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Reviewed by Michael Schneider, Ph.D.

Trials of Engagement: The Future of US Public Diplomacy, Ed. By Ali Fisher and Scott Lucas
Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden- Boston, 2011, ISBN 13-978-9004179400, 312 pp., $163.00

Trials of Engagement shows that the field has come into its own as an academic pursuit. With ample footnoting and bibliographic references, the book seeks to meld theory and concepts with analysis of the conduct of public diplomacy. The authors are fully aware of the ramifications of the digital revolution, and offer ideas for a new consensus about how public diplomacy might contribute to a better world.

At the outset the authors point out one of the central concerns of the book: the movement away from audiences as passive objects experiencing Public Diplomacy to cooperation with active, autonomous participants capable of involvement in a complex global “network society.” The public diplomacy of the 21st century will rest on a view of communities as “participants” and potential collaborators, not targets for messages, objects of influence for U.S. policy.

According to the authors, even the current term of art, “engagement,” is not enough for the new era. Public Diplomacy of the future must respond to the concerns and interests of (possibly fluid) groups. The global policy agenda should be a shared endeavor, not set solely by U.S. or any other government officials.

Gone, are “target audiences,” messaging, monologue, focusing only on small groups of elites, attempts to manipulate public opinion through media and other one-way informational efforts.

In, are dialogue (which might be a bit dated if one perceives it as only listening in order to make your pitch to influence the other), collaboration, networked society, building relationships, an improved PD 2.0 that emphasizes mutuality and sharing.

Overall the book’s varied essays highly criticize the Bush Administration’s policies, posture and public diplomacy. Leeds University Professor of International Communication, the late Philip Taylor, leads the way in the opening chapter, by putting “Public Diplomacy on Trial.”

Taylor correctly locates the decline of PD in the “the political machinations of the dying Clinton administration which did in the USIA….” The author politely nails the Clinton Administration for its expedient view of public diplomacy in its urgent desire to woo Jesse Helms into allowing the Chemical Weapons treaty to go to the floor of the Senate. One of the greatest ironies of the sell-out of USIA was the headline of the White House press release announcing the “merger” of USIA, to the effect that “the era of big government is over” – USIA and ACDA to merge with State.

Taylor saves his most stringent criticism for Bush II policies and public diplomacy. “…. While the policy failure to sustain public diplomacy came in the 1990s, the real crime against the practice has been committed more recently.” He then proceeds to catalogue a litany of ill-advised bureaucratic misadventures in DoD information operations, shortcomings at State, and ill-considered rhetoric (e.g. the early post-9/11 Bush mention to an American audience of our crusade against the terrorists.) Taylor warns against international broadcasting being tarred by the brush of psyops, citing the instance in which an Air Force plane relayed Radio Marti broadcasts to Cuba.

Taylor’s capsule history of the demise of PD is echoed by other chapters in the book, which similarly regret how world opinion turned against the U.S. in the past decade, largely because of our unilateralism, how ill-prepared the State Department was to integrate and call upon public diplomacy, and how erstwhile, if not eager, was the Department of Defense in filling a void it believes was created by the demise of USIA and the shortcomings of State.

John Robert Kelley picks up the critique in focusing on the unrealized advisory roles of U.S. public diplomacy. This is an important, rather overlooked, issue. Whether you are thinking of PD in the old Cold War paradigm, as a policy realist looking to influence foreign publics, or in the new paradigm of stakeholders collaborating toward shared goals that is prominent in Trials of Engagement, the role of PD advice merits far more consideration. Kelley briefly summarizes the lost opportunities to incorporate PD advice into policy making, from the 50s to the current time. More nuanced explanation of the issues, personalities and outcomes in each period might have been desirable. There is more to say about the Agency’s role in several key policy challenges and certainly the service of public opinion research and daily media reaction reports from abroad. Individual USIA officers in U.S. Missions abroad and in Washington played important roles in a number of key foreign policy crises. Nevertheless, Kelley’s larger point is well taken: the institution was never empowered to fulfill its potential as foreign policy/national security affairs advisor. U.S. policy is the worse for this absence.

Kelley suggests a conflict between advocacy and the advisory function in so far as advocacy can get out of hand, when “policymakers are inoculated from important realities on the ground.” Irrelevant or inappropriate messages can alienate an audience. On the other hand, the advisory role becomes detached from reality or too diffuse or passive, as the author asserts was the case in the late 1970s. This too bears more nuanced analysis. If there is a conflict in roles and priorities, it is reflected in resource allocation for information/advocacy and for mutual understanding functions at State, not in whether a strong advocate can also be a strong and trusted adviser.

