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Engagement is the New Public Diplomacy or the Adventures of a Euphemism of a Euphemism

Jun 5, 2009


President Barack Obama inherited two major public diplomacy problems. The first was the obvious crisis in America's communication with the world and the attendant decline in America's global standing. The second was the identification of the process of public diplomacy with the administration of George W. Bush. It was a paradox. The administration could not summon the cure without reminding people of one of the causes of the disease. The linking of Bush with Public Diplomacy was not wholly fair. The term was brought into its modern use in the U.S. in 1965, and moved into global currency during the 1990s. It was the Clinton administration that created an Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy at the Department of State in 1998 and initially the Bush administration paid little attention to that dimension of international relations. 9/11 came before Colin Powell's choice of Under Secretary had taken up her post. The aftermath of 9/11 is well known. The official emphasis on reaching out to the world; the plaintive asking: 'why do they hate us?' The names of the appointees charged with selling the Bush approach to the world: Charlotte Beers, Margaret Tutwiler, Karen Hughes and finally James K. Glassman. It now seems that while the Obama White House is applying itself to the business of public diplomacy, it is leaving that terminology behind. The preferred term seems to be 'engagement'. Thus the Cairo speech has been presented as 'engaging the Muslim world,' and on 26 May the White House announced the creation of a Global Engagement Directive, to coordinate elements of American outreach including aid, communication and diplomacy. Public diplomacy per se was not mentioned but the blogosphere had no doubts that that was meant.

The term engagement has much to commend it. It is not the term public diplomacy. It is already used in slightly different ways in the worlds of marketing and the military and can therefore be assumed to fall reassuringly on the ears of both those constituencies. It has already gained currency among NGOs and other practitioners of international communication. 2007 saw the launch of a new Washington think-tank on the public diplomacy/smart power beat called the Center for U.S. Global Engagement. In the summer of 2008 the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office published an anthology called Engagement: Public Diplomacy for a Globalised World. In May 2009 NAFSA (the Association of International Educators) held its annual conference under the strap-line 'fostering global engagement through international education.' Engagement is the word of the moment. Engagement is in the air.

But we have been here before. Public diplomacy was originally adopted as a euphemism for propaganda. The Washington of 1965 needed an open phrase which they could fill with benign meanings, so that they could tell the world: 'Those wicked communists do propaganda. We democratic Americans do public diplomacy.' Previous generations had experimented with terms like 'information' and 'publicity.' When, in 1953, President Eisenhower named an official with responsibilities not dissimilar to those of the Global Engagement Directive he called him his 'Special Adviser for Psychological Warfare.'

These name changes are not without material significance. Every shift in terminology provides an opportunity for reform. The word Engagement has the advantage of not being owned by any one player. It certainly doesn't lean one way in the same way as the rather militarized term Strategic Communication. More than this, it is being used to describe a larger field than just diplomacy. It provides a logic for coordinating the management of international aid and development and the whole range of activities that go to make up a nation's 'soft power.'

But there is a word of warning. Opportunities are easily missed and old institutional habits and rivalries die hard. Eisenhower's three successive special advisers in this area – C. D. Jackson, William Jackson and Nelson Rockefeller – were all broken on a wheel of State Department resistance. Moreover, the career of public diplomacy as a term suggests that whatever word is used to refer to the meeting point of an international actor and a foreign public will earn a bad name sooner or later. Of course, it is no bad thing to get out ahead of the pack and indicate a willingness to break with the past. The danger – as with any re-branding or re-labeling – is that the product or behavior behind the label does not change. For Obama-era Global Engagement to mean more than Bush-era Public Diplomacy it needs to be more than Bush-era Public Diplomacy. As ever, we travel in hope.


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The term of art in the Clinton Administration was the slightly obscene "enlargement." You might want to consider the possibility that the paternity for this new term --"engagement" -- lies there in recent Democratic administration phraseology and thinking about America's role in the world rather than as a euphemism for public diplomacy and a reaction to Bush. It would suggest that economic development women;s rights, and humanitarian global goods have priority over public diplomacy (or strategic communication) as was the case in the Clinton Administration when USIA was euthanized.

