Meet the Author: Bruce Gregory on "American Diplomacy’s Public Dimension"

CPD Faculty Fellow and George Washington University visiting scholar Bruce Gregory responds to questions from CPD’s Andrew Dubbins about his book American Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Practitioners as Change Agents in Foreign Relations, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2024). eBook text and paperback available at Palgrave.   Kindle and paperback available on Amazon.                         

What inspired you to write this book?

About ten years ago I began thinking about a book that would contribute to a growing scholarly literature on public diplomacy, serve as a textbook for students, and appeal to diplomacy practitioners. One day at a US Senate budget hearing, I was seated behind two former colleagues chatting amiably.  One was a champion of America’s international exchange programs, the other a stalwart defender of the Voice of America. I leaned over and said, “Ah, public diplomacy’s tribal cultures.”

The encounter led to a book about how rival practitioner communities with distinct identities and patterns of practice — foreign service officers, cultural diplomats, international broadcasters, soldiers, covert operatives, citizen groups, democratizers, and presidential aides — transformed America’s diplomacy and foreign relations. More than top-down laws and official directives, change agents in these communities have been instrumental in adapting tested repertoires of tools and methods to unexpected events, environmental trends, and creative learning.

A focus on communities of practice has several advantages. They span historical eras and transitory organizations. They exist in a whole of government context. They connect government and civil society. Their diverse and evolving norms, processes, spaces, tools, and methods are central to understanding diplomacy’s public dimension. I adopted the term “public dimension” because it better describes what is now central in diplomatic practice. Terms such as old and new “public diplomacy,” still perfectly acceptable, imply a separate field of practice bolted on to diplomacy. 

The book is an American story, but it draws on the insights of a global community of scholars, the ways US diplomacy practitioners engaged with foreign publics, and views of US and international students in my courses.

Could you overview the origins of American public diplomacy?

American public diplomacy is rooted in the politics, trade, and wars of European colonies and Native American tribes during the 150 years before the US became a sovereign state. Talented diplomats on both sides worked to span the divide between colonists, for whom publics were peripheral, and Indigenous peoples for whom publics and performative diplomacy were central. The understudied origins of American public diplomacy before statehood matters for two reasons.

First, the cross-cultural blend of diplomatic methods and the diplomacy of skilled European and Native “go-betweens” illuminate practices adopted in US public diplomacy and societal drivers of an American way of diplomacy. Rhode Island’s Roger Williams, New York’s Indian agent William Johnson, a Mohawk leader known as Chief Hendrick, and Creek leader Alexander McGillivray stand out among many for their public diplomacy skills in a process through which each side learned that success depended on understanding and accommodating the other’s languages, customs, and methods.

Second, the diplomacy and interrelations of peoples in North America before the American Revolution support a compelling alternative to the traditional story of discovery, expansion, and creation of an exceptional nation. Historians Alan Taylor and Ned Blackhawk are prominent voices in an ascending historical literature on the agency and skills of Native peoples during an era when previously separate and radically diverse people were forced to engage and adapt. Few in diplomacy studies and international relations have explored their foundational importance to US public diplomacy. There is an abundance of research opportunities.

Did you detect any notable patterns in America’s public diplomacy practice over the centuries?

The book explores two discernable patterns: historical turning points and societal drivers of an American way of diplomacy.

Turning points signaled important changes in public diplomacy practice. Precedent setting tools and methods used by citizen diplomats (Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine) in the royal courts, parliaments, and coffee houses of Europe during the American Revolution. State-sponsored public diplomacy by private citizens in wartime beginning with the US War with Mexico (1846-1848). The telegraph’s transformation of diplomatic communication previously limited to the speed of sailing ships and foot travel. The Foreign Section of George Creel’s Committee on Public Information in World War I, the first of many US government information organizations. The US decision to maintain public diplomacy organizations in peacetime after World War II. And a less precise turning point, today’s digitalization and societization that extend diplomacy well beyond embassies and foreign ministries.

Societal drivers of an enduring American way of diplomacy have particular relevance for public diplomacy. (1) A preference for military and economic instruments of power over diplomacy. (2) Episodic interest in public diplomacy in wartime. Time and again, from the Pequot War in the 1630s to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars after 9/11, Americans “re-discovered” public diplomacy when motivated by threats and fear. (3) A messaging and information dominant communication style born of a culture that prioritizes individual freedom. (4) An American exceptionalism characterized by the nation’s outsized view of its virtue, democracy, leadership in world affairs, and capacity to steer history.

What do you see as the greatest challenge confronting American public diplomacy today, and does it mirror any challenge of the past?

There is a buffet of “greatest” challenges.  Global problems with no agreed definitions, resolutions, and visible endpoints (climate, pandemics, inequality, migration). Quantum computing, “big data,” and artificial intelligence. Authoritarianism, populism, democratic recession, and the “return” of geopolitics. Diffusion of power from states to sovereign-free governance and diplomacy actors.

One challenge cutting across all of these is discussed in the book’s final chapter. How should practitioner communities think about and achieve change?

