Saturday, July 28, 2012

Nonsense/sense about Public Diplomacy

For my sins, which are many, I compile, on a near-daily basis, a Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review. It is, essentially, a journal of our 21st-century America plague years as they regard America's relation to the world.

Every page I compile in the Review, I tell myself, is one less day in purgatory.

As a former Foreign Service officer (FSO), having had the privilege to serve my country (the United States of America) abroad for over twenty years, I have it (as they say) "up to here" with the theoretical, abstract discussions on "pubic diplomacy" (no typo) by (as Walt Whitman would put it) "learned astronomers." Not to speak, of course, of "policy failures" by administrations in power. But my focus is more on the concrete, not abstract "geopolitics."

The learned PD astronomers' great discovery, as I struggle through some of their jargon-filled articles (memoirs of persons who actually practiced PD are far more instructive and more readable, in my view), is that PD means "listening."

But as anyone who's actually been "out there" (in the so-called "field," representing our country) it's the obvious thing to do from day one. Talking (sorry, listening!) about the obvious!

As my father, a career diplomat but poet above all, put it so well, some 50 years ago in the Foreign Service Journal (1964): "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."

It does not take an Einstein to figure that out -- you listen before you talk (but not use that as an excuse not to speak, not speaking being bureaucrats' favorite language).

Why "listening" should be the academy's great contribution to "Public Diplomacy" is, to me, a person who listened for over twenty years in Eastern Europe on behalf of our government (with much gratitude to the US taxpayer), a puzzle. That is perhaps because much of the academy seldom bothers seriously to listen to diplomats (I won't say -- anyone else, including itself), having its own preconceived notions of what American Foreign Policy (I capitalize these words on purpose) should be, without having any notion of what it's like to carry our day-today "diplomacy" in the so-called real world.

Tenured professors without diplomatic experience in the growing PD academic cottage industry, creating their own "public diplomacy" programs, are, I would venture to say, cheating (yes, too strong a word) their students, by suggesting to them that learning "public diplomacy" is a trade/skill like learning how to fix a toilet (Good luck, young people, finding a job if you have an MA in "PD." I would say: Stick to plumbing).

Well, ok, the learned professors deal with "intellectual matters," not mundane things like toilets. But still this is not, I would say in my darker moods, their subliminal message: Pay your tuition, and you'll get a high paying "international affairs" job 'cuzz you've been trained to do something from  a fancy UNIVERSITY!!!

PD=How to. A preconceived "craft" (as opposed to an inspiration/improvisation/service based on accumulated experience). What an illusion!

All too sadly, few of the learned astronomers, who never actually "practiced" PD "teaching" the subejct, can impart to their MA students the reality of the Foreign Service PD life (forget, dear young and not so-young people in search of a job, about your great public-diplomacy strategy research paper that allows you to get an "MA" in public diplomacy that will automatically lead you to becoming an ambassador). The PD diplomatic life is not that theoretical. It's, above all, about the nitty-gritty. Some "mundane" examples of its real-life manifestations:

--Being nice/beararable to everyone "at the Embassy post"
--Meeting VIPs at airports
--Having to put up with Secret Service overpaid goons during official visits as a "site officer"
--Getting that grant to an NGO though the Embassy bureaucracy
--Making sure the guest lists for the Ambassador's reception for local artists/editors is right
--Getting the right radio station to interview the Ambassador
--Arranging the diplomatically proper meetings for the Ambassador
--Attending endless and often useless "country-team" meeting
--Kissing ass to the the higher-ups at the Embassy
--Keeping your mouth shut most of the time
--Brushing your teeth

And, if the Embassy bureaucracy will allow you (much depends on the background/sensitivity of the Ambassador) actually doing your PD job:

--Meeting the best and the brightest in the country where you are posted and exchanging ideas with them, in support of the national interests of the United States.

With the possible exception of the last one, these items don't sound very important/idealistic, and indeed they're not. But they are the small details/realities of PD Foreign Service life (warts and all) that form most of its backbone. Some bring advantages to the American taxpayer, all too many don't.

At its "most effective" in the field, I think in my most pessimistic (realistic?) moments, public diplomacy avoids gaffes/embarrassments to the USG overseas. Perhaps my most laudable achievement as a PD officer was when I got a high-ranking Pentagon official through Russian customs because I could mumble, in the language of Pushkin, to Moscow customs officers that "the American off the plane" was "important" -- which the well-intentioned DoD personnel waiting for the VIP was incapable of doing, given that its knowledge of Russian (and Russian mores) was quite more limited than my own.

Nothing very "academic" in all this. Well, ok, take a course on how you -- ambitious, interested in "international communications", and hoping to be proud holder of an expensively-paid-for advanced degree in "public diplomacy" -- would deal a "public diplomacy strategy" in country X nobody, and I mean nobody, at Embassy Country X would pay attention to, given how busy their are with their own agenda.

But -- and here I am getting "serious" -- most important, US university PD programs, so far as I know, do not emphasize the knowledge of foreign languages, a "must" if you wish to be an effective Foreign Service officer. Can you, proud holder of a PD degree, speak to a customs officer in her native language when a US official can't get through customs?

And how much are PD "advanced" students taught about history, except as a peripheral consideration to abstract "case studies"? These doubtless brilliant students will write research papers on, say, "Indian" PD, but are how familiar are they with India's art/literature or, indeed, with India itself?

I have the privilege to teach occasional courses at Georgetown University pertaining to US public diplomacy. I absolve myself of "selling" a training course leading to a "PD" job in the federal bureaucracy by stating that the course is meant to be a "historical" (hysterical?) overview of the subject.

I do have a Ph.D in history, to reassure myself -- and I hope my students -- that I am not a total fraud.

Indeed, the history of American public diplomacy is quite an intellectually fascinating -- and ethically troubling -- subject in itself, especially as regards its relationship to propaganda (and, of course, on how it illustrates, throughout the centuries, the tension between rhetoric and philosophy).

But a course on this "public diplomacy" subject, which I hope opens minds, does not automatically lead to a job in the real world. At most, it can lead to a better sense of humor.

I hope that, by frankly stating the above, I will have a few less days in purgatory.

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