There is a good Foreign Affairs piece discussing the origin of the word "enlargement" in the Anthony Lake sponsored "Kennan Sweepstakes" here:

I know it is seductive to think the Obama administration is following in the footsteps of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and their excellent report; but perhaps there is no relationship at all. Perhaps that bodes even less well for public diplomacy than you had suggested. Time will tell.




Just a nitpick (I can't resist getting PD history right): the new Undersecretary in State came into being in October 1999, not during 1998.


Mike, While the USIA was not

Mike, While the USIA was not formally consolidated into the State Department until 1999,(see, I would say that arguably the 1998 date for the creation of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs position is not technically incorrect, as the “Reorganization Plan and Report
Submitted by President Clinton to the Congress on December 30, 1998,
Pursuant to Section 1601 of the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, as Contained in Public Law 105-277” specified (and thus, arguably, "created") the function of an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs: “Proposed Integration into State [:] The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs will advise the Secretary of State on public diplomacy and public affairs. The Under Secretary will provide policy oversight for two bureaus dealing with public diplomacy and public affairs, and coordinate such activities in State.”

best, john



The mendacity of eumhemisms is worse than you say. It is not a two-latered but has three or even four levels, like a Napoleon cake. "Information" was Creel's eupemism for propaganda, which he admitted openly. It bounced around in the 40's and ended up as the key-word in USIA in 1953.

PD was invented for his own purposes, again admittedly to avoid Propaganda, by Ed Gullion in 1967. It did no honor to the man it enshrined. It did not slither its way into government until the summer of 1978 when veteran propagandist Lou Olom, exec of the Advisroy Commission for the new ICA--NB euphemism 2, C'cation-- spent months with the new chair of the memberless commission Olin Robison nattering over a manageable name for the Commission. Olom suggestred PD and Robison grabbed at it, as he would have at any straw after months circling. The general misinterpretation of the phrase, which has continued until our times, allowed the Reagan White House to load the Commission with propagandists--after the first two academics rotated off (JHFranklin and Robison), they put on anyone they wanted to this bi-partisan group, including "Democrats" who happened to have supported Reagan.

"Engagement" is based on an active verb, thus is a functioonal word, denoting exactly what CD (and hoppefully PD too, at its best) are designed to do. It is not altogether a bad name, so long as the US is incapable of swallowing the reality that what it intends is massively cultural and only marginally propagandistic, as most of the world's nations have known all along.

I hope this will interest you. If you'll send me your private email, I'll send you a tidbit that will interest you for sure.

Dick Arndt

All good points, Nick.

All good points, Nick.

To be sure, when it comes to international political communications, the best PD can never compensate for flawed policy or failed practice. In that respect, so far since last November there appears to have been been rather more hope than change on display.

There are some possible reasons as well to be concerned with the concept of smart power, which I think rests on some highly volatile and possibly incorrect assumptions. Moreover, as soon as PD is placed in any kind of power context or framework, genuine dialogue becomes very difficult.

For more along these lines, you and your readers might be interested in a glance at this short take:




Apart from a more active-sounding approach, the change from PD to Engagement looks like it signals a change on two fronts:
- in terms of the depth of its reach - the White House "Global Engagement Directorate (GED) is supposed to leverage diplomacy, communications, international development and assistance" which suggests a linkage with the real money, which has an impact on the ground. Here we in the EU have always been playing catch-up, trying to match the real positive changes brought about by our aid policy with the perception of effectiveness, and with long-term change; and
- in terms of policy – the GED objectives apparently include “leverage …of domestic engagement and outreach in pursuit of a host of national security objectives, including those related to homeland security.”. Does this suggest a fresh look at Smith Mundt?”



is engagement a theory or

is engagement a theory or does any theory show engagement for effectiveness of Public Diplomacy for both countries trying to build their people to people relations?


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