Public diplomacy more important now than ever

By Ian Hutchinson

“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” This is what Secretary of Defense James Mattis told members of Congress at a meeting earlier this year.

He went on: “The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”

Now, I agree with Secretary Mattis on this count, and I’ve already written about how I feel about the (terrible) idea of cutting the State Department’s budget. Today, I want to argue a positive case, though, in favor of public diplomacy.

What is public diplomacy? There isn’t really one, solid definition, but I would define it as efforts a government makes to connect with and influence foreign publics to advance its interests.

It comes in a variety of forms including listening, advocacy, cultural and exchange diplomacy and international broadcasting. Public diplomacy, in a way, is a relationship between a government of one country and the people of another.

For example, consider Voice of America, the U.S. state-run radio and television broadcaster that produces news content in dozens of languages to be shared across the world. The group is responsible for being one of the faces of the United States to the world and projecting American ideals to everyday people in other countries, building political capital for the United States.

VOA is by no means the only channel of American public diplomacy. In the past, public diplomacy played an important role in winning the Cold War; the U.S. Information Agency sent traveling shows across the Soviet Union and showed everyday Soviet citizens the freedoms Americans enjoyed. In doing so, we won goodwill and political capital from our opponents.

Public diplomacy is not just a historical artifact, either. Although it certainly waned in the interest of American policymakers after the end of the Cold War, in today’s environment, it is more vital than ever.

For one, global opinions of the U.S. have been in free-fall this year; according to the Pew Research Center, the median global trust in the U.S. president to do the right thing has gone from 64 percent under Barack Obama to an appalling 22 percent under Donald Trump. A robust outreach to foreign publics could help mend some of this cratering global faith in U.S. leadership.

Secondly, the global media environment is more scrambled, fractured and confusing than ever. Russia, in particular, has become adept at using disinformation and factually questionable narratives to advance its interests.

Russia Today (RT) is a slick, savvy broadcaster that takes the Kremlin’s international aims and packages them in cable news-style segments. Through this cloaking, suddenly there is a narrative about how the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula was actually a struggle for freedom of a people from the oppressive grasp of Ukraine!

The United States cannot afford to sit back and let other countries dominate the airwaves and advance their often illiberal agendas unchallenged. We should instead be increasing funding for public diplomacy and working to integrate more private sector actors into the government.

Global publics do not form their opinions in a vacuum; they can be influenced by American public diplomacy. If we still stand for the values that people across the world still admire — dignity, entrepreneurial spirit and equality — then American public diplomacy efforts are worth our while.

Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at ianhutchinson@gwu.edu. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.