by George Kennedy
The historically undervalued art of public diplomacy as an effective instrument continues to languish on the margins of the conduct of 21st century foreign policy. But that is old news.
To put it mildly, we appear to have lost the ability to employ “soft diplomacy” tools to bridge that all-important last six inches in communication among allies and foes where understanding, support, orat leastmuted opposition to a policy goal can be accomplished. Perhaps this is a harsh judgment, but allies and everyone else are increasingly comfortable “just saying no” to us today. But, it has not always been that way. For decades following the end of WWII through the Cold War, public diplomacy was on the front lines in the global struggle against Communism. Public diplomacy had its detractors but its champions in Congress kept them at bay.
One of the most effective tools in the public diplomacy officer’s tool kit of yesteryearand still todayis the high-level visitor program. Up until the decade of the 70s, practically every head of state and government with whom we maintained diplomatic relations was an alumnus of this venerated program. Exceptions were few. Throughout my overseas experience, graduates also included generations of prominent journalists (often critics), noted academics, and senior-level government officials to include those of the European Union (EU, formerly USEC) and the OECD (Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Another important program were NATO tours and visits of senior military officials from allied nations to observe military operations at sea or on land. Visits of this nature were frequently effective in promoting confidence in the U.S. as a key ally.
The role of a Foreign Service public diplomacy officer was multi-faceted. Like our State Department colleagues, our backgrounds were varied but strong communication skillsincluding foreign languageswere a prerequisite for our craft. For example, it was not uncommon for public diplomacy officers like myself to work in concert with our embassy military colleagues to escort foreign military dignitaries.
A memorable experience as an interpreter/escort comes to mind, but first a little background. Among my expanding circle of friends within the embassy community in Rome in the 1970s was Captain Robert Jordan, the Naval Attaché. Captain Jordan and I met at a farewell gathering for his predecessor, whom I did not know well. I am partial to the military as an institution because of my family's proud record of military service since World War I. I easily struck up a conversation with Captain Jordan. I no longer recall exactly how I put it, but my point was, “why was he not in command of a ship at sea, as opposed to duty at an embassy, especially in Italy which did not have one of the strongest navies in NATO?”
His response was simple. It was Navy policy (at that time) that a naval officer over 50 years of age, attaining the rank of Captain without having commanded a ship, will not be promoted to admiral and is subject to earlier retirement. For his last duty station, he chose a tour at embassy Rome and thus began our friendship. Captain Jordan and his wife loved Italy, and decided to make it the swan song assignment of a lengthy career. Before long, I was a dinner guest at their beautifully appointed Rome apartment. As a student of American military history, I enjoyed a comfortable fit with many of his foreign military guests.
Captain Jordan called one day to ask a favor. The Undersecretary of the Italian Navy, his grandson, and a small coterie of aides, were to be his guests aboard an American aircraft carrier off the coast of Italy. The Italians wanted to observe flight operations. Jordan asked if I would serve as one of two interpreters for the aides accompanying the undersecretary. The captain also knew I would enjoy a visit to a carrier.
“Absolutely!” I said. “I will take it up with the new Director of USIS Italy who replaced the venerated Alex Klieforth. Our new PAO drew a line between events of a social nature conducted during business hours (golf and tennis, for example) and those events or activities which advanced American policy objectives. My request fell into the latter category.
In granting approval, he said something to the effect that he would have liked such an invitation himself. I had never seen the business end of an aircraft carrier before, so this would be another new experience. As an aside, I had observed from a distance the construction of an aircraft carrier in the Camden, New Jersey shipyard years earlier; I think it was the USS “Kitty Hawk”.
A week later, the Italian delegation, Captain Jordan, and I, landed on the aircraft carrier “Midway”. I soon discovered that approaching a carrier from the air can be unnerving. You notice the pilot is preparing to land, you know the carrier is down there, but it is not visible. And then, there is that tiny speck off in the distance, and your heart begins to pound. Landing on, and being catapulted from, an aircraft carrier must be analogous to astronaut training.
Decelerating from 160 knots per hour to a standstill within 2 seconds and, conversely, accelerating from a standstill to 140 knots in 2.9 seconds is a physically jarring experience. As a novice, there is nothing that can prepare you for this. I understand why you are strapped so tightly in your seat that breathing can be a little difficult. They had provided us with earplugs to use as we exited the aircraft and stepped onto the deck.
But I wanted the full experience. Without ear plugs, the howl of jet engines shrieking being launched and recovered at full throttle numbs the brain and your senses. The deafening noise temporarily paralyzes you as you try to comprehend what is happening around you. Without escort officers moving you along, some inner voice compels you to just stand where you are. Meanwhile everything and everyone else is in motion.
Ordnance is being loaded on different types of aircraft in line to be launched while aircraft are being refueled; other aircraft are being parked. Crew decked out in different colored vests are everywhere reminiscent of a well-choreographed ballet. Each crew member on that flight deck knows where they are supposed to be, we were told later, because one misstep can quickly lead to serious injury or even death.
In fact, a working flight deck is the most dangerous four-and-a-half acres of sovereign U.S. territory we own. It is a precarious place, especially for the uninitiated. Within seconds of our landing and after crossing 40-yards of flight deck, we were whisked up to the captain's quarters for a briefing, and to begin our tour of this veritable floating city.
An aircraft carrier is a mini-city complete with at least 5,000 sailors (crews were not integrated with women at that time), aviators, and marines, along with 75-80 aircraft of various mission capabilities. As we became familiar with the ship, the Italians were dumbfounded to learn that the average age of the deck crew orchestrating the delicate ballet of precision they bore witness to was between 19 and 22.
I heard the undersecretary exclaim, “Loro sono bambini” (they are children). The idea that “children” were launching and recovering multimillion-dollar aircraft and highly skilled pilots was unfathomable. He went on to say, “Questa non succede mai in Italia” (this could never happen in Italy). The captain of the Midway explained there was a launch sequence involving the various aircraft. Nothing happening on the flight deck was random. Everything was planned, evolving in a highly orchestrated fashion, and controlled.
This did not mean that an accident was unavoidable; but it did mean that a working flight deck was too dangerous an environment not to have controls. Because crews worked around the clock, fatigue and inattentiveness were the two things that could result in serious injury and death. What the captain told them just before we went below stunned them into silence. “This ship's primary mission is to project American power and when required, to launch our aircraft as quickly as possible. After that, we are expendable, if necessary.” And so it went for the balance of the day as we learned more about the capability of this vessel to sustain itself at sea. During the return flight, I thanked Captain Jordan for the invitation and the experience. I also volunteered for any future opportunities that might arise.
This experience certainly paid off in subsequent assignments. A particularly difficult ambassador at our Mission to the European Communities (EU), who had previously served as the Secretary of the Navy, came to value my role as his public affairs advisor. Later, as the PAO assigned to the port city of Pusan, South Koreaa friendly host to ships of our Seventh FleetI was able to arrange ship visits for South Korean journalists.
The more varied our experiences were as public diplomacy officers, the more effective we were in “Telling America's Story to the World” and building the bridges of support essential to projecting a vital image of America abroad.