Caitlin E. Schindler. The Origins of Public Diplomacy in US Statecraft: Uncovering a Forgotten Tradition. Palgrave Macmillan Series in Global Public Diplomacy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 325 pp. $149.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-319-57278-9.
Reviewed by Giles Scott-Smith (Leiden University)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2018)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
The Origins of Public Diplomacy in US Statecraft by Caitlin E. Schindler provides a lucid and engaging reinterpretation of US public diplomacy from the founding of the republic to the end of World War II. By recasting public diplomacy as “foreign public engagement,” it defines the field of study to cover “any conscious effort by the US government or private entities to interact or communicate with people of foreign nations, beyond superficial relationships such as trade and administrative correspondences, for geopolitical purposes” (p. 10). From this broad starting point, the book aims to address three apparent long-running problems related to the practice of public diplomacy, here categorized as organizational (the institutions responsible for carrying it out), conceptual (definitions of public diplomacy and its goals), and ideological (its relation to US values and American exceptionalism). In doing so, the book seeks to clarify the relationship between public diplomacy and statecraft and the motives behind its application, with an eye to “solving” these problems for a more effective, workable result.
The first section of the book provides a run-through of well-known dilemmas, defining diplomacy, public diplomacy, statecraft, and propaganda, as well as the political culture of the United States. Schindler tells us that “while simultaneously advocating for isolation or at least separation from the world politically, US leaders and the American public did hope to spread the American model around the world” (p. 18). This seems to simplify the quite profound divide during the first century of the United States between those who demanded that the nation should be an active proselytizer of its values (the “vindicationalists,” represented initially by Thomas Jefferson) and those who felt the nation should influence others as a model alone (the “exemplarists,” represented by John Quincy Adams). Instead, this opening section promotes the “city on a hill” thesis as the catalyst for “foreign public engagement” and the belief that US principles and values were universally applicable.
The book then moves into six detailed case studies, covering the independence period (focusing on the role of Benjamin Franklin in France), the Civil War (and emissaries to Britain), the late nineteenth century (and relief operations for Cuba), World War I (George Creel and the Committee on Public Information [CPI]), the interwar period (the growth of private institutions and the role of philanthropy), and World War II (the expanding government role and the increasing demands of national security). To analyze these six quite different contexts, the author brings in Nicolas Cull’s set of six “core practices”: listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, international broadcasting, and psychological warfare. By applying these in each case, and by investigating what was at stake and how it was dealt with, the ambition is to draw from history a “general conceptual model” for US public diplomacy today (p. 27).
Overall, the book gathers together an impressive amount of archival work as it sifts through the evidence to build its narrative. Each chapter draws on a substantial number of primary sources, strengthening the author’s claim to be recasting the history of US public diplomacy. This approach of using historical case studies to make grand claims about US history exposes some of the work’s shortfalls. It would not seem possible to engage in “international broadcasting” in the eighteenth century, but this category is applied to the efforts to distribute copies of key US documents to French audiences in the 1770s. Even granting dispensation for a broad interpretation of “broadcasting,” most of this was carried out by the French in support of the United States rather than American diplomats per se. Likewise, Ben Franklin is assumed to be carrying out “educational exchange” when he conducted his correspondence via the Republic of Letters (pp. 55, 60). In other words, the categories set out by Cull are being stretched somewhat to sustain the argument. This is unfortunate because it does undermine the otherwise impressive historical research.
Once the narrative moves to the late nineteenth century, the dominant theme becomes the gradual, if reluctant, expansion of the government’s role. However, the crucial aspect of this, and one that is certainly emphasized by the author, is that government saw itself as principally a facilitator for the already-existing innovative engagement schemes being generated by the private sector. This is of course a well-known story, but the book manages to add additional perspectives by focusing on particular public-private relationships. Prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898, Clara Barton established the American National Red Cross to run relief operations for the Cuban population during their long-running resistance to Spanish rule. Barton used this as a platform to pressure the government into humanitarian assistance, something that it was unwilling to undertake. Similarly, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace played a key role in furthering US cultural ties with Latin America at a time when the State Department did not view such activities as its essential task. The outcome of these partnerships was not always clear. Schindler refers to the Carnegie-State relationship as “nebulous” to indicate the unclear nature of responsibility (p. 135). Key personnel such as Elihu Root moved seamlessly from one to the other, blurring the lines of what was and what was not “official” US diplomacy.
