by John Brown
Is “public diplomacy” just a nice way of saying “propaganda”? There are common elements, but, this essay argues, there are also some very important differences. – Ed.
Not long after 9/11, former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, in a Washington Post article, “Get the Message Out” (October 28, 2001) asked a key question regarding the so-called “war on terror”:
How could a mass murderer who publicly praised the terrorists of Sept. 11 be winning the hearts and minds of anyone? How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world’s leading communications society?
What was needed to offset terrorists, Holbrooke wrote, was “public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or – if you really want to be blunt – propaganda.”
Holbrooke is not the first person to equate public diplomacy with propaganda. Some public diplomacy supporters say it’s a no-nonsense tool of foreign policy that can win the struggle for hearts and minds (or propaganda, seen favorably, for example, by Mr. Holbrooke). Public diplomacy critics argue that it’s just a fancy term for prevarication and manipulation (again propaganda, but this time seen unfavorably).
Public diplomacy and propaganda, however, can’t be lumped together à la Holbrooke, either to support or criticize them. Think of two circles, one that contains public diplomacy and the other propaganda. These two circles do intersect, but neither circle is within the other. The observation by the American ambassador who coined the term “public diplomacy” in the mid-1960s, Edmund Gullion, a dean at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, is useful in this regard:
Even beyond the organ of the Government set up to handle information about the United States and to explain our policies, what is important today is the interaction of groups, peoples, and cultures beyond national borders, influencing the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments.
To connote this activity, we at the Fletcher School tried to find a name. I would have liked to call it “propaganda.” It seemed like the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing. But “propaganda” has always a pejorative connotation in this country. To describe the whole range of communications, information, and propaganda, we hit upon “public diplomacy” [my italics].
Gullion’s treatment of public diplomacy makes it clear that while public diplomacy does contain elements of propaganda, it is not identical to it. Interestingly, some compare propaganda to pornography: you can tell it when you see it, but you can’t define it. In contrast, public diplomacy, as a rule, does not evoke such a reaction, but it too doesn’t have a universally accepted definition.
Harping on definitions can be intriguing, but it often leads to an intellectual dead-end. So here, instead of trying to discover the essence of public diplomacy and propaganda, I want to examine their differences by focusing in a nutshell on what they do. And a way to make this distinction, I believe, is to examine public diplomacy at its best and propaganda at its worst.
So allow me to refine the circles I mentioned above. One circle is public diplomacy at its best; the other is propaganda at its worst. In action, the better public diplomacy is, and the worst propaganda is (or a combination thereof), the intersection of the two circles diminishes proportionally.
I won’t focus on the multitude of tools used by public diplomacy and propaganda, which are often identical – e.g., the mass media. Rather, my focus is on what public diplomacy at its best, and propaganda at its worst, do.
To be sure, the intent of the practitioners of public diplomacy and propaganda may be the same. Ultimately, the beneficiaries of these two activities are meant to be those carrying them out (and the entity they represent, if they have one). Neither public diplomacy nor propaganda is altruistic. When public diplomacy and propaganda are used as state instruments, they serve a country’s interests. But at their best and at their worst, they do so in significantly different ways.
At its best, public diplomacy:
- Provides a truthful, factual exposition and explication of a nation’s foreign policy and way of life to overseas audiences;
- Encourages international understanding;
- Listens and engages in dialogue;
- Objectively displays national achievements overseas, including in the arts.
At its worst, propaganda:
- Forces its messages on an audience, often by repetition and slogans;
- Demonizes elements of the outside world and claims the nation it glorifies can do no wrong;
- Simplifies complex issues, including history;
- Misrepresents the truth or deliberately lies.
Both public diplomacy and propaganda, at their best or their worst, can achieve credibility with their audiences. However, the best public diplomacy achieves credibility through careful presentation of fact and thoughtful argumentation, while the worst propaganda achieves credibility by falsification and sensationalism. As a rule, public diplomacy at its best, which appeals to the intellect, is believed in the long run, while propaganda at its worst, which inflames atavistic emotions, is believed only for short periods. The best public diplomacy convinces audiences that its content and purpose mesh, and that therefore it is honest; the worst propaganda leads audiences to believe that its content does not reveal its true purpose, and that therefore it is dishonest.
Evaluating the effectiveness of public diplomacy and propaganda is extremely difficult. I realize my “best-worst” distinction is incapable of fully measuring the impact of either. Indeed, my distinction, ultimately, is more a moral than functional one.
To some such an approach has little practical value. They would say that morality, or respect for truth, has little to do with foreign policy. Others would argue that “propaganda at its worst” is just another name for black propaganda, psychological warfare that should not be judged according to “ordinary” morality, especially in times of global conflict when a nation’s security is at risk.
- Regarding public diplomacy, see John Brown, “The Purposes and Cross-Purposes of American Public Diplomacy,” American Diplomacy (August 15, 2002).
- The best short treatment of American propaganda is Kenneth Osgood, “Propaganda,” Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy (2002).
- Robert F. Delaney and John S. Gibson, eds., American Public Diplomacy: The Perspective of Fifty Years (Medford Mass: The Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, The Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs, 1967), p. 31. Cited in John Brown, “The Anti-Propaganda Tradition in the United States,” Public Diplomacy Web Site Sponsored by Public Diplomacy Alumni Association (July 4, 2003; June 22, 2008).
- The reader no doubt is asking the valid question: Can the reverse exist, i.e., propaganda at its best and public diplomacy at its worst? There is no reason why it cannot (arguably, per se, propaganda is not necessarily “bad,” just as public diplomacy, per se, is not necessarily “good”). But I don’t wish to elaborate on “what about the reverse” issue, as it could take us beyond the scope of this paper — to provide a simple, non-academic way of differentiating public diplomacy and propaganda.
- “Black Propaganda,” Wikipedia.
John Brown, a Foreign Service officer for more than 20 years, currently is Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches about public diplomacy.