Foreign Policy Blogs

What Kind of Public Diplomacy?

Today, as Barack Obama formally announces his national security team, there is plenty of buzz over what his choices mean in the field of public diplomacy.  Hillary Clinton, under whose State Department aegis public diplomacy falls, was not particularly vocal or articulate on this topic as a candidate.  Robert Gates, whose Defense Department has no formal responsibility in this area, has spoken out repeatedly over the last year on behalf of increasing the State Department's resources to deal with the faltering U.S. image.  Yesterday, the New York Times weighed in, puzzling over how the image of the U.S. could be sinking while American film, TV and music continue to make inroads in cultural markets around the world.

Meanwhile, the political right, whose candidate, John McCain, tried to use Obama's international popularity against him, labeling him a “celebrity,” is avidly pursuing a line of argument that treats America's popularity in the world as a kind of distraction.  What matters, they say, is not what the world thinks about America (or Obama, for that matter), but whether America manages to get the world to do its bidding.   Jeff Gedmin of RFE was speaking on this theme last week; James Glassman, the current head of the Bush State Department's public diplomacy shop, has taken a similar tack.

These arguments, as currently expressed, seem to miss the point.  America's popularity is different from the State Department's success at political pursuasion;  neither has much to do with the international market penetration of American cultural products.  Still, popularity is a great advantage for a leader or a country — just ask George W. Bush.  America's popularity may have been sliding even before he took office, but it is clear that America's (and his own) popularity dropped precipitously as a result of the policies that Bush pursued.  The best persuaders won't get very far if the “decider” and his policy are discredited by facts on the ground.

The test for Obama and his team then is to take advantage of his own personal popularity at home and abroad to move forward on a challenging agenda.  If the agenda is then successful, not only will Obama's popularity be reinforced, but the general image of the United States in foreign countries will also improve.  More resources for public diplomacy are needed, but this may happen anyway with Secretary-designate Clinton at the helm of the State Department.  In short, demonstratively successful policies are the first requirement of the new Administration.  Successful public diplomacy will then follow.



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