and the guard, impressed by my big blue Ford sedan, snapped to attention with a "present arms" salute as we drove by and entered the camp.

To make a quick exit would have attracted more attention, so I drove around the camp for a while and exited as I had entered — with the guard again giving me a snappy salute — and relieved that I had not created a diplomatic incident. In retrospect, however, I missed an opportunity to conduct some Public Diplomacy with the Russians.

Several years later, when assigned to Moscow, I had a better opportunity to practice Public Diplomacy with the Russians. At Moscow's Journalist Club, a waiter mistakenly took me to a room where prominent Soviet journalists were celebrating the 50th anniversary of TASS, the Soviet wire service, and I found myself sitting next to an army officer with general's stars on his shoulder boards. And so it came about that, at the height of the Vietnam War, an American diplomat dined with the chief editor of Krasnaya zvezda, the Red Army daily.

We exchanged views on the war and other issues in US-Soviet relations. Omnia pro patria!


John Brown, a Foreign Service officer for over twenty years, currently is Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches about public diplomacy. His latest article, written with John Brady Kiesling and Ann Wright, is at
www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/03/20/7796

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