Public Diplomacy Not Broken … So Can’t be Fixed

I attended another of those meetings on public diplomacy where earnest colleagues talk about what we can do to improve, reform or fix public diplomacy. I am not saying that we should not be seeking always to improve, but I have been hearing this same story ever since I started paying attention to such things more than a quarter century ago and I think it has been going on a lot longer than that.  When Ben Franklin returned from Paris, some people gave him a hard time about his activities there and complained that we just were not making the impact we should.   The pattern is that we decry the present or the recent past and then say how we have hope for the future.   I don’t think we can succeed in fixing the problem because it is not a problem that can be solved.  It is an ongoing situation that will never end until we are gone, all gone – in that eternal sense. That which cannot be changed must be welcomed.

Maybe we cannot fix public diplomacy any more than we can fix the need to eat.  It is just an endless need.  If we eat a big meal today, being hungry again tomorrow does not indicate a failure or eating or the need to reform our consumption methods.  

We often assume if we just explained better or understood our fellow man better, things would be okay.  Experience does not bear this out.  In most of history’s truly monumental conflicts, the warring sides understood each other only too well.  It was not a failure to communicate that got Xerxes in trouble with the Spartans at Thermopylae.  Ghengis Khan was fairly clear about what he wanted but it was not easy to find a mutually agreeable compromise with him.You can have some real conflicts of interests and real differences that do not represent a failure to communicate.   IMO, very often the more you talk about differences, the sharper they become.    Maybe simply ignoring them or kicking the can down the road is the solution, more on that below.  But let’s think about agreement first.

Agreeing about Most Things is Easy

First the good news.  The world is not a zero sum game.   We can get a lot when we work together and cooperate.  We agree MOST of the time and when we agree there are no controversies and not much scope for politics, persuasion or public diplomacy.    We have all kinds of non-controversial agreements.   On the local level, most of us agree to stop at red lights.  Although we have to persuade the occasional miscreant that the law applies to him too, there is no real controversy.   We have long standing agreements about very important things like telecommunications, navigation, air traffic control and postal services.   I can send a letter anyplace in the world because all of us agree that is a good thing.   

These agreements require constant maintenance, but it is more or less like painting your house or keeping your car tuned up – very little drama.  They work in the background, very much like whatever software is running your computer as you read this, and we rarely think about them.

Politics, diplomacy and violence are reserved for the places where we don’t easily agree.  It should come as no surprise that this relatively small subset of our activities gets most of our attention nor should we be too distressed that we constantly face new problems of this sort.   On those occasions when we succeed in solving one of these problems, it moves into the category in the earlier paragraph and we no longer pay any attention.  It is sort of like when you always find your keys in the last place you look and then you stop looking.  Human nature being what it is, after a problem is solved most people come to think that it was never really much of a problem in the first place and that it would have taken care of itself anyway.  Even really massive changes, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, start to look inevitable and easy as events recede into history.

Not Everybody is Nice

We are left with new problems and since yesterday’s solution is often today’s problem, we are also left with the impression that we are not making any progress.   In fact, we are NOT making progress because there is not end-state toward which we can progress.  I am not big on sports analogies, but one leaps to mind.   The Red Sox can never win an ultimate victory over the Yankees.    The Packers will never finally dispatch the Vikings.   A new season follows and the cycle never ends. Even if the players change, the general geography remains and familiar patterns persist.  All this doesn’t mean you can do nothing or you should be complacent unless – to stretch my sports analogy – you want to become the Chicago Cubs of world politics.   In fact, eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty.   And it is possible to have victories and good seasons.   We are not the victims of fate or mere random chance.  There just is no way out of the game until you are physically removed … and then it continues w/o you. 

To sum up, most of us CAN agree with others on MOST things. Those things you cannot agree about become the property of persuasion, politics, coercion and violence. They are problems by definition. It is best to keep as much as possible away from the politics, coercion and violence, but it is not always possible.  Of course peaceful, respectful persuasion is the best, if you can get it, but you can usually get it only in situations that are not the most severe and the others are always lurking in the background.   Just because you reject violence doesn’t mean it has been removed from the equation. Unfortunately, politics can be easier than working to create a solution, coercion is a very potent persuader and violence a very compelling public affairs message.

Sometimes it goes away if you ignore it

I once foiled a robbery attempt in the bookstore where I worked in Madison by not getting it.   A couple guys came in and hung around near the cash register.  When I asked them what they wanted, they said they wanted all the money in the register.  They didn’t brandish any weapons and they didn’t seem especially tough, so I just laughed at them and told them to beat it.   They went away.  I thought it was a joke until I saw on the news that police were seeking a couple of young men who had robbed a store down the street.  

I would like to put in a plug for avoidance & denial, when possible.  Don’t go looking for trouble.  Call it pluralism if you like.   I simply mean that we don’t have to agree on everything and there can be a wide sphere where people can do different, ostensibly contradictory things.  We should constantly seek to expand the areas where we can say, “I don’t like what you are doing, but I just don’t care enough to do anything about it” or better yet, “It is just none of my business.”  This can flow from, “I don’t know very much about what you are doing, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem for me” or “I don’t care what you do, as long as you stay over there.”   We don’t have to resolve all our differences if we can create environments where most differences don’t matter.    I understand that the attitude I describe will probably not make you famous and will make some people think you just are not paying attention but it makes most people happier and often works better than the more active and aggressive alternatives.   I am not advocating that we actually BE ignorant, as I was in my robbery example above.  I do advocate that we have enough self-awareness and humility to know that we cannot understand everything and may well be wrong in our judgments.  We don’t have to drill down and solve every problem.  I really don’t think the trouble is that the world hears too LITTLE from and about the U.S. 

Engaging is Easy

The latest buzzword for public diplomacy is engagement.   I like engagement.  It can be fun and you can learn a lot.   But it is not a panacea and it can be overdone if you start invading the pluralism “don’t know; don’t care” turf mentioned above.   Remember what Aristotle said about anger?   It applies to engagement too, so let me paraphrase.   Anybody can be engaged – that is easy, but to be engaged with the right people and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.