New US stress on public diplomacy

William Fisher

As the US faces increasingly negative attitudes around the world, the previously arcane subject of public diplomacy has become a serious issue in the Bush administration, Congress, universities, think-tanks and with ordinary people. Repeated polls have shown that negative overseas perceptions of the US are largely a product of Washington’s policies, especially those in the Arab and Muslim world. Particularly incendiary among Arabs and other Muslims are the invasion of Iraq, the US abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and what many foreigners see as the US’s one-sided support of Israel. The importance the administration places on finding new ways to counter these negative perceptions has been underlined by Bush’s nomination of his close confidante and advisor, Karen Hughes, to be undersecretary of state for Public Diplomacy, and former White House personnel chief, Egyptian-born Dina Habib Powell, to be her deputy. But neither of these individuals have had any formal training in crafting and communicating messages that will resonate with foreign audiences who represent widely varying cultural, social, political and economic backgrounds.

That should not come as a surprise: most of the people who actually work in the public diplomacy field today have learned their craft largely from on-the-job experience. But next month, the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles will begin teaching courses in a new programme that will offer a Master’s Degree in Public Diplomacy — the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The two-year programme will be offered jointly by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ School of International Relations. The degree programme will officially launch in fall 2006. Just appointed to head the programme is one of the best-known names in the public diplomacy field — Prof Nicholas J Cull. He specialises in US foreign policy, the history of propaganda and the politics of popular culture, and is the author of numerous books on the subject. He told IPS, “A good public diplomacy response would be to show more of the debate within the US so the Arab world understands there are plenty of people who disapprove of much of American-Israeli policy, and conversely that there are reasons why the US behaves the way that it does.”

“There is a pressing need for a cadre of well-trained graduates who will understand diverse cultures, new forms of communication technology and a wide range of communication tools, ranging from cultural diplomacy to international broadcasting,” said USC Annenberg Dean Geoffrey Cowan. Traditional definitions of public diplomacy include: government-sponsored cultural, educational and informational programmes; and citizen-exchange programmes and broadcasts such as the BBC World Service that are used by governments to promote the national interests of a country through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences. The new programme will use these definitions as starting points, but will address new ways — such as independent news organisations like Al Jazeera and non-governmental organisations — to influence and shape the worldview of citizens of foreign countries. — IPS