The Future of Public Diplomacy
Since 9/11, many books, journal articles, think tank reports and newspaper stories have been written about public diplomacy. Scholars, students, journalists and others have discussed the subject from various angles. Now Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, a Professor of Public Relations at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, has produced a book on the subject with the ambitious title The Future of Public Diplomacy: An Uncertain Fate (Boston: Brill, 2010). This book is noteworthy for at least two main reasons.
First, it is a rather comprehensive review of most of the literature directly or indirectly related to public diplomacy. The author covers all the major ideas that have been presented in print on public diplomacy since 9/11, and some older ones, such as Tom Tuch’s classic volume, Communicating with the World. She discusses and quotes from essays on the so-called “new public diplomacy” that has become fashionable in some academic circles. She seeks to relate and compare public diplomacy to other practices, such as public relations, marketing, advertising, nation branding and international relations theory. She therefore brings together in one volume many different strands of thought that are somehow related but different. Unlike much of the other writing on public diplomacy, especially articles and essays or edited volumes by different authors, that focus on narrow aspects of the subject, she brings them all together and tries to make sense out of the whole body of thought on the subject.
This approach can be very useful for the serious student of public diplomacy who wants to have an overview of the subject in one volume, complete with footnotes allowing for further investigation. The book will therefore probably find its way onto reading lists for university courses. At the same time, the reader who knows nothing at all about the subject, with the many different concepts and interpretations that have emerged recently, may in the end be a bit confused as to what to make of it all, and how to understand what public diplomacy really is. For as she notes, there is no overall accepted theory or picture of exactly what public diplomacy is that is completely agreed by all of the people who write about it. That is one reason the subject is intellectually fascinating. But the newcomer to the topic, reading this the parade of views and interpretations, many of which conflict with each other – even the definition of public diplomacy is not agreed upon by everyone – may not end up with a completely clear understanding of the subject. It is laudable that the author tends to treat every view with respect, but at times her presentation seems to leave the reader in doubt as to which view is closer to a portrayal of the real world of public diplomacy. So the book provides a real service to those who want an overview and a taste of all of the different flavors of opinion that exist on the smorgasbord table. The author often leaves the choice of what theory to accept to the reader, and that may not satisfy all readers.
The second reason the book is noteworthy is that it gives considerable attention to the views of practitioners of public diplomacy who have had extensive experience doing it since they have been American Foreign Service Officers working at embassies and consulates abroad. In 2007, she collaborated with the USIA Alumni Association, an organization that is composed of retired former employees of the U.S. Information Agency, and through them she sent 441 of its members a 15-page questionnaire asking their views about public diplomacy. She analyzed the 213 responses she received, and compiled a statistical portrait of their views, that she published in 2008. This new book of hers, The Future of Public Diplomacy, makes liberal use of the results of this survey, by quoting from it in appropriate places throughout, saying that practitioners have “much to contribute” but their collective voice had not been heard (pp.7-8). She nicely juxtaposes these views of practitioners with field experience with the views of scholars and other outside observers on specific aspects of the topic. That is very useful, because most other publications on public diplomacy are either by practitioners or by non-practitioners, not both in an integrated fashion. She tries to combine them in one book, by topic.
The structure of this 257-page book is to first give a 50-page summary history of U.S. government public diplomacy programs, and then to devote most of the rest to major issues that are currently part of the discussion about the topic. In each chapter she presents a variety of views on one major issue, carefully citing sources and using selected quotes to allow the various participants in the debate to state their opinions. She talks about the key issues, including: the 1999 merger of USIA into State; “new public diplomacy” and differences in definition including “strategic communications”; public relations, marketing and nation branding; educational exchanges; engagement and personal contact; target audience selection; what skills are needed to be effective in public diplomacy; the Bush administration and the Global War on Terror; and the policies and achievements of various Undersecretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs such as Karen Hughes.
Most of this is not new information to anyone who has followed the debate closely, although she does occasionally throw in an interesting thought, such as when she quotes an anonymous woman who speculates that the reason recent secretaries of state have almost always chosen women as the undersecretaries, is that they want people “who can be charming on cue, who are smart and can make things happen within their sphere – but who will take direction.” (pp.58-59)
I have two very minor complaints about the book. One is that it is surprising that the author presents such a complete survey in so many respects, but without explanation omits international broadcasting (p.9), which is an important part of public diplomacy. It is true than since the Broadcasting Board of Governors took it over completely in 1999 they have managed it without paying attention to other PD tools, so the coordination that existed under USIA, minimal as it was, got lost completely. Nevertheless it is an important function that should be included in any survey.
The other minor complaint is that the index is much too brief, omitting many major subjects that ought to be in it. One of the values of this book is that is covers many issues and a more complete index would help make it a better reference source.
Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, “The Collapse of American Public Diplomacy: What Diplomatic Experts Say About Rebuilding America’s Image in the World – A View from the Trenches”, Hamden CT: Quinnipiac University 2008, http://www.publicdiplomacy.org/Fitzpatrick2008.pdf (accessed March 2010)