Advancing Public Diplomacy:
One Advocate At A Time

Gene E. Bigler


Delivered at the YPro Public Diplomacy Roundtable,
28 July 2005

Reprinted with permission

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Consensus rarely visits the foreign affairs arena, so the widespread agreement of both critics and supporters of the Bush Administration about the failure of public diplomacy in the war on terrorism is especially noteworthy, as William Kiehl of the Public Diplomacy Council first pointed out about two years ago. Yet recognition of the inadequacy of public diplomacy efforts dates back well before the September 11 attacks and was already part of the rationale for the merger of the United States Information Agency into the Department of State in 1999.

Over 30 major studies and reports from a variety of angles and a wide array of organizations have been conducted in the last few years to address the ills of public diplomacy. The Bush Administration has made a series of high profile appointments in the Department of State to improve the record and has now turned to the President’s most important media advisor, Karen Hughes, and an influential Middle East specialist, Dina Habib Powell, to provide new leadership.

"[T]he greater challenge to the public diplomacy effort is making sure that the concern for the foreign audience is an integral part of the policy process from policy making to final implementation."

Given the scale and the prominence of those who have been confronting the challenge of advancing the public diplomacy effort, I was humbled when the University of the Pacific asked me a few months ago to build training in public diplomacy into the University’s international programs as part of the appointment that I will begin there this Fall after my retirement from the Foreign Service.

The national concern about public diplomacy has contributed to the University’s concern that its graduates in a variety of fields should be better prepared to deal with the challenge of working successfully with foreign publics in their professional lives. In response to this charge, I have begun reviewing the many recent studies on public diplomacy problems and reform proposals, as well as a small body of growing material about how public diplomacy is being taught both in the Department and in some of the pioneering academic programs in a few other colleges and universities around the country.

By juxtaposing observations from the many studies I have reviewed with my own 21 years of experience in USIA and the Department of State, I have begun to develop some tentative conclusions about success in public diplomacy work and about how I may be able to contribute to both teaching about it and to developing a broader understanding of the process. This paper is a review of my formative thinking as well as an invitation to others to respond and join the process. Clearly, the pioneering organizations in the field, including the new academic programs, the USIA Alumni Association, the Council on Public Diplomacy and a variety of other NGOs, as well as government agencies and the media, have already created some fertile ground.

This forum may also offer a modest opportunity to move the public diplomacy revitalization process in a new direction by focusing on our personal roles as public diplomacy advocates. Up to now, the focus of revitalization efforts has been on institutions, leaders and resources, but in my view, the process ought also to consider what the individual diplomat or foreign affairs practitioner of any sort can accomplish, as well. This is an obviously natural focus for one who is preparing to embark on teaching, rather than primarily practicing public diplomacy, but it is my hope that it may also be an invigorating exercise for other practitioners, particularly the less experienced ones.

Public Diplomacy is Mainly About Influence, Not Communications
The first step of this process, in my opinion, requires a clear focus on what constitutes success in the conduct of public diplomacy. (This also enables us to avoid a boring review of conceptual definitions of public diplomacy that we might ignore in practice.) In my work in public diplomacy, the key concern was always how we could achieve our U.S. government objective by getting the public (or some part of the public) in other countries to move their government to support the U.S. objective. In Peru in the late 1980s, the government of Peru cooperated reluctantly, if at all, in the U.S. effort to stem the production of coca and the flow of cocaine out of the Andes to the U.S. Our public diplomacy effort there focused on mobilizing public opinion and influential groups in Peru to prompt their government to greater cooperation with the U.S. against narcotics trafficking.

Such a personal and anecdotal approach to any subject is fraught with dangers, but I will try to avoid the worst of them by inviting the scrutiny of peers and by moving the discourse to a more general plane as expeditiously as possible. In this instance, the view of the public diplomacy enterprise that is being advanced is obviously applicable beyond the experience described. It could just as easily apply to the work of a foreign diplomat in the U.S. With only a little additional imagination, it would be appropriate in any situation in which some individual or group were trying to advance its objective by motivating a foreign public to influence their government to cooperate with the individual or group. For instance, cities practice public diplomacy when they try to influence the people in a country to persuade their Olympic Committee to choose that city to become the host for the Olympic Games. And of course, the public that is the object of the influence effort could be the national public, some specific part of the public or an elite group as long as it is separate from the entity, whether governmental or not, that is making the final allocation of value.

