Diplomacy Deficit

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(HOST) Is the U. S. suffering from a Public Diplomacy Deficit? What is Public Diplomacy? Commentator Olin Robison explains.

(ROBISON) I attended a conference in Europe last week which was largely focused on broadcast media issues in the Middle East. There were a number of exceptionally able Arab newscasters there, plus Americans and Europeans. One of the Europeans kept referring to what he called America’s Public Diplomacy Deficit. I was intrigued by his succinct summary of the current American dilemma abroad as the U. S. reputation goes further and further downhill.

You may already be asking, “What is Public Diplomacy?” It was a Cold War concept meant to embrace all of those activities that were intended to create a more favorable environment in which more traditional diplomacy could take place. The Soviets spent a lot of money on their version – which was mostly a constant global campaign of disinformation, most of it about the United States.

Successive American administrations, both Republican and Democratic, invested heavily in activities that included broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. They also funded artistic and cultural exchanges and helped finance the movement of hundreds of thousands of students – Americans going abroad and non-Americans coming here.

Today, it is a general concept in search of substantive programs. On paper, it looks as though the U. S. government is serious about it: there is now an Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t amount to all that much. They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.

Public Diplomacy basically means investing long-term in spreading the message President Bush talked about in his recent State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, in the real world of today’s Washington, Public Diplomacy has come to mean public relations. It has come to mean putting the best possible spin on government actions and programs. The net effect is very little. Frankly, Public Diplomacy is basically a governmental concept, while public relations is, at its heart, a commercial concept.

I have long thought that the very best long-term investment made by the United States is the presence of large numbers of non-American students on American college and university campuses. Over the last 30 or 40 years, the aggregate number literally reaches into the millions.

Sadly, by virtue of our collective fears post-9/11, we are in the process of making it harder and harder for students to come to the U. S. The British, the French, the Germans, the Australians and the South Africans, among others, are now vigorously recruiting those talented students to come to their universities instead.

This is a big and complicated subject. And, yes, my European friend was right on the mark. We do have a growing “Public Diplomacy Deficit.” And others are quietly, but aggressively investing, while we are pulling back.

The Public Diplomacy investments the United States made a generation ago have, in fact, paid off handsomely. The senior civil services of many nations are staffed by graduates of American universities. Over time, that will be much less true than it is today.

What a pity. Especially when, by Department of Defense standards, the needed investment is so modest.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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