Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Karen Hughes / Public Diplomacy

In recent weeks I have read article after article about departing Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes’ job performance or lack there of. These articles range between false interpretations of good data to ignorant partisan blather to accurate reporting of the facts without political interpretation. What most have in common is that they recognize the monumental job U/S Hughes had as the person tasked with improving America’s image abroad.

Often read are references to putting Lipstick-on-a-Pig or Polishing-a-Turd. These “thoughtful” literary devices were used to exemplify the writer’s idea of the hopelessly difficult task of selling US policies that are seen in many places as colonial or empire driven. Luckily Karen Hughes didn’t shy away from the task and did the first real work public diplomacy has seen since the days of Edward R. Murrow.

Quickly, public diplomacy simply is any exchange between people, cultures or countries that is not Government-to-Government -which would be traditional diplomacy. A blog by an Iraqi in Mosul read by an American in Charleston is public diplomacy. Starbucks coffee in China is an exchange that can be considered public diplomacy. Sadly, MTV’s Sweet Sixteen program airing in Ireland is also an unfortunate exchange and is public-to-public diplomacy.

U/S Hughes and the State Department as a whole only really work in the Government-to-Public realm. Under Hughes the State Dept. increased its sad little budget ,opened regional Public Diplomacy Hubs in London, Brussels and in Dubai, and Rapid Reaction teams were formed to counter misinformation, conspiracy theories and needless hysteria often seen in online forums, chat rooms and weblogs throughout the Islamic world. These moves by Hughes constitute a wholesale change in direction and performance by the State Department. Both Clinton and Bush “43” had Public Diplomacy officers that worried only about “branding” rather than any kind of exchange. It was a one way communication effort. Much like advertising. The problem is that these actions are actually reactions and are meant to limit damage rather than be a true dialogue or exchange of information. Now, Hughes and Co. have posted a State Department blog ( where any interested party from all over the world can exchange views with the various State officials that post. This constitutes a proactive exchange and I believe the first of its kind for State public diplomacy.

Efforts like this constitute the State Departments first foray, or should I say unintended consequence, into Public-to-Public diplomacy. By allowing the conversations to be public and open for engagement by anyone Hughes and State have taken an important step towards a global dialogue. Ideas are not presented and then forgotten as was the old “branding” way. Conversations are now taking place, albeit on a small scale.

There is much more to be done in terms of policy and grassroots efforts here at home to be full participants in all forms of public diplomacy. Chief among these is teaching the concept of public diplomacy at a much earlier age. Next is providing the tools necessary to engage effectively in public diplomacy. The number one tool missing in the United States is the ability to speak a second language. It would be nice if more of us spoke Spanish or French. It would be best if we spoke Farsi or Chinese! We have a long way to go and Karen Hughes has barely scratched the surface. The great thing about Public Diplomacy is it is best accomplished by “publics” as the name suggests. So perhaps we should look to ourselves as the responsible party for allowing misinformation, conspiracy theories and propaganda to run rampant amongst our global neighbors?

Benjamin Cook
Director, the Organization for Public Diplomacy

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