It’s a new year for public diplomacy, and one that’s likely to be filled with opportunities and challenges. With this in mind, I have assembled a top 10 list for public diplomacy priorities for 2014. While by no means serving as a complete list of all the important issues facing U.S. public diplomacy, it is a reflection of the numerous discussions I have held with officials, practitioners, and academics over the past year. In no particular order:
1.) Confirm a new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
As of late, the Senate confirmation has been a dirty, partisan political business. Key national security positions, like that of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, continue to remain unfilled.
This is becoming a tired story for public diplomacy. Vacancy has been a continuing issue for this particular position: remaining unoccupied approximately 32% of the time since its creation in 1999, and without leadership since July 2013.
2.) Keep an eye on IIP
2013 saw the release of an Inspector General report on the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP). Of particular note was State Department spending on Facebook campaigns, which was held to particular scrutiny by the media. While the IG criticism offered on this issue was valid, it also noted that State Department spending was done to increase its Facebook audience reach, NOT to simply attract likes for the purpose of likes. The real question here, reflected in the IG report, is not that the State Department spent money on expanding its audience, but how it then taps and interacts with that audience in order to further foreign policy goals. That said, a number of changes, including leadership, have been brought to IIP recently, and the direction it’s heading will be important to objectively observe.
3.) Merge the analog and digital
If trends continue as they are, the world will continue to connect to the internet at an astonishing rate, meaning it’s important to stay ahead of the curve. While digital diplomacy provides certain advantages, it works best as a component to real world person to person communication. Not all portions of the world are as connected as the West, so maintaining non-virtual proficiency is still incredibly important. Considering all of this, practitioners should direct a certain level of attention when engaging online to seek tangible results that occur “offline.”
4.) Incorporate metrics
Some have referred to reliable metrics as the holy grail of public diplomacy. Though some aspects of public diplomacy may be immeasurable, it is a fallacy to brush off the necessity of developing metrics to determine whether U.S. efforts in this realm are having an effect. Public diplomacy has goals, and progress towards those goals can be measured. In order for public diplomacy to justify its budget to critics on the Hill, practitioners must make concerted efforts to develop short, medium, and long term metrics, that while difficult, will only help them become more effective in the long-run.
5.) Define a strategic narrative
Events since the turn of the century have created a great deal of confusion about America’s strategic purpose. What does America stand for? What does it believe in? While there are many answers to these questions, and some can be found in the founding principles and the history of this country, the partisan bickering occurring at home has not been painting American democracy as a shining example to be followed. American politics confuse audiences abroad. Questions of security vs. liberty vs. privacy have further clouded the outward message that the U.S. is sending. U.S. infrastructure is crumbling, and American competitiveness in many fields has decreased. It is thus difficult to construct a credible strategic narrative for the context of public diplomacy that can be used to further U.S. foreign policy goals.
This issue will not be easy to fix, but it is one that deserves attention.
6.) Get serious about U.S. International Broadcasting
U.S. international broadcasting has seen growing competition from well-funded outlets like RT and CCTV. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has gained several new board members recently, but still has two vacancies. Questions continue arise over the mission of U.S. international broadcasters and which broadcasting mediums are best. There has also been ongoing discussion about the creation of a CEO position at the BBG. With the modernization of Smith-Mundt last year, Americans are starting to become more exposed to what their international broadcasters are producing. It’s time to start paying more attention, and determine how international broadcasting can effectively serve America’s needs.
7.) Train the next generation
Comprehensive training goes beyond what the State Department does at the Foreign Service Institute or in the process of simply training new employees. Several universities around the country are educating students and professionals in the history, theory, and practice of public diplomacy. The expansion of university public diplomacy programs needs to continue, and become available for more students, especially at the undergraduate level. The State Department, BBG, and Department of Defense would all be wise to increase involvement, opportunities, and assistance where appropriate to the current crop of these university programs. The private sector stands to gain as well, benefitting from the skills, knowledge, and passion possessed by these students.
8.) Inform the Homeland
It is time to better connect the American public to public diplomacy efforts. American business, government, and education are far too tied to the global community for American citizenry to draw a blank when the term public diplomacy is used. Many Americans see public diplomacy practiced daily, often in the form of academic or cultural exchange. But this needs to be increased and expanded, especially towards Middle America. The best way to educate Americans is to expose them to the material and offer opportunities for participation. More Americans need to be sent abroad on international exchanges and build relationships overseas. Whether that is sending bluegrass to Central Asia or scientists to the Middle East, opportunities need to be made available for more Americans to learn about the world and teach about the United States.
Furthermore, our leaders should not be afraid to promote and discuss these programs in the public diplomacy context, many Americans could benefit from an awareness of how and why their government is reaching out to audiences overseas.
The U.S. and Iran are at a critical juncture in their historically troubled relationship. This is an opportunity that neither the United States nor Iran can afford to pass up. Iran’s President Rouhani has made incredible progress in changing the tone of rhetoric coming out of that country, and has openly engaged in public diplomacy aimed directly at an American audience. Sanctions have brought the Iranians back to the negotiating table, but domestic politics in both countries has the potential to derail a peaceful solution to the nuclear situation. For the sake of creating mutual understanding, the U.S. should be wary to not cede the public diplomacy realm completely to Iran and increase the use of PD as a tool in the effort to change the relationship between the two countries. PD has the potential to assist in reaching a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis in a way that both works for Iran and satisfies the legitimate security concerns of the U.S. and international community.
U.S. understanding of the situation in Egypt has been less than superb. Recent years have seen controversial moves by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and dangers to the diplomatic staff stationed there. The importance of maintaining a relationship with this key ally in the Middle East cannot be underestimated. The U.S. should make efforts to increase its on-the-ground understanding of the situation in Egypt, and assist where appropriate in the progress towards democracy.