While "public diplomacy" has been in use for almost half a century, practitioners and scholars continue to debate the precise definition of the term. What does it mean to practice "public diplomacy?" What delineates public diplomacy from traditional state-to-state diplomacy? Is public diplomacy merely a kinder gentler word for propaganda?

This page provides a brief history of the term "public diplomacy" and highlights some of the major debates and definitional disagreements that continue to plague this emerging field.

Origin of the Term

Most scholars date the first usage of "public diplomacy" to 1965 when Edmund Gullion, a career diplomat used the term in connection with the foundation of the Edward R. Murrow Center at Tuft’s University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The first Murrow Center pamphlet described the practice of public diplomacy as:

"the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy . . . [including] the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another . . . (and) the transnational flow of information and ideas"1.

American Use of the Term

In some respects, the story of modern American public diplomacy began during World War I, when the U.S. government created the Committee on Public Information (commonly known as the Creel Committee) which was designed to build public support for America's entry into that war, and to inform and influence foreign audiences about U.S. war efforts in support of democratic ends. The advent of modern public diplomacy in America coincided with the rise of such contemporary mass media as film, radio, and (later) television, and reached its apex during World War II and the Cold War, when public diplomacy played a central role in the battles against fascism and communism; indeed, some consider it to have been of seminal importance during those years in the triumph of democracy. Some central parts of the academic field of communication study grew out of important studies of the media and public opinion during that time. For the U.S. government, the primary efforts in those years were led, respectively, by the Office of War Information, the United States Information Agency and, since 1999, by the State Department’s Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. While there were those who treated it as a relic of history in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, public diplomacy has gained a new urgency in the two years since 9/11 and there is now widespread agreement that it is an area of enormous importance. Moreover, there is a growing understanding that it is a field with deep implications for all societies and institutions; that it includes private as well as public actors; that it must be better informed about the implications of changes in technology, society and world political realities; and that it requires new thinking, new paradigms and possibly even new institutions.

The term "public diplomacy" has not received universal acceptance among American practitioners. It gained currency when USIA needed to create an overriding institutional ideology to justify its forced 1978 merger with State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs into what was named the International Communications Agency (which was subsequently dropped by the PR-focused Reagan administration and returned to the old name, USIA). Until 1978, the USIA had functioned as the U.S. Government's public affairs (re: media relations) agency overseas, though cultural attaches – who reported to State, not USIA -- were attached to the old USIS offices in the field as a practical bureaucratic arrangement. A clear demarcation between PA and culture existed; after the 1978 merger, practitioners often specialized in one or the other, though promotions were fixed to reward service in both.

In the late 1980s, Senator Claiborne Pell and his chief staffer, Peter Galbraith, pushed for a reorganization that would abolish USIA by housing cultural programs in a separate or new agency, while placing public affairs in State and making the Voice of America independent. The conceptual basis of this plan rested on the perceived need for a firewall between the heavily politicized function, on the one hand, and culture and broadcasting, on the other hand. In the end, however, the prevailing USIA ideology of "public diplomacy" based on linked cultural and PA activities (though without direct authority over radio) prevailed, probably because wholesale merger of a VOA-less USIA into State was easier than the alternative for a Senator Jesse Helms and a Secretary of State Madeleine Albright determined to strike a deal.

Working Definition

Unlike standard diplomacy, which might be described as the ways in which government leaders communicate with each other at the highest levels, the study of public diplomacy focuses on the ways in which governments (or multi-lateral organization such as the United Nations), acting deliberately, through both official and private individuals and institutions, communicate with citizens in other societies.

Public diplomacy as traditionally defined includes the government-sponsored cultural, educational and informational programs, citizen exchanges and broadcasts used to promote the national interest of a country through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign audiences.

But there are many important intervening variables that scholars and practitioners deem critical to the study and practice of public diplomacy. In addition to government-sponsored programs, the study of public diplomacy or is also concerned with aspects of what Joseph Nye has labeled as soft power. Private activities – from popular culture to fashion to sports to news to the Internet – inevitably, if not purposefully, have an impact on a countries national reputation and public diplomacy outreach efforts. Moreover, a wide range of institutions such as the United Nations and NATO have established public diplomacy divisions and initiatives.

Interpretations of the Term

Below are some examples of definitions used by practitioners and academics, and in government reports.

  • Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (April 2001) Those overt international public information activities of the United States Government designed to promote United States foreign policy objectives by seeking to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences and opinion makers, and by broadening the dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad. (JP 3-53) http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf
  • US Congressman, Henry Hyde (R-IL) (November 2001) “The role that I would set for our public diplomacy [is] to enlist the populations of the world into a common cause and to convince them that the goals that they seek for themselves – freedom, security, and prosperity – are the same as the those the United States seeks.‿ http://commdocs.house.gov/committees/intlrel/hfa76189.000/hfa76189_0.HTM
  • Djerejian Report 2003 - "Public Diplomacy is the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging, and influencing people around the world. Public diplomacy helped win the Cold War, and it has the potential to help win the war on terror." Report of the US Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World (October 1, 2003) "Changing Minds Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab & Muslim World," p. 13.
  • GAO Report 2003 - "To inform, engage, and influence global audiences. . . to reach out beyond foreign governments to promote better appreciation of the United States abroad, greater receptivity to U.S. policies among foreign publics and sustained access and influence in important sectors of foreign societies. Public diplomacy is carried out through a wide range of programs that employ person-to-person contacts; print, broadcast, and electronic media, and other means." United States General Accounting Office (September 2003) "U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Expands Efforts but Faces Significant Challenges." Report to the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives.
  • The German Perspective - "When one speaks of public diplomacy this side of the Atlantic, as a rule one is not solely referring to the general public and to the pragmatic issue of how one can win their support and sympathy. . . Diplomats are thus called upon to view their function less as exclusively targeting political functionaries and elected members, bigwigs and multiplicators, but also proclaiming the policies of their home countries to the general public abroad and presenting them in a favourable light." "Public Diplomacy - the German View" - Speech by Dr Albert Spiegel, Head of the Federal Foreign Office Directorate-General for Cultural Relations and Education Policy, at the British Council Staff Conference on March 18th and 19th, 2002.
  • The Norwegian Perspective – “The media, international organisations, and non-governmental organisations as well as business interests have become much more active in defining public opinion. For foreign ministries this requires more attention be given to what has become known as public diplomacy. In short, public diplomacy means engaging in dialogue with wider audiences on a wider range of issues than those of day-to-day politics.‿ State Secretary Thorhil Widvey “Public Diplomacy‿ Speech before the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, Ottawa 7 Nov 2003.
  • "A key element of public diplomacy is the building of personal and institutional relationships and dialogue with foreign audiences by focusing on values, which sets the activity apart from classical diplomacy, which primarily deals with issues." Peter Van Ham (2003) "War, Lies, and Videotape: Public Diplomacy and the USA’s War on Terrorism." Security Dialogue 34(4): 427 – 444.
  • "What are we doing? We’re selling a product. That product we are selling is democracy.‿ Colin Powell (quoted in “Brand U.S.A." (Nov – Dec. 2001) Foreign Policy: 19.
  • Ambassador Pamela H. Smith uses the former USIA's mission statement to advance her definition of public diplomacy. It states: "To understand, inform, and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions and their counterparts abroad. To accomplish this, we
    • explain and advocate U.S. policies in terms that are credible and meaningful in foreign cultures;
    • provide information about the U.S., its people, values, and institutions;
    • build lasting relationships and mutual understanding through the exchange of people and ideas; and
    • advise U.S. decision-makers on foreign attitudes and their implications for U.S. policies."
    • Read more on Smith's definition here[ttp://www.diplomacy.edu/Books/mdiplomacy_book/smith/regular/default.html here].

Public Diplomacy vs. Propaganda

Many scholars distinguish public diplomacy from propaganda based on the premise that propaganda is by definition deceptive and manipulative. Advocates of public diplomacy maintain that creating a bond of trust between governments and foreign nations is critical and is best achieved through honest and open communication about a country's foreign policy goals.

A number of public diplomacy experts stress that dialogue is also a critical component of PD that separates it from propaganda. They emphasize that to be effective, public diplomacy must be seen as a two-way street. It involves not only shaping the message(s) that a country wishes to present abroad, but also analyzing and understanding the ways that the message is interpreted by diverse societies and developing the tools of listening and conversation as well as the tools of persuasion.

Here are some examples of how some practitioners choose to separate PD from propaganda:

• Christopher Ross, Former Ambassador – "I conceive of public diplomacy as being the public face of traditional diplomacy. Traditional diplomacy seeks to advance the interests of the United States through private exchanges with foreign governments. Public diplomacy seeks to support traditional diplomacy by addressing non-governmental audiences, in addition to governmental audiences, both mass and elite. It works very much in coordination with and in parallel to the traditional diplomatic effort. When I heard the word propaganda I imagine a much more manipulative kind of process than I would like to think that public diplomacy is." A Brookings/Harvard Forum Press Coverage and the War on Terrorism: The Propaganda War: Is America Effectively Telling Its Side of the Story in the Anti-Terrorism Campaign? http://www.brook.edu/comm/transcripts/20020116.htm

• Yoginder Sikand, Countercurrents.org - "In contrast to conventional forms of diplomacy that focus only on dialogue between governments, the 'public diplomacy' that American policy makers now seek to pursue in the Muslim world aims at communicating with non-state civil society actors, such as NGOs, the media and the general public. The underlying purpose is to influence influential non-state actors who can then play a vital role in protecting American interests and in countering anti-American elements and sentiments in their own societies. In other words, 'public diplomacy' is regarded as a crucial propaganda weapon to pursue American 'national interests'."

• John Mohammadi, TheIranian.com “Today propaganda is a dirty word so we prefer more euphemistic terms such as public diplomacy, public relations, education, marketing, advertising, lobbying etc. However, regardless of what we call it, essentially the same propaganda tactics and techniques which are used to sell products such as shoes, washing machines and cigarettes can be employed to sell political candidates, policies and wars.‿ http://www.iranian.com/Mohammadi/2004/May/Bread/

• Peter Van Ham – Contemporary "US public diplomacy should . . . be differentiated from the information warfare, since it is less focused on the domination of communication flows, than on creating a Habermasian practice of democratic discourse aimed at finding shared assumptions and values. This sets it apart from the old-style public diplomacy of past decades, where dialogue was practically impossible and communications had a one-way character." "Public Diplomacy and the War on Terrorism" p. 431.

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