By Patricia H. Kushlis
John Brown ends a review of Options for Influence, a new book on the theory of public diplomacy, with the observation that to understand how public diplomacy really works, you should read the memoirs of field tested public diplomacy officers. I concur.
Theory and even strategy are one thing; practice – from ‘waiting for hours at airports’ to meet and greet a visiting US delegation to ensuring that the Ambassador’s piano is tuned correctly for an upcoming performance at the Residence as Brown reminisces - is another.
The good news is that there are several excellent memoirs written by people – now retired – who have “been there, done that” and more. In my view, not only is the practice of public diplomacy learned in the field and the trenches but it is far more fun and instructive to read the stories of former public diplomacy officers than wade through the prose of authors theorizing about a field they have principally viewed from afar.
I reviewed Yale Richmond’s memoirs on WhirledView last April. Now it’s time for Hans (Tom) Tuch. Tuch was the US Embassy Bonn’s Public Affairs Counselor when I worked as German Program Officer in the International Youth Exchange Office in the mid-1980s. He was then in a very senior position that capped a long and illustrious public diplomacy career.
What I hadn’t known about Tuch at the time was his passion for opera. Even the title of his new book, Arias, Cabalettas and Foreign Affairs: A Public Diplomat’s Quasi-Musical Memoir highlights this devotion. His passion for the art form began as a youth in Berlin in 1938 just months before his mother presciently sent him to live with relatives in the United States and thereby escape the coming Nazi wrath.
In truth, Tuch – whose memory and files are prodigious – only lightly critiques the multitude of operas and singers he saw and heard in various opera houses in Europe and the US over the years. I would have preferred a bit more evaluation, but as Tuch writes, he is not a music critic - although he certainly has attended as many if not more concerts and operas than many music critics. Furthermore, because of his lengthy public diplomacy career and the fact that American culture was a major pillar in US public diplomacy activities abroad throughout it, Tuch also had the opportunity to meet and befriend any number of musical stars from the US and elsewhere. And he clearly got to know them in ways no music critic ever did.
Eye-witness accounts of earth-shattering history
Yet what makes this book a particularly important contribution to the literature of public diplomacy and US foreign relations is Tuch's eye-witness accounts of earth-shattering historical events.
What also makes this book a valuable resource for those in the new administration and new Congress is Tuch’s emphasis on the importance of American culture throughout his career – not just Hollywood’s blockbuster action and techno-crazed movies - in the projection of the US image abroad – something lost during the post Cold War years and, as I have just recently observed yet again, a facet of American public diplomacy that desperately needs restoration.
Tuch begins his story with his first operatic experience – as a teenager at a performance of Gounod’s Faust at the Berlin Staatsoper. He ends the book in the Berlin of 2006 – long after retirement – invited back as a special guest. Along the way, he describes his work as a USIS officer, the events he witnessed and participated in and the incredible people he met throughout his lengthy US Foreign Service career serving in both West Germany and the Soviet Union during the depths of the Cold War. One of his goals, of course, was to establish enduring relationships with the people in the countries in which he served. He did it well.
The Kitchen Debate
For me, Tuch’s recollections of his assignment to Moscow (1958-1961) and the environment in which US Embassy officers lived and worked at the time struck the most poignant chord. It’s hard for me to imagine that Soviet society could have been even more repressive and life even more difficult than when we were assigned to the Embassy nearly twenty years later. But it was.
The Moscow chapter alone is a must read. His first-hand description of the famous “kitchen debate” between Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Nixon (pp. 76-80) and the events leading up to it that took place in the American Exhibition in Sokolniki Park is unforgettable. Tuch follows it with a description of his assignment to USIA Headquarters as an assistant to Edward R. Murrow, the legendary USIA Director who died of lung cancer just a year after his resignation as perhaps the single most effective USIA Director ever.
Maybe times have changed enough so that those “last three feet” of contact between people don’t matter. If that’s the case, then forget about memoirs and clamor back inside those fortress embassies and airy-fairy theories. But if not - and I’m one of those curmudgeons who think people meeting people is crucial for successful public diplomacy – don’t get mired in either. Memoirs are the next best thing to being there: Isn't that what’s most important after all?