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November 2009

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With all the talk about public diplomacy these days, is semantics just getting in the way or is it really important?  One former practitioner gives us his opinion. —Ed.

What's in a Name?
by Sol Schindler

Fashion molds our lives. What we wear, how we eat, even how we think is based on the fashion trends current in our society. It doesn’t matter whether you read fashion magazines or pay attention to what is in vogue. The clothes you wear are in line with what is worn in this country in this century. The same applies to food, and even in such cerebral pursuits as international affairs one has to be in fashion to be taken seriously. For the past several years there has been much talk of public diplomacy which consists of going beyond normal diplomatic channels and speaking directly to the people of a country through radio, television broadcasts, twitter, the internet, or whatever other new devices turn up. Phrases such as soft power as opposed to hard power to denote the pervading power of good will as opposed to the old-fashioned hard power approach of either you are with us or against us that one could say simply provokes. This new language is here to stay, and the term public diplomacy is used widely in our State Department. Even the U.S. Information Agency Alumni Association has changed its name to Public Diplomacy Alumni Association in an effort to keep up with the times.

All this wrestling with terminology brings to mind the French word déclassé, with its implicit connotations of class distinctions. As a boy I lived in a home that was visited weekly by a truck and two men to pick up its garbage. In my childish simplicity I called them the garbage men. Only when I grew older into the convoluted world of adolescence did I realize their official designation was sanitation engineers, so naturally I changed my language. It hardly mattered since the garbage continued to be picked up promptly and we were all happy. Why then complain about public diplomacy? If the job is getting done what difference does it make what we call it?

Of course we should call it whatever makes its practitioners comfortable. The trouble with all the talk about public diplomacy is that it is basically about form rather than substance. After perfecting the art forms of radio, television, twitter, etc. what is it we are going to convey? And we should remember that even as meritorious as public diplomacy is, there are other productive ways of achieving our goals. Former President Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea is a case in point. He went there to secure the release of two presumed journalists who had been arrested while near the Chinese Korean border. He negotiated in a closed room with only a few people present. At the end, the two women were released and a short press release given. It was a classic example of successful l9th Century diplomacy at work, and we should be thankful that it occurred.

At the moment we are negotiating with the Iranians on how to begin negotiations concerning their nuclear program. The carrot we are using is the good will of the international community; the stick is the threat of sanctions. The threat, as everyone knows, is an empty one, since both China and Russia have announced they will not endorse sanctions emanating from the Security Council. The good will of the international community can best be gauged by viewing the list of countries that have expressed their willingness, if not eagerness, to buy Iranian petroleum products.

As negotiations begin one is obliged to ask if there is anyone in the U.S. government who is so blissfully naïve as to think that an accommodation between our two countries concerning Iran’s nuclear program can actually occur? Iran has repeatedly stated it plans to continue nuclear development. Why can’t we believe them?

Abbas Djavadi who works with the American funded Persian language broadcaster Radio Farda has recently published an article pointing out the extraordinarily large number of people who participated in the recent post election anti-government protests and the Iranian government’s efforts to repress news concerning them. He feels that if news of these protests could be circulated widely their effectiveness would be enhanced, all of which could eventually lead to a regime change that would enable us to speak sensibly to a responsible Iranian government. He is not asking for any sort of military action, special operations, or special funding. He is recommending more focused and more determined public diplomacy, that is, a greater effort to bring vital news, not necessarily rock and roll, to the Iranian public. What is also certainly needed are statements by the American president and other U.S. government leaders that this country still believes in the old American ideals of freedom and civil liberties for all. Our moral code, which this country was once famous for, should be reiterated constantly. The people of Iran should know that although we don’t intend to march in with troops, we think of them and empathize. We should be beating the drums for democracy, rather than nuclear management, and we will find a very responsive audience.

The basic question is not whether we want public diplomacy. The question is to what end.bluestar


Sol Schindler, a retired Foreign Service Officer who once was a practitioner of public diplomacy, is a frequent contributor to newspapers and journals.

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