This approach to public diplomacy helps distinguish the practice from diplomacy per se, which involves the effort of one state to directly influence another, and a variety of other influence relationships, such as lobbying, in which the emphasis is also centered more on direct influence over the entity which makes decisions. In public diplomacy, the influence process is indirect and the intermediary in the process is a group, whether mass or elite. The method of achieving influence over the group is often some sort of communication, and this converts the group into an audience, creating the impression that public diplomacy is essentially a communications issue. However, this would be a dangerous oversimplification. There are many other types of relationships, including personal contacts, educational, business, and cultural experiences, that would be misconstrued if treated simply as categories of messages.

The virtue of this approach is most readily apparent when one gets farthest away from the war of ideas in the mass public and starts thinking about the potential to have influence over a small elite group as a public diplomacy enterprise. For instance, while serving in Italy during the late 1990s, we believed that the highly cooperative orientation to the U.S. by the Massimo D’Alema Government was in part a triumph of public diplomacy. We noted that despite its being Italy’s first government led by the Democrats of the Left, formerly the Communist Party of Italy, it had the highest proportion in memory of cabinet members (about three quarters) whose first exposure to the U.S. had come through official exchange programs.

Much of the effort that helped ignite Ukraine’s Orange Revolution last year might also be understood as a product of a collective public diplomacy effort that focused on Ukrainian journalists. For over a decade after the fall of Communism, the U.S. and other Western governments, the OSCE, and a variety of NGOs supported professionalization of journalism, along with the development of independent media, there. When the Government tried to use the media to propagate the results of rigged elections, journalists refused to publish the reports and launched the so called “journalists’ rebellion” which then helped trigger the Orange Revolution.

In Peru, one of the major obstacles to reshaping cooperation on drug policy in the late 1980s was the opposition of environmental groups to coca eradication programs, especially those using anti-defoliants. As a result, one of our major public diplomacy efforts involved intensive engagement with environmental activists through workshops, exposure to visiting experts, travel-study programs, and exchanges, as well as relatively unfettered access to the initial experimental in the field testing of Spike for eradication. Moreover, by further opening the conduct of the experiments to scrutiny by the international media, we increased the credibility of the innocuous findings with the environmentalists and eventually paved the way to widespread Peruvian cooperation with the use of defoliants.

Disarming environmentalist opposition was, however, only part of the overall problem of widespread distrust of the U.S. that characterized U.S.-Peruvian relations during most of the presidency of Alan Garcia (1984-89). Besides, the U.S. sought active Peruvian cooperation against drug trafficking, rather than just acquiescence to U.S. action. Shortly before his departure in 1989, Ambassador Alexander Watson took the first steps by reaching out more actively to the Peruvian people. Ambassador Anthony Quainton masterfully intensified the outreach effort and the sense of dialogue with Peru, despite the serious risk of Shining Path violence, by carrying the dialogue to popular neighborhoods and talk show debates with journalists, academics and political leaders. Later, an extended visit by Vice President Quayle drove home the message about the desire of the United States to develop a cooperative new relationship. Gradually, the aura of distrust of the U.S. was replaced by sufficient mutual respect to resume military cooperation and bilateral exchange programs with the Universities of San Marcos, Trujillo and Arequipa for the first time since 1968.

Public Diplomacy Emphasizes Two-Way Communications
An essential element of the work with the environmentalists and the outreach effort to the entire country was the two-way nature of the communications. Trust could not have been built to the same extent without it. Those who approach public diplomacy from a public affairs perspective often lose track of this characteristic, but it is the reason that public diplomacy is closer to diplomacy in general than to public affairs or advertising. The trust level required to achieve influence in international discourse is greater than that which establishes the basic credibility of information for consumers. However, trust alone may not be enough, and it certainly wasn’t sufficient to get the Peruvians to believe that they should actually be devoting their own resources to the counter narcotics problem, particularly in the face of the more immediate threat of Shining Path atrocities. Accordingly, our public diplomacy effort had to go farther and actually get the Peruvian people to believe that it was in their interest to cooperate in the fight against drugs.

