First 100 Days: What not to do in public diplomacy

March 21, 2009

Kristin Lord– Kristin Lord is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the recent report, “Voices of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century.” The views expressed are her own. –

As Senate confirmation hearings approach, America’s next public diplomacy leaders will get abundant advice about how to improve America’s standing in the world. The Obama administration’s nominees (an under secretary and at least two assistant secretaries in the State Department alone) would be wise to listen.

Yet, in truth, America’s new public diplomacy team can accomplish much by following that age old maxim: first, do no harm.  Seven key “don’ts” are worth bearing in mind.

1) Don’t let the pollsters get you down. Being liked and admired, while useful, should not be the sole metric of success in public diplomacy. The job of American public diplomacy leaders is to promote American national interests through the power of communication, build mutual trust and understanding, strengthen support for universal values Americans share, and build enduring relationships with current and future opinion leaders around the world. Measuring achievement through poll numbers encourages short-term thinking and can jeopardize long-term success.

2) Don’t forget the borders. More than 50 million foreign travelers spend their own money to visit the United States each year, a number that vastly exceeds the number of participants in U.S. government funded exchange programs. Talk of re-booting America’s image in the world will fall flat if those visitors feel badly treated at U.S. borders and consulates.

3) Don’t forget the Pentagon. The State Department controls just a fraction of the U.S. government’s personnel and budget for public diplomacy and strategic communication.  To have impact, the State Department’s public diplomacy leaders should engage the Defense Department and the rest of the U.S. government early on.

4) Don’t go it alone. As the State Department’s new director of policy planning wrote in a recent “Foreign Affairs” article, in today’s world the “measure of power is connectedness,” a fact that should give the United States tremendous advantages.  But to fully embrace the power of networks, the U.S. government must find new ways to mobilize private actors it does not control, support and call attention to the good work of others without taking credit, and (when it advances important American objectives) empower credible voices to speak out even if they fall out of step with official U.S. policies.

5) Don’t forget old standards. New leaders typically want to put their own mark on an institution.  Since U.S. public diplomacy needs fresh perspectives, this is desirable as well as understandable.  Nonetheless, enthusiasm for signature programs and whiz-bang technologies should not be allowed to overshadow the tried and true workhorses of public diplomacy: educational and professional exchanges, visitor programs, and personal outreach by diplomats in the field.

6) Don’t trust your gut. As a former senior official once remarked to me, “we cannot remind ourselves often enough that the rest of the world is not just like us.” Even the most savvy, knowledgeable, and experienced public diplomats can hit off-key notes or design poor public diplomacy programs by forgetting this simple rule.  Public diplomacy leaders must resist the urge for speed and remember to both listen and test new ideas against foreign ears.  They will sometimes be surprised at what they learn – and save themselves a world of trouble.

7)   Don’t forget friends. During the Cold War, the United States devoted substantial public diplomacy resources to winning and maintaining allies in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.  As we again (quite reasonably) worry about enemies, that lesson is worth remembering.  The United States faces a host of complex transnational challenges ranging from financial crises to narcotics trafficking, climate change to terrorism, and we will need all the help we can get to confront them.

In a world where two-thirds of the world’s nations are democracies and citizens worldwide have unprecedented access to information, the United States must engage foreign publics, not just their governments, if it wishes to garner foreign support.

Public diplomacy is a tough business.  Success usually goes unnoticed, but failures can resound globally.  Avoiding missteps is impossible but avoiding these seven mistakes will give America’s next public diplomacy leaders a useful head start.

4 comments

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I would add an important #8, which was recently suggested by Matt Armstrong, namely: Don’t Send the message that PD is unimportant by leaving State’s position of Under Secretary for PD/PA unfilled. If Jim Glassman’s description of that position as “regional commander for the war of ideas” has any merit–and it does–then leaving it vacant for lengthy periods certainly sends a message that it is a minor theater of operations. The longer the position goes unfilled, the longer it will take to start making real progress in this critical aspect of our international influence effort.

There have been millions of word written and spoken about what we ‘need’ to do in public diplomacy, but they are all pretty well summed up by Kristen’s article. Everyone should be tired of the rhetoric — let’s get on with the day-to-day operations, including the old time-tested programs such as exchanges. And, yes, lets clean up the entry mess.

Posted by Joe Bruns | Report as abusive

America has to lead by example. Diplomacy coupled with humility,pragmatism,multilateralism are excellent starting points. Foreign policy has to be executed very deftly. The reason why the Obama team is scoring very high marks in such a short space of time is that there is a fresh approach. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is highly astute and she has a team of highly experienced advisers who are deeply committed to their tasks at hand. Take Richard Holbrooke, a deeply respected negotiator, for example: the perfect diplomat who in less than 100 days has started on shuttle diplomacy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. America is regaining the moral high ground with trust and respect being regained.

Posted by Pancha Chandra | Report as abusive

Kristen Lord’s article is excellent. It’s so good to see our leaders doing the right thing for US and World. Tim Geithner is brilliant, Hillary is astounding, Obama – a tremendous diplomat! I never thought a Team could accomplish so very much in such a short couple of months! Wow! Go Democratic Party!

Posted by sprowlindak | Report as abusive