What Is Public Diplomacy?

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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 24 April 2020
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Public diplomacy is a form of international relations, or some would say propaganda, where a nation tries to influence the citizenry of another nation towards favorable views through various public educational, entertaining, or inspiring approaches. Though public diplomacy is loosely defined and can carry different connotations, it has clear goals in mind. It is an attempt to influence the outlook of foreign populations, and this can be seen as either mutually useful by the nations involved, or as a form of political warfare.

Foreign embassies are the main source for local public diplomacy. When local officials, students, or merchants approach an embassy for guidance on its policies, trade, educational exchanges, and so on, they are directed to speak to diplomats whose sole purpose is to promote their native country in the most favorable light possible. Diplomats are also charged with promoting the activities of their own citizens residing in foreign nations or engaging in international competitions, such as athletes, performers, and artists.

Events that might seem harmlessly uplifting to a local population can still be used as a form of public diplomacy. The US Apollo 11 mission that landed men on the moon on 20 July 1969 is a good example. The Voice of America, operating as a radio service of the United States Information Agency (USIA), used it as an opportunity to broadcast a view of American technological superiority and cultural dominance to the rest of the world.

Another example of public diplomacy in action is how the small nation of Cuba has utilized its stature as an underdog against the much more powerful United States, along with projecting an image of its leader Fidel Castro as a victim of imperialist propaganda. In the early 1960s, its efforts at this type of soft public diplomacy allowed it to end its political isolation and garner support from such groups as the Organization for Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL). As well, Cuba promotes cultural diplomacy by hosting up to 30,000 foreign students in Cuban educational programs, and sends thousands of doctors and other medical personnel to developing nations annually in an effort at good will and alliance building.

Whether public diplomacy is really propaganda at work or motivated through altruistic means is in the eyes of the beholder. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's channeling of millions of dollars into building the African Union alliance of 53 nations was seen in Africa as a mutually beneficial approach towards local economic and political integration of the continent. The ultimate goal was one of a union like the European Union, with a single currency, passport, and single African military force for all. Western nations, however, saw it as a long-term form of public diplomacy, an attempt by Libya to buy friends with petrodollars in a transparent attempt to create a power bloc that could rival the west in the region.

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