by Bud Goodall
In today’s “Blogger’s Roundtable” withÂ Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs,Â James K. Glassman, Matt Armstrong from MountainRunner asked a really good question about the relationship of strategic communication to public diplomacy. Â Under Secretary Glassman provided a detailed and thoughtful response that distinguished public diplomacy, which is aimed at various publics engaging each other, from official diplomacy, which is aimed at officials engaging each other. Â He went to say that he viewed strategic communication as a “subset of public diplomacy . . . [a term that is] interchangeable with the war of ideas.”
This last idea was new to me. Â I’ve always understood strategic communication to be the goal-oriented means by which, and through which, public diplomacy (as well as official diplomacy and other forms of political interaction) operates. Â In today’s volatile and highly mediated “war of ideas” environment, PD must be thought of and thoroughly integrated into SC operations. Â SC is not an operational “subset” any more than PD is simply about “message.” Â If anything, it is the other way around:Â PD is better conceived as a subset of SC because PD activities are but one theater of SC operations across the global stage.
Under Secretary Glassman went on to identify three kinds of strategic communication activities:
- Telling America’s Story (focus on US)
EconomicEducational and Cultural Exchanges (focus on equal parts US and THEM)
- War of Ideas (focus on THEM)
He explained that all of these activities are part of “a conversation,” a statement that suggests an underlying model of all strategic communication is based on the achievement of dialogue.
Yet it seems to me that a dialogue and strategic communication are not synonymous. Â For dialogue to take place, both partners to the conversation must be, as Martin Buber expressed it and we have explained in a previous white paper, “profoundly open to change.” While this principle of reciprocal openness to change may characterize
economic educational and cultural exchanges, I doubt they operate at all in either “Telling America’s Story” or in “War of Ideas.” Â America doesn’t want to change its story, and violent extremists have demonstrated a decided lack of openness to our ideas.
Another discrepancy between these terms is their very different relationships to ambiguity. Â Strategic communication, when it is most effective in combating ideological support for terrorism, must always rely on ambiguity as part of the overall strategy. Â Conversely, ambiguity in dialogue leads to a lack of trust, which in turn prevents that profound openness so inherently tied to productive change.
I applaud Under Secretary Glassman’s willingness to share his ideas about the relationship of strategic communication to public diplomacy. Â But I worry that viewing SC as a subset of PD, and that tying all forms and practices of SC to dialogue reifies an outdated way of thinking about communication. Â Strategic communication operates in a “rugged landscape” that is more complex than a conversation or dialogue. Continuing to think of SC in those terms is both theoretically muddled and pragmatically too simplistic.