Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey
Reviewed by John Brown
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.