The job of persuading the Peruvians that fighting drugs was important enough for them to approve their government’s use of national resources for the fight was a long term enterprise that could only be achieved in the context of lots of supporting information and events over a fairly long period of time. This isn’t the place to detail all the projects, which included Schools Against Drugs and a variety of other educational campaigns, epidemiology studies, facilitating adventure journalism coverage of the drug wars and much more, but both time and a vast array of program resources gradually led to widespread public recognition that coca production was creating a consumption problem, as well as financing criminality and terrorism. And although I have only glimpsed the Andean drug scene from a considerable distance for the last 13 years, it is hard for me to imagine how we could continue to maintain public support for the same level of anti-drug action that was achieved during the early 1990s with less than half the public diplomacy resources we marshaled then.

Public Diplomacy Requires Gauging Opinion and Understanding Elites
The U.S. Embassy in Peru had begun monitoring Peruvian public opinion on the drug problem starting in the mid-1980s through studies that were conducted by USIA’s Office of Research. Established during the early 1950s, that office facilitated systematic research on foreign public opinion and the monitoring of foreign audiences for broadcast services throughout the existence of USIA. Since the merger, the Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research has become the home for polling support of the public diplomacy efforts. Then as now the degree of polling support provided for a given bilateral relationship was a function of the degree of attention senior Washington officials devoted to the problem, as well as the amount of initiative taken by country team leaders. During a period of about a year, the Coalition Provisional Authority worked with INR and USAID to arrange for the conduct and analysis of about 20 polls, 14 of which were done in just over six months, in order to carefully track the formation of Iraqi opinion leading up to the formation and launching of an interim government.

Notwithstanding the fact that polling and focus group studies offer the most systematic and reliable method for monitoring foreign public opinion, attention to public opinion has varied enormously as a part of the public diplomacy effort. For instance, the amount of time devoted to understanding of public opinion research in training public diplomacy officers has varied from a half day workshop to nothing at all. Some public affairs officers leave the monitoring of public opinion up to political officers, and in some embassies, no one seems to be paying attention. The use of research to study elite opinion is even less common because of the expense, but as is the case in program research, the effort may be crucial for productive use of resources and appropriate targeting of activities.

Formal research is just one method of studying elites and groups, and contact work is at the heart of public diplomacy. All embassy offices do contact work within their specific spheres of activity, but historically the embassy public affairs offices have built up contact networks based on participation in cultural, educational, training, and international visitor programs that extends across national elites and serves the entire embassy community. The effort to foster an understanding of U.S. policy and culture creates a natural framework for the understanding of the host culture and tends to augment the expertise of the public affairs staff far beyond their specific press and cultural work. This expertise often serves as the basis for identifying new interlocutors or for understanding elites that suddenly change roles and come to the forefront on policy issues that are important for the U.S.

The responsibility for communicating directly to foreign publics in their own language or providing for foreign language expertise has also been understood as part of the public diplomacy effort. For instance, the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs provides the resources and helps coordinate the effort in the Department to insure that the four major U.S. human rights reports are translated into local languages and made available to the people of each country in the language that most of them use. Language and cultural competence is essential for most foreign service work, but the specific responsibilities of public diplomacy work raise the bar and create a natural focus for the development of the additional expertise and cultural sensitivity needed to win the respect of foreign interlocutors and to open the door for building mutual understanding of the U.S.

Focus on the Foreign Audience Throughout the Foreign Policy Process
Public diplomacy officers are responsible for providing knowledge and understanding of the foreign public in the policy process within our embassies, but the greater challenge to the public diplomacy effort is making sure that the concern for the foreign audience is an integral part of the policy process from policy making to final implementation. The presence of PD officers at each stage of the process might be helpful but is not done systematically enough. Rather, the concern of decision makers for foreign audiences appears largely serendipitous, a matter of personal proclivity. For instance, my personal assignment to Iraq in 2004 reflected this reality. The CPA conducted as many polls as it did because L. Paul Bremer wanted to follow the Iraqi public closely as they gained experience with democracy, as they reacted to the opening of their economy, as they assessed new national leaders, as well as their opinions of us and our actions. After Bremer departed, the attention to polling dropped abruptly.

Individual ambassadors show varying degrees of interest in foreign public opinion, and relatively little attention is given to training ambassadors and other senior officers about foreign public opinion and to thinking about foreign audiences in the policy process. Besides, except for public diplomacy officers, foreign governments and their officials are the natural focus of attention for most career Foreign Service officers because they have mainly worked with them throughout their careers. At least, most ambassadors do have public affairs officers on their staff to help bring the foreign public into their purview. However, the same is not true in the rest of the policy chain.

