Last week, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale delivered the opening remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations’ forum entitled, “Strengthening U.S. Engagement with the World: A Review of U.S. Public Diplomacy.” Her brief speech addressed the State Department’s broad goals for the future of public diplomacy in policy making. The changed and changing political environment, especially in the wake of popular revolutions across the Middle East, has highlighted the necessity for a new approach to foreign policy, she argued.
McHale began by saying that power must be thought of using a more accurate metaphor, such as an inverted pyramid, a mass of active social participants crushing a single strongman. Her main argument touched on two important points: adaptive measures for the future and mistakes of the past. The second – and perhaps the more self-evident of the two- concerned U.S. reaction to the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, she argued, the U.S. was unable to engage effectively with the public. Years of policy norms dictated diplomacy was to be conducted through specific channels- between leaders, the elite, and a few key actors.
“Only months ago,” she said, “the set of actors who mattered in Tunisia was extremely limited. Whether in business or politics, a small group held the keys to power. Broader outreach was virtually impossible. And our Embassy and programs were largely designed to operate effectively in that world.” The government’s fault has been to ignore those that are driving change
McHale’s first point touched upon how the U.S. must reorient its own conceptions of foreign policy to adapt to this changed environment. Diplomacy must include some form of public engagement from the beginning, in order to reach past governmental channels and communicate more directly with society. Changing our attitude and approach to diplomacy is necessary not only to aid an unrepresented public, but also to improve U.S. image and broaden U.S. influence in hard to reach places.
Here McHale’s argument became hazier. She suggested that the U.S. must go on a public diplomacy offensive in order to effectively “contend with” various international influencers. Yet this view posits the U.S. as a weak player vying to influence the powerful masses, as if it were a game, dependent on who is the most technologically savvy in “the internet age.” McHale argues for using the same techniques as activists, working with the media as a product would target a consumer. (She indeed uses the metaphor of “a marketplace of ideas”).
This image is problematic. While the U.S. should alter its diplomacy to reflect wider channels, McHale’s argument for active public diplomacy comes off as pure propaganda. Indeed one of the core arguments surrounding public diplomacy is whether it can be effectively conducted through the state. Should public diplomacy be just that- public on both sides?
At 9:30 tomorrow morning (June 29th), Under Secretary McHale will engage in the State Department’s efforts towards global diplomacy in action: a first ever international “Twitter Q & A.” (Information about submitting questions can be found here.) Perhaps a broad engagement with the public is what the State Department needs to show that their effort in public diplomacy is more than a propaganda project.