Where the Rubber Meets the Road: PD As It Is Practiced Abroad

Written by William P. Kiehl, Ed. D.

As a long time practitioner of public diplomacy (PD), I have watched, sometimes in awe, sometimes in horror, sometimes in sheer incomprehension, as the discipline of public diplomacy rapidly has become a recognized and legitimate part of the academic world.   Before you consign me to the rank of dinosaurs, curmudgeons and cranks that sometime declare that public diplomacy is such an art form that it cannot be “studied”, let me disabuse you of any such notion.  Indeed, there is of course an element of “art” to public diplomacy but in large measure it is a science, and not rocket science either, I assure you—and thus quite capable of being studied, replicated and measured for effectiveness by ordinary mortals.

When I began what became a career—who knew?—in “public diplomacy”, there was no academic discipline called public diplomacy.  Moreover, public diplomacy was pretty much the exclusive territory of national governments, not the academy, NGOs or “citizens.” In those days of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, public diplomacy was how clever and capable nation states, and especially the United States through the U.S. Information Agency, informed, persuaded and influenced the publics of friends and enemies alike with the sole object of benefiting their long-term national interests.

Today, public diplomacy is often considered the natural right of NGOs, the military, development specialists, academics, foundations, citizen groups and individual citizens.  Terms such as nation-branding, global engagement, strategic communication, influence operations, public affairs, information operations, Psyops, and its current designation MISO (military information support operations), are all used interchangeably with public diplomacy.  If everything is public diplomacy, then perhaps nothing is public diplomacy.  Without getting mired in semantics, I will refer to public diplomacy in the classic sense, i.e. “Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.”[i]

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