Public Diplomacy Scholars and Practitioners: Thoughts For An Ongoing Conversation

Written by Bruce Gregory

Syracuse University’s online journal Exchange comes at a propitious time.  No longer an afterthought, public diplomacy is now central to diplomatic practice worldwide.  A growing global interest in the academic study of public diplomacy is beyond doubt.  Graduate degree programs, more and more courses, a robust online discourse, and a stunning array of new books and articles each year are just a few of many indicators.  That public diplomacy is under-researched and under-theorized is also beyond doubt.  A comprehensive list of interesting questions to study would be very long indeed.  A rich debate exists on conceptual boundaries and interdisciplinary issues.  And there are misunderstandings aplenty among scholars and practitioners on roles, methods, and the respective contributions of study and practice.  So there is much work to be done.  To the editors, contributors, and readers of Exchange, a warm welcome.

In reflecting on the academic study and professional practice of public diplomacy, let’s consider three issues.  First, scholars and practitioners approach what they do in different ways.  This may seem obvious, but an appreciation of the implications of these differences can help reduce misunderstandings and create greater awareness of distinctive challenges and opportunities.  Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger understood key differences to be driven by choice and time.  Scholars can choose what they wish to study; the problems of practitioners are often imposed.  Within broad limits, and publication deadlines aside, scholars can take the time they need to reach their conclusions.  If they are wrong, they can go on with their research.  Practitioners make choices about the future, often risky choices, under demanding time pressures with incomplete information.  They act at busy intersections of international and domestic politics.  New actors, mediated environments, multiple issues, and accelerated globalization shape their milieu.  Their decisions cannot be undone, and history renders judgment on how well they managed.  Scholars have the advantage of hindsight, and they are judged on the merits of their analysis.[i]

There are differences as well in the risks they take.  Canada’s Michael Ignatieff, an accomplished scholar and practitioner, suggests that for practitioners theory often “gets in the way.”  Wrong ideas can ruin lives, and useless ideas “can waste precious resources.”  Scholars have greater freedom to imagine.  They can follow ideas wherever they may lead, and useless ideas “can be fun to play with.”[ii] The acclaimed British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin drew attention to differences in reasoning and qualities of judgment.  Politics is a sphere characterized by “practical wisdom, practical reason, perhaps, a sense of what will ‘work,’ and what will not.”[iii] Learning is advanced in the university through inductive and deductive reasoning, qualitative and quantitative methods, and a host of theoretical approaches on which there is remarkable lack of consensus.  Study and practice both have great value, and both bring their own pleasures and disappointments.  Understanding their differences is useful in public diplomacy where boundaries are crossed by practitioners who teach and by scholars who engage in government practice.

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