By Patricia H. Kushlis
Update December 13, 2012: My condensed version of this book review appears in the December 2012 Foreign Service Journal entitled "The Longest Yard."
As editor William P. Kiehl points out in the introduction to The Last Three Feet, despite the vast number of reports and books written about American public diplomacy since the demise of the US Information Agency in 1999 and in the aftermath of 9/11 not a single study has focused on what public diplomacy officers actually do in the field.
This despite an image of the US that plummeted with its invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and continued to scrape the bottom of the barrel until Obama was elected in 2008 rising abruptly thereafter in Europe and several other countries but not throughout most of the Middle East or much of the Islamic world besides Indonesia – and as very recent polling shows - Libya.
This small, readable volume seeks to redress the void. The Last Three Feet is not about Washington operations – structure, function, or history. It is not about how or what academics think public diplomacy is as they construct mind-castles in the air filled with jargon no self-respecting practitioner would take the time to wade through. It is very simply how several of today’s experienced State Department officers have dealt with real world public diplomacy situations. These experiences have varied widely from country to country although certain commonalities – challenges and opportunities – can be seen through their writings to have recurred across the globe.
This book is built around case studies presented by several US public diplomacy specialists themselves followed by a series of interviews with others involved in helping improve America’s image abroad.
Several of these case studies are controversial – or at least represent unique occurrences in atypical situations. How often, for instance, is a US Consulate or Embassy situated in a city where a World Expo is about to take place and the Consul General finds him or, in the case of Shanghai, herself faced with an intransigent Washington bureaucracy and politicians unable to think out of an outdated Congressionally-limited funding box constructed thirty years before? Or how often does an Embassy place at the top of its agenda a small youth exchange program that will need to last for years on end to prove effectiveness?
Or how many times does an Embassy transition from a public affairs strategy run by the US military in a country where US occupation forces have just left – namely Iraq - to a peacetime one administered by civilian State Department officers where a civil war is still in progress. In all three cases, the answer is not very often.
In contrast, most, if not all, of these case studies discuss how Embassy public diplomacy officers have used, or attempted to use, the social media and how they have reached, or attempted to reach, beyond fortress embassy walls to communicate with local publics especially youth despite the high walls and loss of American Centers in the countries of their assignment.
Truth be told, I find the closure of many American Centers in the 1990s to have been a “penny-wise-pound-foolish” approach to public diplomacy especially to communicating with and servicing the needs of youth – and their replacement by American Corners, or small installations (without Americans) of books, periodicals and presumably Internet access ensconced in someone else’s library a less than satisfactory solution.
Do understand, the American Corners idea is not new. As Cultural Affairs Officer in Manila I had to evaluate a raft of them in the Philippines in the 1990s just as our budget was starting to collapse and there were fewer resources available to devote to them. Yet the “ultimate solution” – after I left – was to close the respected American Cultural Center located in the heart of Manila’s commercial districtv- used by myriads of Filipinos from students to legislators and professors - and give away its 30,000 volume collection to a private university in a suburb. The by then truncated staff was moved inside the fortified Embassy.
But I digress. Back to The Last Three Feet.
If there is one overriding conclusion that runs through this book, it is that interaction through the social media (providing, that is, social media is important to communicating with the people in a particular country) cannot be handled staff-lite.
To be effective an Embassy's social media needs should be staffed by a group of two-three people – one full-time American officer and two locally hired staff (LES) with sophisticated knowledge of US policy who can articulate it in writing and orally (think You-Tube) in the country’s vernacular. Embassy care and feeding of the social media should not be spread around like new grass seed in the fall on an already overworked public affairs unit with the low priority task of watering it when time becomes available.
Furthermore, social media units cannot be hamstrung by the need for cumbersome, time-consuming bureaucratic clearances if they are to be effective. Yes, this requires faith on the part of risk-averse senior officers in the field and in Washington but it also requires policy, political and cultural savvy on the part of the staff assigned the task.
Moreover, from my perspective, an Ambassador that spends hours of his or her time devoted to writing a blog – or at least one that’s worth reading – suggests to me that the individual simply does not understand the dimensions of his or her own position which are, after all, to represent the US government’s interests to the host country. My advice: First tend the official relationship, second do the official speaking engagements and media interviews but leave the blogging to the social media unit in public affairs and, perhaps, write an occasional guest post - sometimes based on a speech or interview - when things are slow.
The book's most curious story
Nevertheless, the most curious story told in this volume is the US Mission Brazil’s decision to concentrate its resources on a small (30-45 Brazilian students per year), short term (3 week) exchange of Brazilian and American youth using this Youth Ambassadors program as a centerpiece of seemingly everything else. On the one hand, it is obvious that the Mission has used this program to its fullest advantage throwing every resource it has into supporting the Youth Ambassadors - all tied up with a single strategic bow. But doesn’t the US have other interests it needs to serve in Brazil that could be being short-changed as a result?
I also wonder how an Embassy can decide to devote so many of its resources over a very long term to what benefits, in fact, tiny numbers of young people who may, or may not even remain in the country or become part of the leadership whatever field. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unaware of the Hawthorne Effect and I also think youth exchange is important.
From 1984-6, I helped implement the then fledgling US Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange which has underwritten the exchange of thousands of German and American youth for academic year stays since its inception, but despite CB/YX’s high priority, youth exchange was only one of many exchange and other types of educational and cultural programs undertaken by the US Embassy in Bonn.
At the time, the information office was far more focused on countering the immediate military threat from the Soviet Union and the noisy “peace propaganda” campaign that accompanied it. Yes, Congress-Bundestag fit into the Embassy's strategic picture because it was seen as a way to help restore fraying ties between the US and Germany in the long term through a large scale, long term youth exchange – but the 10 month long CB/YX was just one piece of a much more complex ongoing relationship.
To conclude: Kudos to the Public Diplomacy Council (for the record Patricia Lee Sharpe and I are both members) for publishing this work and for holding the session last fall on which the book is based, to the speakers, authors and interviewers whose work is included and especially to Bill Kiehl for taking the time and effort to produce such a timely and needed volume.
If you want to know what public diplomacy officers do do – and you should if you’ve read this far – this book is well worth reading.
William P. Kiehl, ed, The Last Three Feet: Case Studies in Public Diplomacy, The Public Diplomacy Council, Washington, DC in association with PD Worldwide International Consultants, 2012.