In the chapter on World War I, Schindler does a good job illustrating a lesser-known dimension to Creel’s CPI, namely, its international activities. What this reveals is a patchwork of opinion on what the committee was set up to do, and how it should achieve its various goals: an official news agency, an advertising bureau for government objectives, a source of reliable information for other news outlets, or a propaganda outfit selling the greater cause of US involvement in the war. It was this last goal that ultimately won out, mainly because the committee became too embroiled with supporting Woodrow Wilson’s political fortunes, and as a result party politics and national interest began to merge. The committee is renowned as the first major use of US government-sponsored propaganda and naturally generated considerable criticism as a result, setting the scene for all further debates on the acceptable role of government in information-provision. But Schindler emphasizes that it was also a site of considerable debate in its own right, as officials at the CPI put forward different views on what it was they should be doing and why. In particular, there is an interesting contrast between committee member Arthur Bullard’s call for a “democratic diplomacy” directed at peoples and bypassing the secret agreements of governments, and those who pushed the pursuit of commercial interests as a means to forge greater interdependence and so peace. From both positions, governments and their official diplomacy were the source of the problem, not the solution. The “new diplomacy” of both public-private partnerships and grassroots contacts was going to solve this.
But there was no clear blueprint emerging as to how this would be done, or who was supposed to lead the process. The riot of internationalism that marked the 1920s staked a strong claim for the privatization of engagement at all levels, but the need for some connection to foreign policy interests—particularly in a wartime situation—inevitably meant that government was going to intervene. But past experience with the CPI meant that when it came, the intervention mirrored factional and regional interests rather than a single administrative core that ran everything. Thus, the arrival of the State Department’s Division of Cultural Relations in 1938 was soon followed by the World War II era Office of War Information, the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and the Office of Strategic Services. Disagreements continued after the war as to the relationship between cultural diplomacy and exchanges on one side (seen as depoliticized) and information on the other (more firmly seen as politicized).
The book concludes by commenting on a set of patterns that “emerged” from the historical case studies. Firstly, over time many parties recognized that some form of communication with other peoples was essential, not least to try and project a “correct” image of the United States. Secondly, various types of engagement, ranging from exchanges to broadcasting and psychological warfare, developed gradually. Thirdly, there was recognition of the importance of individuals and organizations for promoting a certain understanding of internationalism, both domestically and abroad. Fourthly, the importance of public-private partnerships for allaying fears of an all-powerful, propagandizing government was also noted. Lastly, the essential role of public participation as a reflection of the democratic values inherent in American society was made clear. Out of this list is distilled a next group of factors that influenced the development of public diplomacy: political culture, the role of private engagement efforts, historical experience, state infrastructure, and foreign policy traditions. Unfortunately the list of explanatory variables is so large as to be devoid of any real meaning. The intent of the book to “solve” problems related to the application of public diplomacy is therefore surely undermined.
However, the next step distills the results beyond these rather general statements. Returning to the three-dimensional analysis of the introduction, the author further proposes that the United States needs to define its role in the world (ideological), that public diplomacy should be upgraded as a section of the State Department equal to political and economic affairs (organizational), and that there should be less of a focus on communication and more on representation (conceptual). This last point emphasizes how a vital shift is needed away from public diplomacy as information (selling the USA) and toward public diplomacy as “the diplomat fulfilling a public role” (building relationships). This is the most important conclusion of the book, and not one that was particularly present in the analysis of all the case studies. For the reader, the main conclusion would seem to be that the private sector is the vibrant, somewhat erratic, yet most effective driver of US public diplomacy, and that the role of government should be limited to coordinator and facilitator, only taking a front seat role when the private sector fails to provide the necessary know-how or wherewithal. Transforming the State Department’s mentality is fine, but upgrading public diplomacy’s position in the policymaking food chain would also seem to mean enhancing its closeness to US statecraft, and so exactly raise the dilemmas of association with propaganda that have plagued all of the debates on this issue for the past hundred years. What is really at stake, as a result, seems to be US political culture, and particularly ongoing assumptions of exceptionalism. This is touched on but not developed. Ultimately, therefore, the book appears stranded somewhere between its worthy historical research and its policy-relevant ambition. The archival work and historical spread of the book is impressive, but the attempt to apply a theoretical analysis about the past and apply it to the present is only partially successful. Nevertheless, this is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking analysis that provides the basis for a valuable debate on historical trends and institutional developments in US public diplomacy today.
. See Nicolas Cull, “Public Diplomacy: Taxonomies and Histories,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (2008): 31-54.
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Giles Scott-Smith. Review of Schindler, Caitlin E., The Origins of Public Diplomacy in US Statecraft: Uncovering a Forgotten Tradition.
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