Challenging the Challenge of Time

In his book Real-Time Diplomacy, Philip Seib repeatedly argues that international media plays an increasingly larger role in decisionmaking and has accelerated “the information process” vital to diplomacy (2012, 86). This in turn has created an environment in which diplomats no longer have the “cushion of time” (7) they once enjoyed, where they must react to situations as quickly as the information is being disseminated (86). Even just 50 years ago, events on the other side of the world still took time to reach home, where then the bureaucratic wheel would take the time to churn out a decision, and then send the orders back to the embassy. Now, in the era where video of protests in Turkey is simultaneously uploaded to YouTube as the event is taking place, there is an expectation from publics that governments should take action immediately, whether or not the action is the politically wise one.

And if the collapse of the time cushion effects diplomatic practice, it is certainly effecting public diplomacy practice as well. Public diplomacy works best in the long-term, as has been discussed in several posts on this blog and in many of our class readings. A PD initiative may not yield results until months (more likely years) down the road. But how do you create or bolster a PD initiative that has to react to nearly instantaneous global information flows? India’s response, or lack thereof, to the gang rape issues is one such example of how taking the time to “wisely” engage publics may not be the best strategy when the publics are being rapidly fed information about a situation. The challenge then for nations engaged in PD is to balance between the bureaucratic structure of message formulation and the effective use of new media tools (such as social media and the Internet) to add real-time engagement to face-to-face engagement practices.

As Seib states, it is important for nations to be a part of this growing web of information if they are to engage with publics in the way that publics actually communicate (120). But the lack of time means that as the role of diplomacy is being redefined, the role of public diplomacy must be clearly (re)defined as well. Without understanding what it can do and how it can be utilized in this new rapid-fire information ecology, public diplomacy won’t be able to adapt, and therefore won’t be able to be as effective a tool for nation-states, both in the short- and long-term.


The Problematic Place of Cultural Diplomacy

Should cultural diplomacy — “the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples to foster mutual understanding” (Milton C. Cummings, quoted by Cynthia Shneider, World Politics Review, 13 Oct 2009) — be so distinguishable from public diplomacy? According to Nicholas Cull, cultural diplomacy is a type of public diplomacy, or “one method by which an international actor may conduct its foreign policy through engaging a foreign public.” (“Jamming for Uncle Sam”, Huffington Post, May 15, 2013) True, cultural diplomacy can be used to strategically engage in foreign publics, but Cull further states that these initiatives operate best away from government control. So then, how is one to strategically engage a public to help foreign policy objectives through cultural diplomacy if these programs are more exchanges of cultural ideas that should ideally be free of government agendas?

This question is precisely what makes it difficult to fully envelop cultural diplomacy in the bubble of public diplomacy. It has been used by governments successfully to promote not only cultural heritage and ideologies, but also take these ideologies to strategic locations in order to assist foreign policy objectives (a favorite example for the United States is the Jazz Ambassadors of the 1960s). But these programs do not typically have direct influence on foreign policy, either at home or abroad. Rather, they showcase desirable values and try to build a larger constituency for those values (Rober Albro, “Cultural Diplomacy’s Representational Conceit,” Cultural Diplomacy, Cultural Exchange, Cultural Policy, March 22, 2012). As previously mentioned, cultural diplomacy programs can and have been used for strategic public engagement, which puts it in the category of public diplomacy; yet because there is a slightly different approach to meeting goals, to say nothing of its arts-oriented methodologies, cultural diplomacy does need to be distinguishable from general public diplomacy.

As more and and more public diplomacy is being conducted through cultural diplomacy programs, this slight but important distinction of indirect effect on public consciousness through ideological interactions may be eroded away. Cultural diplomacy may also become an even more problematic term as the definition of “culture” is effected by the new media environment, the changing role of audiences in engagement practices, and globalization. However, for now, countries would do well to maintain the distinction between public and cultural diplomacy, for the simple reason that people are less wary of cultural sharing than of direct foreign policy engagement. Though it will continue to have a problematic place in diplomatic practice, cultural diplomacy will also continue to be a unique tool for nations that deserves to have its own label.

