You ever read a book and think: this would’ve been enlightening, if it’d been published one year earlier? I got that impression with Philip Seib’s latest. A USC professor who has published widely on public diplomacy and post-print journalism, Seib attempts to contemplate the future of state-based public relations in a fast-paced digital era. Unfortunately, this book debuted just two days after Brexit, and four months before President Trump. It’s been OTBE’d: Overtaken By Events.
Seib divides diplomacy into two compartments: “state-to-state diplomacy,” the stereotypical suited Oxbridge types striking accords in embassy back rooms and conference tables at the United Nations; and “public diplomacy,” a term which arose, Seib admits, because it sounded less autocratic than “propaganda.” This latter dominates Seib’s considerations in this book. How, he wonders, can governments conduct relations with domestic and global publics, when information flows quickly, and often stupidly, creating reactions that demand answers now?
Reading Seib’s admittedly smart, erudite considerations on what future public diplomacy will entail make for interesting reading. The relationship between single-state governments and international publics has produced some fascinating outcomes. Some have been relatively successful: Confucius Institutes, funded by the mainland Chinese government, have broadened global awareness of Chinese languages (mainly Mandarin) and culture, while warming students to Chinese needs and interests. But they’ve also garnered criticism for serving China’s government, while lacking academic freedoms.
Other attempts at public diplomacy have failed, and here Seib cites many American missteps. Voice of America Radio remains stuck in Cold War approaches that seem both dated and deaf to local cultures. Radio Sawa, America’s attempt at Arabic-language broadcasting, has garnered decent audiences for its entertainment programing, but largely ignored listeners’ desire for Arab-friendly news programming. And unlike BBC Worldwide, which is structurally unmoored from its government, American broadcasters are state-controlled, backed by lobbyists.
As professors often do, Seib repeatedly traffics more in hypotheses than brass tacks. He frequently describes a broad theory of public diplomacy, past or present, then provides examples that justify the theory. Reality, sadly, isn’t theoretical. Because everything diplomatic is in flux now, as Seib admits, we need analysis that moves from concrete example to broad policy proposal, not vice versa. We need theory rooted in reality, not examples that putatively prove an abstract principle.
This becomes most pointed when considering the “fake news” phenomenon. As I write, the entire fallout of the #Pizzagate scandal hasn’t become wholly visible. Seib notes there are times when public diplomats must answer scurrilous charges quickly, and times a well-thought-out response tomorrow beats a hasty response today. But what about when highly charged lies, backed by self-sealing arguments resistant to counterclaims, gain traction? In today’s world, lies with a good narrative quickly outrun reality.
2016 has seen two catastrophic failures of public diplomacy. The Brexit vote, motivated by “keep our money at home” arguments, largely mirrors the election of Donald Trump, who unambiguously stoked nationalist fears of Hispanics, Muslims, and NATO. In both cases, mainly older, mainly white voters rejected governments they believed unresponsive to their concerns. Both events were wholly unanticipated by diplomats and pollsters. They represent a failure of fact-driven diplomacy unseen since the 1934 Paris riots.
Please understand, Seib isn’t wrong. Indeed, current circumstances make his questions and speculations more relevant than ever. The prospects Seib raises in this book could give meaningful direction to our evolving responses, as fractious public sentiment becomes more difficult to anticipate. Distrust of politicians and journalists only makes this worse. But in a time when concrete responses to real-world challenges have become urgent, Seib traffics primarily in theory. You need to know that going in.
At this writing, America is preparing to inaugurate a President whose hasty tweetstorms have resulted in death threats against private citizens, and whose phone calls have threatened to ignite international incidents. The principles of public diplomacy, of outreach to other states and their citizens, will stand center to America’s broad global reach. Philip Seib, already OTBE’d, offers precious few actionable solutions. But he at least asks the questions that will let global diplomats move forward.