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Public Diplomacy Alumni Association
Formerly USIA Alumni Association

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The Collapse of American Public Diplomacy

Kathy R. Fitzpatrick

In June 2007, Kathy Fitzpatrick, now professor of public relations at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, surveyed the membership of the then USIA Alumni Association about U.S. public diplomacy's mission, values, and methods, as well as the members' insights on public diplomacy's role in advancing American interests. About half of the 440 members responded, and Dr. Fitzpatrick reported the first results of this survey at the International Studies Association annual meeting on 26 March 2008.

Excerpts from the paper are given below. The entire paper is found online (PDF). The excerpts and paper are posted with permission of Dr. Fitzpatrick.

The State of Public Diplomacy
Nearly all (98 percent) the USIA alumni expressed extreme concern about America's declining image in the world, with similar numbers (95 percent) expressing similar concern about the rise in global anti-Americanism. When asked whether they believe the United States is diplomatically prepared to address ideological threats to U.S. interests in the 21st century, an overwhelming majority (88 percent) said "No."

The former USIA officers are deeply troubled by the state of U.S. public diplomacy today. When asked to rate U.S. public diplomacy on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being excellent and 5 being poor, 83 percent rated U.S. public diplomacy today as marginal (43 percent) or poor (40 percent). These numbers stand in stark contrast with the ratings for public diplomacy during the Cold War, which 87 percent of USIA alumni rated as excellent (30 percent) or good (57 percent).

Almost all (95 percent) of the former USIA officers agreed that additional resources are needed to fund U.S. public diplomacy’s mission today, with three-fourths (75 percent) reporting that the Bush administration does not consider foreign public opinion important to the protection and advancement of U.S. interests.

A majority (66 percent) of the survey participants said the U.S. government is not a credible messenger to people in other countries today. At the same time, only 24 percent said that public diplomacy initiatives sponsored by private American entities have more credibility in the global community than public diplomacy initiatives sponsored by the U.S. government.

Mission and Values
Despite conventional wisdom that American public diplomacy’s primary mission during the Cold War was to defeat communism, this specific objective ranked eleventh on the list of objectives considered by former USIA officers to be most important to the primary mission of public diplomacy during the Cold War. In fact, the top six objectives deemed most important during the Cold War are the same six objectives considered most important to the public diplomacy mission today.

Both then and now, the top three objectives pertain to U.S. foreign policy, followed by efforts to develop a positive image for the United States, to create an understanding of American life and institutions with people in other countries and to establish and maintain good relationships with people abroad. Other objectives USIA alumni identified as important to the public diplomacy mission are to identify and address the host country’s problems and goals; to counter negative images of the United States created by the U.S. media; to foster democracy; and to build international linkages between American and counterpart institutions abroad.

A majority (66 percent) of the survey participants said the U.S. government is not a credible messenger to people in other countries today.

Notwithstanding the ranking of specific objectives, a significant majority (72 percent) of the USIA alumni agreed that USIA played a critical role in causing attitude changes that contributed to the defeat of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union. Similarly, a large majority (77 percent) agreed that U.S. public diplomacy has a critical role to play in the war on terror today.

When asked whether they agreed that USIA’s work during the Cold War had direct influence on U.S. foreign policy making, the respondents were split, with 42 percent agreeing, 26 percent disagreeing, and 32 percent expressing a neutral view. At the same time, 86 percent said that USIA had a direct influence on foreign publics’ perceptions of U.S. policies during the Cold War.

According to a sizable majority (89 percent) of the former American diplomats, ethical issues are important considerations in the practice of U.S. public diplomacy. When provided a list of values and asked to choose the five most important to a public diplomacy professional in working with people abroad, the USIA alumni rated the following values highest: credibility (87 percent), respect (75 percent), truthfulness (65 percent), dialogue (61 percent) and openness (47 percent). There was broad agreement (81 percent) that propaganda is not the same thing as public diplomacy....

The Public Diplomacy Professional
A significant majority (86 percent) of the survey participants agreed that during their tenure in USIA, job satisfaction among USIA officers was generally high, with only 10 percent reporting that tensions among USIA personnel in international broadcasting and information and cultural programs impeded USIA’s effectiveness. Almost three-fourths (72 percent) agreed that USIA’s operating environment valued diversity in race and ethnic and cultural backgrounds and almost as many (65 percent) said USIA offered men and women equal opportunities for participation and advancement.

A majority (60 percent) of the former diplomats agreed that USIA officers were well-trained professionals with expertise in strategic planning and relationship building techniques. According to USIA alumni, the most important credentials to the success of a public diplomacy professional are cross-cultural understanding and interpersonal, oral communication, writing and foreign language skills.

Also deemed important were U.S. Foreign Service abroad, problem-solving skills, experience in public diplomacy, managerial skills and knowledge of U.S. history. Less important were research skills, training/experience in journalism, travel or study abroad, training/experience in public relations and training/experience in advertising.

Additional qualities and skills cited by USIA alumni in open-ended responses are an ability to listen and observe; curiosity about and respect for foreign cultures; collaborative, networking and creative skills; flexibility and adaptability; patience, tolerance and empathy; and a sense of humor.

The full paper (PDF) is found online.

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Created: 30 March 2008.

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