The glories of Soft Power

To me Joseph Nye’s article on Soft Power and public diplomacy was great.  It was clear, and concise and helped to refine how I see public diplomacy.  Which is a little disheartening since I did just do a long paper on it.  However I think that he does a wonderful job of describing what the difference is between soft power and public diplomacy.

“Good public diplomacy has to go beyond propaganda. Nor is public diplomacy
merely public relations campaigns. Conveying information and selling a
positive image is part of it, but public diplomacy also involves building long-term
relationships that create an enabling environment for government policies.”

I think this quote does an excellent job of summing up public diplomacy.  He also discusses how public diplomacy and policy must match up.  I think this is what the U.S. often does wrong.  It sends mixed messages to people, and as a result frustration with this turns to distrust.  In any relationship when you are constantly getting mixed signals, things don’t usually end very well.

I often find myself wondering, who actually comes up with this stuff?  Who is it that plans public diplomacy?  Do they think about how messages are read in other contexts and cultures?  It sometimes seems to me like people who are actually knowledgeable about a foreign place, and culture aren’t ever consulted when making these decisions.  If that is the case why aren’t they?  It seems so logical, that if you’re going to do a public diplomacy in the philippines you would get the input of not just a researcher, but someone with experience there.  Maybe this is how it’s done, I just find it hard to believe that so many messages aren’ t being read right, if they are.


3 Comments to “The glories of Soft Power”

  1. I agree, I think that a lot of times we don’t send the right message and it seems like the U.S. sometimes prides itself on sending these mixed messages so that no one ever knows what’s going on. We’ll say we want peace and will do anything we can to help in one area but when it comes to helping out we don’t get involved, we just applaud the effort. What comes to mind is Uganda and the LRA. For years the U.S. made strong statements about a commitment to capturing Joseph Kony and how important it was to protect those children, and just a few months ago we finally sent soldiers in to help with the effort.

    The ICC also comes to mind, but I think that is more of an international mixed message. Everyone wanted a court that would take on these tough issues like genocide but no one was really willing to put the funds and spearhead the project and give the court jurisdiction to capture these people everyone was saying were so dangerous and needed to be held accountable for their actions.

  2. The fact is that quite often U.S. foreign policy differs from what people abroad (and/or their governments) would like it to be. So I think it’s important to distinguish between the problem of sending mixed messages (i.e. saying one thing while we do another) vs. the more common problem of trying to convey, explain, and justify a single message that is just not ever going be acceptable in a particular place.

    American public diplomacy officers (and their local host-country colleagues) do have a significant role in figuring out which U.S. Government policies and initiatives to highlight, and how to communicate them, in the host country environment. And they often do an excellent job of helping keep a positive dialogue and a positive relationship going across a range of mutual interests, even when there are one or two serious foreign policy disagreements.

    However, we have not yet reached a stage in U.S. foreign policy-making where public diplomacy professionals are seriously consulted before major policies are actually established. This is what former USIA director (and famed journalist) Edward R. Murrow famously meant when he said he wanted to be ‘in at the takeoff and not just the crash-landing’ (to paraphrase).

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be a great moment to try to convince the American people that U.S. foreign policy should be, in part, shaped by what non-Americans are likely to think about it. On the one hand, it seems pretty obvious that policies that are supposed to promote peaceful and prosperous engagement with the rest of the world should be policies that are acceptable to that world. On the other hand, saying U.S. policies should be shaped by what others think sounds … unpatriotic, or can certainly be made to sound that way in the political arena.

    Congratulations to you for raising these questions and debating them.

    (Note: While I am a public diplomacy officer with the State Department, these comments reflect my personal opinion only.)

  3. I also liked the Joseph Nye piece. I feel like it was a good portrait of public diplomacy at the time he wrote it almost 4 years ago, with the caveat that the notion of public diplomacy seems to evolve over time. Nye mentions in his piece that that the US arrived a little bit late to the public diplomacy arena. Then we saw public diplomacy efforts ramp up during the Second World War and decline significantly after the Cold War ended. I mentioned all this not to simply rehash history from the reading… it’s just interesting to see how public diplomacy is embraced or neglected depending on the time period, which make me think about what the future of public diplomacy will look like, especially in a time of austerity like we are an experiencing in the US. To give a micro example, the funding for Meridian International Center’s programming division, where I work, has never been more topsy-turvy…maybe that’s the wrong word. A better way to describe the funding situation is to compare it to that feeling of waiting with baited breath, especially around the beginning of October (when the federal fiscal year ends). Meridian administers the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) so we are always waiting on numbers from the State Department in order to determine how many visitors we’ll program for and how much staff will need to handle those numbers.

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