Don’t Blame the Message/Messenger, Blame the Institution

The organizational contexts within which U.S. public diplomacy (PD) actors and ideas must operate is, in colloquial terms, a “hot mess”. U.S. international broadcasting has to contend with the convoluted structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an organization in which, for example,  there is no centralized authority, which is vulnerable to the politicking of Congress despite its supposed independence, and which has no oversight or cooperation with other PD actors (Emily T. Metzgar, “Considering the ‘Illogical Patchwork’, CPD Perspectives on Public Diplomacy, Paper 1, 2013). And then of course, there is the “big kahuna”  of PD itself — the State Department — which has relegated public diplomacy to an under secretary position, leaving PD officers in the field to report to their regional bureaus instead of a centralized PD leadership, and has the governmental problem of “bureaucratic [processes] of communication” (Kennon H. Nakamura, et al, “U.S. Public Diplomacy: Background and Current Issues,” CRS Report for Congress, Dec. 18, 2009). These institutional set-ups can, for example, keep an important PD initiative from being relevant in real-time and face-to face. In other words, the bureaucratic structure, more often than not, hampers productive PD from taking place.

This organizational chaos has been recognized by scholars and practitioners alike, and an array of solutions has been proposed. From an outside observer, it would appear that the most effective remedy is to give authority to heads of public diplomacy sections and organizations in the U.S. government. Both the State Department and BBG suffer from a lack of leadership. Though PD is of course supposed to be a tool of the whole government foreign policy, this lack of centralized leadership in either organization means that more voices can try to set the agenda. And these voices are not necessarily those with training and experience in public diplomacy practice. Greater PD leadership within organizations would help ensure that all organizational PD efforts were aligned, that PD actors had more of a say in the policymaking process, and that there was a (somewhat) more streamlined channel for communication and coordination throughout the U.S. government. As it stands right now, the institutional structure of U.S. public diplomacy does not allow for enough authority, autonomy, and participation of PD practitioners for their actions to be as effective as they could be; one way to solve this is to have better, centralized leadership.

PD: New Importance or Just New Context?

New technologies, new geopolitical realities, and new international actors have altered the international relations landscape of the 21st century and thus shifted the practice of public diplomacy (James Pamment, “A Dynamic Field in a Changing World” in New Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century: A Compartive Study of Policy and Practice (2013), 25-29). In this dynamic context, it is tempting to argue that public diplomacy has become more important now than it ever was during the Cold War era. Yes, it is true that the array of international issues, “from energy to preventing terrorism…can only be solved collaboratively” (Matthew Wallin, “The New Public Diplomacy Imperative: America’s Vital Need to Communicate Strategically,” American Security Project (2012), 4), which means that reaching, understanding, and engaging foreign publics and actors has now become “central to diplomacy” (Bruce Gregory, “American Public Diplomacy: Enduring Characteristics, Elusive Transformation,” Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 6 (2011): 353).  However, this does not mean there has been a shift in the importance of public diplomacy. Instead, one should think of this new public diplomacy as stemming from a shift in the practice of foreign ministries and not a shift in their ideology of PD.

This is supported by the contention among scholars that “public diplomacy has meant, and continues to mean, different things in different historical and national contexts.” (Pamment, 20). In the Cold War, PD was used “as a state based instrument… to engage and persuade foreign publics [to] influence their governments”; during the 21st century, PD is used by states, non-state actors, and others to understand cultures, build and manage relationships, influence thoughts, and mobilize actions to advance interests (Gregory, 353). As we see, the core goal of public diplomacy remains the same — to further one’s interests through public engagement and persuasion — illustrating that public diplomacy was and  is an important tool of foreign policy. But because the context of foreign policy has changed so drastically in terms of number of actors, the expanded media environment (and subsequent information proliferation) and the shift in international power dynamics, public diplomacy is no longer just sending a message to persuade (Gregory, 353, 357). Two-way communication and true relationships have to exist between governments and publics now, which means that PD initiatives have to be reimagined to accomplish this goal.


How public diplomacy is used has certainly shifted in the last ten years, let alone from the 20th to 21st century. But during both the Cold War and Post-9/11 periods, public diplomacy has held a place of importance because it allows for foreign policy objectives to be met from the parallel fronts of governments and publics. It is not that public diplomacy is more important now than it was before; it has simply moved into public awareness more as the new world context has changed and dictated a broader engagement with publics.