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November 2009

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Toward a New Public Diplomacy: Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy
Review by John H. Brown, Ph. D.

seib

Philip Seib, editor, Toward a New Public   Diplomacy: Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009,
ISBN: 978-0-230-61744-5, 257 pp. Trade Paperback, $30.00; Hardcover, $90.00

The purpose of the book under review, according to its editor, is to “prove useful to the new administration by offering an array of approaches to public diplomacy that are worthy of exploration.”

It is divided, like Gaul, into three parts. The first, “American Public Diplomacy Today,” contains articles by William Rugh on soft power, by Nicholas Cull on the United States Information Agency (USIA,1953-1999) and the post-USIA era; and by Shawn Powers and Ahmed El Gody on Al Hurra Television. 

The second section, “Appraising American Public Diplomacy,” has contributions on how American PD has been received in Russia (Victoria V. Orlova), China (Guolin Shen) and Egypt (Hussein Amin).

The third segment, “Where Go from here,” consists of pieces by Amelia Arsenault (“Public Diplomacy 2.0”), Kathy R. Fitzpatrick (“Privatized Public Diplomacy”), Neal M. Rosendorf  (“A Cultural Public Diplomacy Strategy”), Jennifer A. Marshall and Thomas F. Farr (“Public Diplomacy in an Age of Faith”), and Abiodun Williams (“The U.S. Military for Policy Makers”).

The volume concludes with remarks by Professor Seib, Director of the University of Southern California Center of Public Diplomacy, who notes that “[t]he issues addressed in this book do not cover every aspect of public diplomacy, but the range of topics shows how important it is for policy makers to adopt an at least equally broad perspective as they reappraise this part of the U.S. foreign policy process.”

Among the topics not covered in this 257-page book is the perspective/experience of U.S. Foreign Service officers practicing public diplomacy in the field. Aside from Ambassador William Rugh, whose publications on public diplomacy are must-reads, no contributor has been professionally engaged in PD as an American diplomat.

This might explain the dry, academic quality of some chapters about a down-to-earth activity that, at its most undirected, is about American diplomats exchanging ideas face to face with the best and the brightest from other societies about significant matters of common interest.

Moreover, the main message of the book — that PD is in deep trouble and needs to be redirected — has been the subject of dozens of reports and countless other publications in recent years, including by some of the distinguished authors of this volume.

So, despite its editor’s claim that it is a reappraisal, Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy is, from a strictly academic perspective, quite unoriginal, containing as it does oft-repeated litanies proclaimed by pundits since 9/11:

  • Soft power, “the ability to affect others to obtain what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment, ” a term coined by Joseph Nye in the 1990s, should be considered important;
  • The dissolution of USIA (on p. 75, the book says it was in 1998; on p. 161, in 1999) caused many problems for PD;
  • Public diplomacy cannot be divorced from policy;
  • The U.S. must listen more to foreign voices;
  • PD involves two-way communications;
  • Al-Hurra, a propaganda television station established in the Bush era, is a failure and Middle East broadcasting projects need (in the words of Professor Seib, certainly no terrorist) to be “blown up”;
  • The Internet and the new social media are changing the communications landscape (“the world belongs to the Internet,” writes Mr. Seib);
  • Meanwhile, in our age of mass communications, don’t forget cultural diplomacy and long-term mutual understanding; the USG should work with the private sector in improving America’s global standing.

Granted, there are subjects in the book that are not as familiar as others. The contributions by Orlova, Shen, and Amin about their own nations’ attitude to U.S. public diplomacy, although lacking in detail and intellectual depth, present a point of view that is not entirely stale.

And the final two pieces of the volume — by Marshall/Farr and Williams — do make somewhat “out of the box” arguments, at least in the overall context of the recent PD literature.

Farr/Marshall contend that religion should play a greater role in public diplomacy: “The United States,” they write, “needs an overreaching policy that communicates a consistent message about the importance of religion and religious liberty in a constitutional order.” They believe “religion attachés could fill a critical void in current [State Department] staffing.”

As for Williams, vice president of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace, he goes against conventional wisdom by saying that the Defense Department should have a greater, not lesser role in public diplomacy, citing the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM, a creation of the previous administration), as an example of this need. “Public diplomacy,” he writes, “is too important to be left entirely to civilian agencies.”

In an effort to understand why this volume was ever published, one cannot help but speculate, perhaps erroneously, that its only original (unintentional?) recommendation is to “redirect” American public diplomacy by means of the cross and the sword.


authorJohn H. Brown, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University, “Propaganda and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview.” He compiles the online Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review (publicdiplomacypressandblogreview. blogspot.com/).

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