Foreign Policy Blogs

Our Backward Public Diplomacy

It comes as no surprise that the United States is leaving Grosvenor Square, the historic park in the heart of London that was home to the U.S. embassy since 1938. This is part of a regrettable trend, in which the State Department builds drab, fortress embassies on the outskirts of foreign capitals, leaving American diplomats more secure but also more isolated from the political environments they are supposed to understand and communicate with.

Worse, the State Department, by its own admission, can't fully staff these buildings, old or new. This is because it's easier to propose, support and implement projects that promise physical security than it is to put real people in the field — people who might actually inform and influence the environments that seem so unsafe.

This is the baleful balance sheet on what has become an American retreat from the public forms of overseas diplomacy. It is by no means a new story, but it bears repeating in the light of recent reports (see Melinda Bouwer's latest “Diplomacy” blog). The truth is that while America has retreated into fortress embassies, all the activities that once represented official America's effort to reach out to the publics of foreign countries — exhibits and concerts, film showings, literary evenings, bi-national centers, American libraries — all these things are now gone, tagged passé. Also gone are the official American magazines and publications that were once published in dozens of languages around the world. Official American radio and TV broadcasting — such as the Voice of America — is also a shadow of its former self.

In its place there is virtually nothing — because all that remains is virtual. The State Department produces splashy Web sites and holds discussions in the virtual “Second Life.” How can this replace real contact with real people? For all the value of instantaneous communications technology, nothing can replace direct face-to-face contact and broad, public engagement. The retreat of American public diplomacy behind the walls of fortresses and into the Internet is just that — a retreat.

The public face of America overseas is now most likely military. That is why there is more discussion of public diplomacy at the Defense Department than at State. That is why the most forceful arguments for public diplomacy come from the Secretary of Defense instead of the Secretary of State. And that is why Defense has more resources — much more — for public-diplomacy type activities than our diplomats themselves have.

Robert Kagan writes that the decline in America's popularity did not begin with George W. Bush's presidency. True. It began when when we took America's popularity for granted and then, facing budget constraints and terrorist attacks, decided to take refuge in new technology and fortress embassies.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy