public diplomacy

Balancing Relationships: Exchange Programs as Critical Policy Tools (Part 4)

This is the fourth post of a seven part series. See parts one, two, and three for background.

There is a view within parts of the U.S. government that exchanges are soft and somehow do not advance U.S. policy goals.  In a time of tight budgets and daily crises, focusing on building long term relationships with a distant and uncertain payoff is viewed as a luxury.  Here I will focus on PD relations with contacts and the public – the part of PD which receives the bulk of scholarly attention – as critical programs to support policy.  I will also describe how one can raise the odds that funding in support of these programs continues.


I will argue here that the PD officer’s duty is not just to package and promote our message to key contacts but to convince policy makers of the value of traditional exchanges work.   Exchanges and other seemingly non-policy efforts support USG policy more subtly and often more effectively than direct advocacy.  Senator Fulbright, whose legislation introduced many of the exchanges which make public diplomacy possible, stated that mutual understanding is a worthy goal because it promotes peace.   He was making a direct appeal to the core policy goal of promoting peace that every American can understand.

PD professionals within the Department of State who work in exchanges need to focus on policy like a laser and make the case to their superiors that the program is worth the investment in time and resources.   The dichotomy between long term cultural relationships and short term press and policy work is a false one.   The bureaucratic divisions within the Department of State, with Education and Cultural Exchanges (ECA) housed in a separate building and cultural sections literally walled off in most embassies from information sections can conceal interaction between press and cultural work and the crucial policy work carried out by cultural programs.  Furthermore, one simply cannot support short term policy needs without calling on long term contacts.  This is the reason I label the traditional view of exchanges on one side of the equation vs press and information on the other side as misleading and in fact harmful to effective public diplomacy work.

dichotomy1Time and time again PAOs leverage long term relationships developed over time to further short term policy goals.   In fact, without the close cooperation with individuals and local institutions, one cannot even gather an audience for delivering policy.   When Secretary Kerry made his first public diplomacy appearance abroad, Embassy Berlin worked with long-term contacts to gather a diverse and dynamic audience.  The Embassy mined its vast group of alumni to assemble an audience for an in-depth exchange on foreign policy issues.  The whole event was filmed and broadcast by Facebook at no cost to the USG, once again thanks to the long term relations that had been established with cultural contacts and institutions. youth event

Even in the press side of public diplomacy, it is the long term relations which ensure that a high level USG visitor is quoted accurately and gets a fair hearing.  Because of the excellent relations many press officers enjoy with the media, it is very common after press events involving USG officials for the Information Officer to correct misquotes or misleading interpretations before articles reach the press.  Both sides want to maintain the relationship to ensure future access and journalistic standards.

Most State Department officials come to realize that public diplomacy programming is often the best way to reach out to potential contacts who would never be seen entering an embassy.  Whether through English teaching or concerts, opponents of our policy will participate in programs which they view are in their own interest, initiating the all-important dialogue necessary to effective PD.  In fact as Undersecretary Stengel and others have argued, the best approach to reach hard audiences is through soft diplomacy.

Finally alumni of long term exchanges are often the most credible messengers for US policy.   On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Paris from the Germans, it was a French historian, who had participated in long term exchanges to the US, who most credibly argued for the important US role in liberating the city.  The same message emanating from the U.S. Embassy would have appeared self serving or defensive.

The PD officer needs to explain to headquarters on a daily basis how seemingly neutral PD programming support policy goals.   This entails making the explicit link between a program and policy in reports back to headquarters and ensuring that PD activities support policy in some way.   To ensure an effective program, one of my colleagues would write the highlight of the program before it began.   The highlight then became an effective guidepost in planning and executing the program.  This helped him and his staff ensure that the program supported policy goals, that press covered the event when appropriate, that the right participants attended the program, and that follow up was built into the design of the event.  The next post will show how policy support connects all aspects of PD work and erases divisions between long and short term goals.  End of Part 4

The views expressed in the articles are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.

This is the fourth post of a seven part series. See part five here


About Thomas Miller

Thomas Miller is the Public Diplomacy Fellow at George Washington University on loan from the Department of State.


2 thoughts on “Balancing Relationships: Exchange Programs as Critical Policy Tools (Part 4)

  1. Jonathan,

    High praise coming from you. Spread the word!


    Posted by Thomas Miller | November 20, 2015, 1:49 pm
  2. Tom,

    Great work on this series of posts! It is so refreshing to read the perspective of a thoughtful, intelligent, veteran practitioner on how nuts and bolts public diplomacy works and helps advance policy! These should be required reading for students, practitioners, academics, and policy makers!

    Counselor for Public Affairs
    U.S. Embassy Ankara, Turkey

    Posted by Jonathan Henick | November 20, 2015, 1:32 am

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