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Rethinking U.S. Public Diplomacy


Disclaimer: This article is excerpted and adapted from a longer thesis paper completed during the author’s participation in the 2019-2020 Kathryn Davis PD Fellowship. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author only and do not represent the views or policies of the U.S. government.

As this paper went to press, Americans were in their fourth agonizing day of waiting for the final results of the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. No matter who the victor turns out to be, restoring America’s tarnished image abroad should be a central task for the next U.S. President. Public diplomacy (PD) will no doubt be a big part of any such effort, and a number of prominent U.S. foreign policy experts have already called for increased funding and resources for our State Department’s PD programs. As a Foreign Service Officer and PD practitioner for over a decade, I certainly echo these calls.

But the truth is that simply doing more public diplomacy is unlikely to achieve the desired outcome. Rather, we need to do more effective public diplomacy. And to be more effective, we need to get real about what PD can and can’t do. What PD can’t do, as the past two decades have shown us, is overcome bad foreign policies through “messaging,” or achieve large-scale development outcomes through small-scale grant programs. What PD can do is use programs such as exchanges, traveling speakers, English teaching and cultural events to build relationships and affinity for U.S. values that provide for sustained U.S. access and influence in important sectors of foreign societies. This access has benefits for the United States at the short- term, the intermediate-term, and the long-term levels. This approach, more realistic than others, acknowledges that while we as a nation can’t direct policy outcomes in foreign countries, we can shape those outcomes at critical moments by leveraging influence built up through relationships over time.

The truth is, all diplomacy is about relationship building, and PD activities are best understood as delivery mechanisms for relationships. The main reason this obvious truth is not more widely accepted is because PD has historically struggled to connect the dots between its programs, the long-term relationships the programs create, and the impact those relationships have on the achievement of foreign policy goals.

Thus, the task of rethinking public diplomacy begins with creating a framework to contextualize relationships over time. One way to do this is to situate all activities within the concept of the “ladder of engagement.” The ladder model shows how relationship-building activities complement and build on each other over the course of years or even decades in order to bring targeted foreign audiences closer to the U.S. orbit. The ladder is widest at its base, enabling the maximum number of people to climb on. As the engagement deepens, the ladder narrows. At the top, engagement is most profound with a relatively small number of the most influential audience members.

How would this look in practice? As an example, imagine a youth living in a foreign country who begins her climb on the ladder by attending a music concert organized by the U.S. Embassy. Intrigued, she visits the American Center where she learns more about U.S. culture and values. Continuing to climb, she enrolls in the English Access tutoring program to improve her English skills, and she visits the Education USA office to find out how to apply to colleges in the United States. After winning a scholarship to a prestigious American university and earning her undergraduate degree, she returns to her country and gets a job as a junior government official in her country’s Ministry of Energy. She joins the U.S. Embassy’s “alumni” association of former program participants and attends events regularly. A decade after her first interaction with the U.S. Embassy, she applies for a Humphrey Fellowship to continue her professional education in the United States. Returning home after a year of studies, she is promoted to a senior position within her country’s Ministry of Energy. In this role, she plays a vital part in negotiations to award a multi-million-dollar contract for hydro-electric turbines. Thanks to her professional expertise and her knowledge of the U.S., her arguments favoring the U.S. bidder win the day.

This is obviously an idealized example, and it would be absurd to imagine the ladder functioning quite so neatly in every (or even most) instances. But it does capture the idea of the conscious progression of engagement over time and the benefits this can yield. To create a ladder of engagement that actually functions this way, PD practitioners will require three core capabilities:

  • Understanding who our audiences are by using polling, analytics, data visualization and improved contact management software to identify important audience groups

  • Getting people onto the ladder by providing entry points such as revitalized American Centers, mobile American Spaces, English-teaching programs, and more dynamic cultural activities

  • Maintaining engagement by harnessing technology to track and evaluate relationships over time, while boosting alumni networks and giving PD practitioners additional resources to coordinate alumni activities

Some of this will be easy, some of it is extraordinarily difficult. For example, there are legitimate privacy and security concerns about tracking relationships over time, as well as questions about how to store and safeguard such data. I do not have the solutions, but I am confident the answers will be found once the State Department starts to prioritize these questions.

The bottom line is this: We are living in an era of unprecedented change, as traditional authorities are ceding more and more power to non-state actors, publics, and individuals. To achieve our foreign policy goals, we need strong relationships with diverse groups at every end of the political and economic spectrum. Public diplomacy provides the tools to engage with these groups, especially through its education, culture and person-to-person exchange programs. Congress and the State Department should prioritize these programs. And they should evaluate them on how well they build durable, influential relationships over time, not by unrealistic expectations of what the programs can immediately achieve.


MIKE PRYOR is one of two 2019-2020 Kathryn Davis Public Diplomacy Fellows selected by the Council of American Ambassadors. He currently serves as the Press Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. During his decade in the Foreign Service, he has served as the Public Affairs Officer in Lome, Togo; the Deputy Public Affairs Officer in Vientiane, Laos; and the American Citizen Services Chief in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he spent six years as a Public Affairs Specialist in the

U.S. Army. He deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan as a military reporter, and in 2008 he received the Paul Savanuck Award, the Army’s highest award for journalistic excellence. From 2000 to 2001, Mike was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia. He has a BA in history from Boston College.


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