Scott Lucas (“Let’s Make This Happen: The Tension of the Unipolar in US Public Diplomacy”), David Ryan (“The Dots Above the Detail: The Myopia of Meta-Narrative in George W. Bush’s Declarative ‘War of Ideas’”), Giles Scott-Smith (“Soft Power, US Public Diplomacy and Global Risk”) and Nick Cull (“Karen Hughes and the Brezhnev Syndrome: The Trial of Public Diplomacy as Domestic Performance”) continue the critique of U.S. policies and public diplomacy in the past decade. Lucas analyzes various studies that in effect would re-arrange the deck chairs and the unipolar intellectual strategic basis for W’s approach to world affairs. Even well-intentioned Princeton and CSIS Smart Power studies seemed to assume that ideas, hard and soft power, legitimacy would emanate outward from the U.S. Reciprocity didn’t seem central to the prominent recommended repairs for U. S. foreign policies and PD.

Ryan comments on the oft-noted Bush Administration’s early binary mindset, i.e., for us or the terrorists, our way or the highway: “A diversity of conditions and relevance to the crimes of 9/11 were conflated through various acts of rhetorical pronunciation.” These “meta-narratives” produced strategic tensions when confronted by counter-narratives epitomized by Abu Gharib, Guantanamo and other symbols of U.S. failure to meet its professed ideals. No public diplomacy could resolve the tension and improve the American image.

Giles Scott-Smith continues this thread in asking how the U.S. might re-align its national interest and rebuild its soft power potential. “Above all, there needs to be a conscious effort to understand what it means to be one nation among many, even if transferring this into a political platform is not going to be easy.” Scott-Smith adds analysis of the economic changes under way with globalization and the rise of new powers and underscores the changing power relations that set the context for U.S. policies and public diplomacy.

The author identifies two challenges – “Curbing the Pentagon’s Strategic Influence,” and “Building a New Consensus around a Global Community of Fate.” The latter challenge, for this reader, is the more complex and interesting in that Scott-Smith bases his critique of PD on fundamental doubts that the U.S. understands the global transition — “….a world where competition and resource nationalism are becoming ever more pronounced, and U.S. credibility is stretched on all fronts.”

Symbolic of America’s inability to listen and learn, Nick Cull brings to the fore the misbegotten effort by Karen Hughes to pay a decent respect to the opinions of mankind in her much-publicized listening tours. Cull identifies in the “Brezhnev Syndrome” the concept of governments that conduct aggressive international PD campaigns to shore up the regime at home. He warns of three problematic concerns of this syndrome catching on in the U.S.: periodic entry of PD into mainstream national politics, the expression of local ethnic politics in PD policy, and the ongoing conduct of PD with the domestic audience in mind.

Daryl Copeland, a Canadian diplomat, author and educator, provides one of the most thought-provoking essays in the book, in his chapter, “The Seven Paradoxes of Public Diplomacy.” It is intended to represent a general challenge to the discipline, with seven broad lessons learned, many of which are relevant to the U.S. This is perhaps the most sweeping, and readable, chapter in the book. It points to the several common institutional, funding, and operational problems confronting foreign ministries, and essentially argues that if diplomats are not to be supplanted by military, they will need to show results. Copeland concludes, “The over-riding purpose of public diplomacy in a world of insecurity should be to address the root causes of underdevelopment.”

Other useful buzzwords for the sake of future public diplomacy from the authors, prominently Rhonda Zaharna, include the concept of stakeholders, participatory communication, social marketing, relational initiatives and relationship-building campaigns, networked world and networking initiatives, strategic stakeholder engagement, and partnerships.

Useful discussions of U.S. PD in the Middle East and Latin America, and an interesting exposition on the importance of language (and presumably cultural) skills round out the essays with rich insights. At times the book is too heavy with jargon (“ego-sphere of influence”) and sometimes preaching to the choir: (“public diplomats will have to shed the idea of a networked world centered around them and recognize that they are only one group in a network of influence…”) Moreover the essayists pay far too little attention to the genuine efforts at mutuality by several generations of PD officers, and the centrality of academe and civil society. These were always the staple of public diplomacy throughout the checkered history of political leadership, limited perspectives of others in the national security community, and PD’s historically limited funding.

Michael Schneider
Michael Schneider

Michael Schneider is a professor of practice at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and director of the University’s Washington International Program. In the 1980s Schneider was deputy associate and acting associate director of USIA for policy and programs and served as USIA liaison with the National Security Council. He was senior advisor to the Under Secretary of State in the mid-1990s. He served as executive secretary of a panel of U.S. and international leaders who examined the Fulbright Exchange Program, and authored the report, Fulbright at Fifty, and a subsequent report to the State Department, Others’ Open Doors.


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