During the 1980s, support for public opinion research and public diplomacy programs seemed more noteworthy throughout the policy process because of President Reagan’s personal attention to polls and the close working relationship he had with USIA Director Charles Wick. However, the interest in and support for public opinion research seems to have declined throughout the foreign policy process. Public diplomacy specialists have long viewed the tendency for the National Security Council to favor expertise in communicating with the American people over expertise in working with and understanding foreign audiences in the selection of their advisors on strategic communications. Even within the Department of State, the predominance of national politics, particularly within the functional bureaus, tends to overshadow, if not completely opaque, concerns with foreign publics in the policy making process.

Public Diplomacy and Policy Advancement
The responsibility for explaining U.S. policy to foreign audiences in the context of intense two-way communications helps create a context that is especially propitious for understanding or discovering how specific audiences or the general public can be enlisted to advance new policies. During the 1980s the issue of basing Cruise missiles in Europe was a major problem for the U.S. in NATO because of the reluctance of our partners to cooperate due to the overwhelming public reaction against the basing of the missiles there. Eventually, intensive work with Sicilian and Socialist Party leaders built upon a legacy of cooperation and understanding built through years of public diplomacy programs and enabled the U.S. to deploy the missiles in Sicily.

Personal experience in a number of other situations has brought this lesson home to me convincingly. In Cuba in the early 1990s, the rafter crisis led to the negotiation of a new migration agreement with Cuba that involved a program of increased opportunities for migration to the U.S. and a policy of picking up Cubans on the high seas and returning them to the island. Despite the efforts made by the U.S. and the government of Cuba, the willingness of the people to accept and take advantage of the new policy, as an alternative to trying to reach the U.S. in makeshift rafts, was more limited than we had hoped. Despite announcements in the Cuban media and U.S. efforts through Radio and TV Marti and every other conceivable method, many of the people who wanted to reach the U.S. remained as skeptical about the opportunities as they did about the likelihood of cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba on migration policy, so the flow of rafters and the distasteful chore of ferrying them back to Cuba continued.

However, the unusual pattern of cooperative work with the Cuban media in this and other cases gradually opened the door to get the Cuban television network to consider an unusual expedient: allowing the Principal Officer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to address the Cuban people directly and tell them about the new policy. After weeks of negotiation, the Cubans finally accepted, and the shock of seeing Joseph G. Sullivan speaking directly to them on Cuban television proved as convincing as we had expected. It also seemed to further greater Cuban government implementation of their obligations under the agreement.

Case Studies to Promote Understanding of Public Diplomacy
In reviewing the existing literature on public diplomacy and teaching materials about public diplomacy, I have found a glaring absence of case study material to document the role and importance of public diplomacy, or even more important to me as an instructor, to demonstrate how it is done. The Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and its predecessors have developed an impressive inventory of several hundred Pew Case Studies in International Affairs, but none of the published cases so far is explicitly devoted to public diplomacy. This absence of documentary material helps explain the general neglect of public diplomacy studies in the context of foreign policy studies and programs. It would be hard for scholars and other observers of foreign policy to take public diplomacy into consideration in their work, if the role of public diplomacy in foreign policy is not adequately documented.

During the fifteen years of academic experience I had before joining the Foreign Service, I found case studies to be particularly useful pedagogical materials, especially when teaching in a management program. The focus there was on providing a context in which students could sharpen their analytical skills; scrutinize context for pertinent details; develop sensitivity to cultural nuances, personality considerations and other factors shaping actor behavior; and open the door for weighing the potential of alternative courses of action on the pattern of decision and action presented by the case. I believe that the public diplomacy field is an especially fertile arena for materials of this type, and I have already begun to consider how some of the anecdotes related here might be developed into case studies.

I welcome reactions to the potential for the use of the cases I have mentioned from other participants and observers of those experiences (including some specifically invited to this forum), and invite colleagues to consider case studies they could develop. The participation of hundreds of international affairs specialists in the Pew project suggests that there is already a well developed audience for cases that will shed more light on the public diplomacy role in the foreign policy process.

About the author.
Gene E. Bigler, PhD retired recently as a State Department FSO and joined the faculty at the School of International Affairs, University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.

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Posted: 6 August 2005.
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