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June 2010

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The United States and Public Diplomacy
imageReview by Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D.

The United States and Public Diplomacy: New Directions in Cultural and International History, edited by Kenneth A. Osgood and Brian C. Etheridge, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers: Leiden, 2010, 380 pp., ISBN-13: 978900417611, $179.00

Since the literature today is full of different definitions of the term public diplomacy, it is important to note at the outset that most of the authors in this book define it as a function of a national government, rather than the broader one of an “international actor”. Two exceptions are Seth Center’s study of United Nations information programs, and Hector Perla Jr.’s study of a Salvadorian revolutionary group. And in the first chapter of the book, Jessica C.E. Gienow-Hecht says NGOs do public diplomacy, but she concedes (p.55) that NGOs do it differently because they are more concerned with their own special interests than with national interests.  Also on definitions, it should be noted that some of the authors loosely use terms like “propaganda”, “nation branding”, “public relations” and “information” interchangeably with public diplomacy.

All the studies are historical, reporting on specific periods in the 20th century or earlier. The opening chapter by Gienow-Hecht summarizes cultural diplomacy history starting way back in 1850. It is the only one that really addresses contemporary thinking, and even so it devotes only eight pages to the 21st century. The rest do not venture into today’s world.

This approach, going back several decades to look at past operations, has one advantage over studies of contemporary public diplomacy operations: namely that the authors had access to detailed information that is readily available because documents from those earlier periods have now been declassified, while information on current operations is more difficult to obtain. The authors were able to pore over documents in archives and extract information from earlier times. 

There is a disadvantage for most people interested in public diplomacy, however. These strictly historical studies fail to tell us which of the thinking and approaches that prevailed in the past have continued, and which have changed and for what reasons. So it is not clear to the reader of this book what practices in the areas studied are still in use today and what have been abandoned or replaced.  Most of the authors are professional historians and they have produced strictly historical studies that do not make comparisons with the contemporary scene. It is true that in the introduction, the co-editors attempt to relate the stories from the past to the present by discussing briefly what cultural diplomacy is today, but the bulk of the book is essentially confined to much earlier decades. It is therefore mostly impossible to know from these essays what was carried over from the past and what was not.  Thus for the very dedicated student of history of public diplomacy, the essays serve as valuable additional details to their knowledge of the early days on public diplomacy. For those concerned with understanding public diplomacy in today’s world, however, the essays provide few clues. They would therefore be useful to most readers only if they were read together with other studies that bring the story up to date.

Seven chapters are on U.S. government public diplomacy, while the rest are on non-American efforts.

A chapter by David J. Snyder discusses attempts by the Netherlands Information Bureau in the 1940s to influence American public opinion. The NIB sought to help gain American sympathy for the Dutch government’s policy of retaining influence over the East Indies after World War II. The Dutch government sought to counteract American public sympathy for national independence from colonialism, and portray the Netherlands as the victim rather than as a domineering colonial power.

A study by John Day Tully describes Ireland’s public diplomacy efforts aimed at mobilizing Irish-Americans during World War II. Tully examines editorials in the Irish-American press, and argues that because ethnic groups in the United States have the potential to influence American foreign policy, the role of such groups in public diplomacy should be given more attention by scholars.

Neal M. Rosendorf’s essay argues that Spain’s Franco regime was the only foreign government to make use of Hollywood films to advance its public diplomacy goals in the United States. Rosendorf’s argument focuses on one single American film producer, Samuel Bronston, who happened to have a film studio in Madrid the period 1957-1973, and made propaganda films for Franco. 

The chapter by Seth Center discusses the early years of the U.N. Department of Public Information. He argues that as a non-state actor the UN does public diplomacy because it issues pamphlets and other publications and uses radio, television and film to present United Nations views to the public. He asserts that this media effort is to present “facts not propaganda”, but he then reports that the UN output in fact has sugarcoated UN disagreements and failures, and it has avoided blaming individual member countries for any problems. He adds that in the beginning the UN as an institution avoided speaking out on controversial issues like colonialism but by the 1970s it was adopting Third World anti-colonial ideological positions, such as opposition to Western dominance over information media. He recalls the slogans of the so-called New World Information and Communication Order that were fashionable in the 1970s, but he stops with that discussion, and does not bring the story of UN information efforts up to date.

The chapter by Hector Perla Jr. analyzes public diplomacy efforts by a Salvadorian revolutionary group to influence American public opinion during the Reagan administration. Perla starts with the premise that weak sub-state actors can use public diplomacy to influence powerful governments. That is an interesting notion, but his research is based on pretty thin evidence. He posits that the Salvadorian FMLN guerrilla group sought to build American public opposition to President Reagan’s Central American policy, but his evidence that they were “highly successful” in doing so is based only on 134 letters that he found in the Reagan Library archives, and that is not very convincing.

Six chapters analyze specific aspects of public diplomacy by the U.S. government in past years. One chapter by Justin Hart reviews the origins of U.S. public diplomacy in the 1940s, and basically covers ground that other studies, like those by Nicholas J. Cull and Wilson Dizard have already dealt with in their books. A chapter by Cull himself describes the use of film by the U.S. Information Agency.  Unlike his book on USIA, that provides a chronological review of all public diplomacy policies, complete with the legal and political context of developments in each time period, this chapter deals only with film, and as such isolates an important tool that was used very extensively during the USIA period. In doing so, he provides useful comments on the relationship between Washington and Hollywood, and on the question of whether films should contain political messages or only convey American culture.

The chapter by Jason Parker entitled “U.S. public diplomacy and the Creation of the Third World, 1947-1950” has a narrower focus even than the title implies. It is devoted almost entirely to studies of two specific cases, namely President Truman’s policy toward Indian independence in 1947 and toward the Korean War. The chapter by Michael L. Krenn, is also quite narrowly focused, because it describes two occasions (1966 and 1972-1973) when an exhibition of Appalachian handicrafts and culture was sent to a few selected countries, with uneven success.

Helga Danielsen’s study discusses U.S. public diplomacy toward Norway in the 1950s. It offers an interesting analysis that quotes from exchanges at the time between the field post and Washington, explains how PAOs in Oslo first adapted materials provided by Washington to fit local conditions, and then increasingly influenced output to be more suitable for Norwegian audiences. Although this study deals only with one foreign country and is confined to a limited time period more than a half century ago, Danielsen’s research is useful because it nicely documents the role that field officers have played in shaping public diplomacy programs - a subject that has received very little attention in the literature and deserves more study.

The final chapter by Gilles Scott-Smith entitled “U.S. Exchange Programs in Western Europe in the 1980s” actually only describes the International Visitor Program (IVP) during that decade, not any other exchanges. Nevertheless, it provides a good summary of the purpose and value of the IVP as an essential public diplomacy tool.


bluestar Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D. is the author of Arab Mass Media and many articles on Middle Eastern subjects, as well as two books on public diplomacy. He was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 30 years, and served at embassies in six Arab countries, including as American Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1992-95) and Ambassador to Yemen (1984-87). He held several public diplomacy positions, including Area Director for Near East and South Asia (1989-92), and PAO in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He was President of AMIDEAST, an American non-profit organization (1995-2003) and is currently the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the board of directors of the Public Diplomacy Council.

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