Approaches to thinking about change: Prioritize ways the State Department and US missions can leverage public diplomacy activities by others in government and society over what State can do on its own. Recruit and educate for cross-category knowledge rather than subject matter expertise, meaning enough understanding of the “languages” of complex issues to connect practitioners and experts in diplomatically productive ways. Emphasize micro-strategies — agile and iterative ways of planning and acting on a broad range of issues, not check lists of tools and objectives or five-year strategic plans.  Insist on deeper historical sensibility by practitioners to ways in which American’s self-image and history are perceived in the eyes of others.

Approaches to achieving change: Create learning cultures and incentivize professional education in all practitioner communities. Establish a diplomacy reserve and diplomatic surge capacity. Create a federally funded independent, non-profit diplomacy research and development center to provide knowledge, skills, and services to diplomacy practitioners. Expand mid-career lateral entry by persons with specialized skills. Put diplomacy first and technology second, recognizing that technology paradigm shifts, past and present, happen to diplomacy, should be used by diplomacy, but not become diplomacy.

What surprised you in researching this book?

The essential importance of Native American diplomacy to understanding American diplomacy’s public dimension.

The massive scale and transformative collective impact of public diplomacy’s practitioners — who coped for decades with the skepticism of many Americans and traditional diplomats — on US diplomacy and foreign relations in the 20th century.

The extent to which career practitioners — many of whom benefited from a year of academic study or an out of organization assignment — contributed to significant change in communities of practice.

The power of practice theory — the analytical and empirical study of what diplomatic practitioners do —a research approach used by a growing number of scholars to think systematically about diplomacy and international relations.

Artificial Intelligence has the potential to profoundly impact the field of public diplomacy. Can you point to a similarly disruptive force in America’s past that reshaped the field?

There have been several.  Digitalization and AI were unimaginable to colonial era “go-betweens,” but wampum, Covenant Chains, and print technology had a profound impact on diplomacy between literate and non-literate societies in North America. The telegraph radically changed diplomatic practices in the field and the structures and functions of embassies and foreign ministries. Speculating about a proposed transatlantic cable in 1864, US Minister to Britain Charles Francis Adams complained he would have to answer dispatches every day. What would he have said about email and X? In the 1930s, shortwave radio enabled governments to communicate over long distances directly to citizens in their homes for the first time.

Technology’s paradigm shifts changed diplomacy’s tools and methods. Practitioners adopted and adapted slowly in some cases (telegraph, shortwave, television), more rapidly in others (websites, internet streaming, social media). In each case, analog and digital technologies, new and disruptive at first, became ordinary over time. Whether AI is fundamentally different remains to be seen.

What skills do modern public diplomacy practitioners need to master to be effective?

Foreign language expertise, public communication skills, and deep historical and cultural awareness remain essential requirements for all diplomacy practitioners. But the US Foreign Service no longer needs separate political, economic, and public diplomacy career tracks. They are incompatible with the complexities of diplomacy’s environment and the reality that all practitioners have public diplomacy responsibilities. Cross-career track assignments are increasing. Rigid specialization creates inflexibilities. Practitioners cannot be equally adept at wielding all of diplomacy’s tools and methods. Training and professional education are needed more than ever. But this is true for diplomatic practice overall, not public diplomacy as a separate category.

Critical thinking and a capacity to innovate are crucial. More than specialized skills that change as technologies and patterns of practice change, diplomacy depends on practitioners who can adjust quickly. Practitioners must be proactive, flexible, imaginative, collaborative, resilient, and willing to embrace unexpected contingencies. Those seeking careers in diplomacy’s public dimension who can demonstrate these characteristics in addition to other qualifications will be competitive.

How would you describe the state of the “domestic dimensions of public diplomacy” in the United States? Why does it matter? What is being done in this regard? Who are key stakeholders/players/ decisionmakers or supporting government structures?

For most practical purposes, the categories “foreign” and “domestic” no longer exist. The internet and satellite footprints have long blurred the distinction. Cultural diplomats and democratizers have always managed exchanges and partnerships with civil society groups at home and abroad. In whole of government diplomacy, White House and National Security Council aides, cabinet officials, agency heads, military commanders, and their staffs routinely communicate with domestic and foreign publics. Lawyers and partisans with political agendas occasionally question activities that use appropriated funds for unauthorized domestic dissemination or for “publicity or propaganda purposes.” But US diplomacy practitioners by and large are unfettered. A point evidenced by the State Department’s creation of a Bureau of Global Public Affairs in 2019. It’s mission: “effectively communicating U.S. foreign policy priorities and the importance of diplomacy to American audiences, and engaging foreign publics. . . .”

What is the role of nonstate actors? Can they play a (bigger) role? What about subnational actors such as cities?

The role of cities and nonstate actors in diplomacy is substantial and growing. Diplomacy scholar Jan Melissen writes that governments and foreign ministries are more engaged with ordinary people in their domestic environments. Professor Geoffrey Wiseman explains that diplomacy’s boundaries are shifting to include polylateral diplomacy (state-non-state relations) and omnilateral diplomacy (relations between nonstate entities). Some scholars, however, are stretching diplomacy problematically to include almost all human relations. Boundaries between diplomacy and other forms of social interaction will be an issue for study and practice going forward. Not all political and social actors are diplomats, and much that happens in governance and society is not diplomacy.


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