Center for Strategic Communication

The title to this post comes from 20th century literary and rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke. It suggests the capacity of language to constrain our actions. It’s a pragmatic stance on the power of language to shape what we can and should do, that how we talk about things sets up expectations for the future. The insight is foundational for scholars of foreign policy that pay attention to things like “discourse.” Meaning, we can learn a lot about a state’s strategic thinking by the way they frame issues in policy texts, public speeches, and in internal organizational communication. The power of the text is not just a fixation for textual scholars – it’s what policy-makers and practitioners use to talk to each other and make sense of what they are doing. If you don’t think this is important, consider Kristin Lord and Marc Lynch‘s efforts to re-brand public diplomacy as “strategic engagement.” Or, the reluctance of people like Alec Ross or Jared Cohen to call what they do “public diplomacy.” For them, “21st Century Statecraft” is not public diplomacy.

At the 2012 ISA conference. Matt Armstrong was a discussant for a panel on public diplomacy. He made some great comments (too many to list here), but he also casually noted that the paper I presented could be helped by using less academic language, in order for it to be useful for public diplomacy practitioners. Point taken. Though, I wasn’t really addressing the State Department.

But Matt’s point does suggest one (of many) wedge issues between the study and practice of public diplomacy. Scholars of PD have long argued about definitions and terms, in order to be better analysts. How can we do studies if we don’t know exactly what we are comparing or describing in an otherwise coherent, systematic way? Eytan Gilboa argued at ISA that interdisciplinary PD studies is fractured along disciplinary lines – we “see” what makes sense to use as scholars of diplomacy, international relations, communication, public relations, etc. Gilboa’s call for an “instrumentalist” approach is an appeal to terministic parsimony. We should agree on terms before we start studying, and, we should use the terms that practitioners use. If I’m going to develop some “Theory of Cultural Exchange,” my idea of cultural exchange should match what a practitioner would think that term means. Ask some international broadcasters if they think what they do is “public diplomacy.”

While I agree that sharing some terms is important for making what academics do available and useful for practitioners/policy-makers, the burden isn’t entirely on scholars to make this happen. Just like their over-worked cousins in government, academics labor to produce products that are of value to those that will judge them: other academics. And this requires attention to the genre constraints of that job. While I’m not a fan of esotericism for its own sake, I think practitioners could help themselves by being better consumers of academic argument. Academics may not always produce “shovel ready” ideas for immediate use, but their benefit (one could say, their vocational mandate) is their position to observe and reflect on what practitioners do in ways that are not always available to those they study, but may nevertheless provide insight.

For example, Robin Brown’s proposal for four “ideal types” of public diplomacy and strategic communication does not provide a readily applicable vocabulary that seamlessly corresponds to what public diplomacy practitioners do around the world. Ideal types do not necessary reflect “reality” – they are analytically convenient constructions, derived from observation and research, to make better scholarly arguments. As Brown notes, his four ideal types: Expanded Diplomacy, National Projection, Cultural Relations, and Political Warfare, are drawn from his extensive research, to help categorize, compare, and understand. They are not divorced from reality – they help us order and make sense of it.

Which brings me back to the power of words and language. I agree that we academics need more coherent and systematic ways to make arguments. That’s part of our job. But I would also argue that the politics of definition are just as interesting when talking about public diplomacy and strategic communication. Yes, it’s important to establish terms in order to better study the effectiveness of a particular program or to construct a focused case comparison. But it’s also important to look at the unstable nature of terms to constrain policy action and to shape understanding of the world. When US State Department technology advisor Alec Ross pointedly distinguishes “public diplomacy” from his own policies and programs, this signals a host of assumptions about the significance of US public diplomacy. The US has launched numerous online diplomacy initiatives, predicated on communication with publics, but yet it’s not “public diplomacy.” What does this mean for bigger questions about public diplomacy’s role in the relation between global politics and global communication?

As I contend, the rhetoric of policy itself is a crucial part of understanding the limits and possibilities of public diplomacy. What states do is just as important as how they explain, defend, and justify what they do. This attention to the language of PD is admittedly one small slice of the many questions that drive research in this field, but I think it alerts us to the contentious nature of definition that inevitably haunts the practice of public diplomacy and its integration into the larger, evolving institution of diplomacy.