Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Public Diplomacy vs. Placido Domingo

I had a bit of an identity crisis when taking notes on these readings. In creating my own shorthand for the repeating IC terms in these essays, I turned “public diplomacy” into “PD” – and realized that since I’ve lived in DC, this was an abbreviation I’ve always used for Placido Domingo. When I first moved here it was to work at Washington National Opera; we all had arts backgrounds and we shuffled back and forth between our office in the Watergate and performances in the Kennedy Center. We didn’t talk much about politics and considered Placido Domingo more of a celebrity than any politician we encountered. In changing my field to work in international communication/education, I’ve worried about neglecting this part of my background. Reading Joseph Nye and others talk about the various forms of soft power, however, I was happily reminded that there is room for a meaningful coexistence of these interests. In reading about cultural exchanges, I even remembered that while I worked at the Opera our artists spent weeks performing as part of the “Great American Voices Military Base Tour”. While I didn’t think much of it at the time (besides wondering how entertaining these performances would be for our troops), it is interesting to note this unique collaboration between state and non-state actors – between the Department of Defense and OPERA America with funding from Boeing.

Glassman’s speech provided a number of concrete examples of State Department efforts in public diplomacy. While impressed with the modern use of technology, it was refreshing to hear him clarify that “Public Diplomacy 2.0 is a new approach, not a new technology”. I clearly favor what Nye describes as the “slow media of cultural diplomacy” – found through arts, books, and exchanges and resulting in a “trickle-down effect”, while much of what we learn about relates to the “fast information media”, promising “more immediate and visible bang for bucks.” Technology certainly provides the means, but it doesn’t replace the need for effective communication.

I really got into the Powers and Gilboa article on Al-Jazeera. I was largely unfamiliar with Al-Jazeera until I befriended a number of Yemenese students in a language class. During every class break, they would gather round the shared computers to catch up on the news. They explained the approach of the station to me, which was re-iterated in this article. There was an honesty in the approach of the “opinion and the other opinion” reporting that I could appreciate. While the article highlights many of the criticisms of their methods and their negative outcomes, I was struck by the Al-Jazeera reporter’s quote that he “is adamantly against the notion of neutrality. There is no such thing as a neutral journalist or a neutral media for that matter.” By providing two opposing opinions, this seemingly makes an attempt to balance out two non-neutral opinions and leave the viewer faced with choosing what is correct. (Problems arise, of course, when one “opinion” is not just an opinion – it is a factual representation of something that is happening. Or if there happen to be more than two viable opinions on an issue.)

The article closes by intimating that Al-Jazeera is providing a communications strategy that reflects the new public diplomacy, one that “blurs traditional distinctions between…public and traditional diplomacy, and between cultural diplomacy, marketing and news management.” The authors tip their hats to Nye’s concept of soft power, and close with a mention of our favorite concept: glocalization. (And speaking of Nye, it was great to finally read his Soft Power article after seeing so many references to it.) Finally, Price’s article provided a number of surprises: among them the first academic citation of a Washington Times article that I’ve ever seen, but also a number of welcome Midwest shout-outs, including an extended description of the Dayton Peace Accords and a re-cap of Sen. Carl Levin’s Bosnian efforts.


  1. Liz, I too am enthusiastic about the use of cultural exchanges as a tool of public diplomacy. I think it is one of the best ways to truly relate to a foreign audience and create mutual understanding. What role, if any, do you think the private sector can play in these exchanges? That question was posed at the cultural diplomacy conference a few weeks ago and I find it quite interesting. I think public sector exchanges are extremely effective, however, I think administering them as a tool of public diplomacy might be an interesting dilemma.

  2. Hi Zainabu,
    I definitely think the private sector can play a critical role in cultural exchanges. First the easy one: funding! But on a deeper and more involved level, by sponsoring students and employees that participate in these exchanges. The program I was on in Berlin with my husband existed because of both of these: first, a big name Germany company paid for the fellows to live and work in Germany, but just as importantly, private organizations were willing to open their doors and have Americans work in their offices. The payoff can be huge (many of our friends are still working in Germany and are bringing a unique perspective to their work) and for many companies that have international interests, this is a perfect way to find new talent.