Center for Strategic Communication

I am curious to hear the following statement, made by one of America’s preeminent critics of public diplomacy thinking, clarified a bit more:

All too many academic theories about PD are incomprehensible, pompously-expressed “concepts” from persons — among them rightfully esteemed tenured professors whose intelligence is all too often joined with a tactless inability to handle the last three feet of person-to-person contact — who have never actually worked as diplomats in the field of “public diplomacy,” which they pontificate about, often too assuredly, from their ivory towers on comfortable campuses so distant from what some call the “real world.”

The quote appeared in a recent article on the Huffington Post. Truth be told, I am admittedly a fan of John Brown and his frequent skewerings of pretension (unless, of course, such barbs are leveled at my alma mater, then I’m shamelessly hypocritical). But it made me pause. Perhaps Dr. Brown was being polite, but I think we need to put some sort of name to the real troublemakers that Brown is alluding to.

Put another way – what is the real problem that bothers Dr. Brown? What sort of creeping threat is posed by public diplomacy theorists? Is it a particular theory and or scholar that threatens the bedrock of practical pedagogy in public diplomacy? Is it the pervasive valorization of technological approaches to public diplomacy, which might focus state sponsors to direct scarce resources away from proven public diplomacy practice and training?

I think there is more to this sweeping indictment of the academic study of public diplomacy than meets the eye. At first glance, it makes me feel a bit defensive (since I happen to be one of those academics who has never been in the foreign service). It’s practically discouraging – and seems to perpetuate the persistent scholar-practitioner divide that looms between teachers of international relations and diplomats. And to be fair – both sides contribute to this divide. So really I ask – what’s the big deal? Should scholars interested in public diplomacy pack up their bags and join the foreign service? Barring that, is the Huffington Post essay really a reminder to keep scholars in their place?

The critique of academics is also oddly out of place, since Brown’s essay is ostensibly a reaction to the recent NYT Times article about practitioners of social media-based engagement and “21st Century Statecraft” at the State Department.

I say let’s keep the diplomacy between the camps going. I will start this process with an olive branch in the form of a question to skeptical policy veterans: “What would the practitioners of public diplomacy have the scholars of public diplomacy study, research, and teach?”

p.s. – I actually think Brown’s objections about “abstraction” reflect a long-standing debate amongst academics on the philosophy of social science inquiry. Do we scholars pursue deductive-nomethetic prescriptions, covering laws about the workings of social world, or, should the purpose of social science (and scholarly investigation more generally) be geared towards more middle-range theories applicable to the complex and messy realities of foreign policy. As I have stated before, I really doubt there is such theorizing about public diplomacy at the level Brown is concerned about – though I agree with his skepticism in a purely academic sense. And for the record, I’m fine with people making claims about theory and the standards of inquiry outside of the academy. Insert winking emoticon here.