Wednesday, 22 June 2011

McHale's Speech

"Strengthening U.S. Engagement with the World: A Review of U.S. Public Diplomacy"
Undersecretary for PD & Public Affairs Judith McHale's opening remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday in NYC.

It's not every day that a nice primary source for the PhD gets handed to you like this. The public diplomacy online network was all excited about McHale's speech--I saw it reposted, Tweeted & Facebooked in several places, by scholars & organisations. My favorite comment happened to be from my supervisor's tweet "turns out she got her ideas from Bono". Seriously. When I read the opening lines and saw Bono's name referenced (twice!), I really struggled to read the rest of the speech with an open mind. Bono? Really? U2's Bono, with the sunglasses? I had to look up the article she was referring to--it's at the link below, and I had to keep in mind that she was referring specifically to this photo:

She used Bono's inverted pyramid to discuss the role of foreign publics in foreign policy making.
Starting out with Bono wasn't very promising, but I was happy to see that the rest of the speech contained the usual PD rhetoric. She argued that we need to position U.S. public diplomacy within the "marketplace of ideas"--that is, "tell our own story where others are telling stories about us." It's about entering a conversation that's already taking place among foreign publics. She discussed Tunisia at some length, emphasising the fact that the recent uprising was driven by Tunisian citizens rather than the "small set of voices [that] once determined the direction of the country." This case, and the others that soon followed, showed how important it is for PD to engage with a broad audience, moving beyond the elite decision-makers we once exclusively targeted. Overall, the speech was very much in line with all the PD lit I've been reading over the past couple of years...

There's one idea in her speech (and in the lit) that I'm not quite sure about. She takes it as a given that the diffusion of power in the information age means that PD has more work to do. "In a world where power and influence truly belongs to the many, we must engage with more people in more places. That is the essential truth of public diplomacy in the internet age." This idea has been touched upon by various scholars in the past few years--actually, when any new technology starts to change international communication, this idea comes up. But does this diffusion of power in the internet age really necessitate greater engagement, or has it all simply shifted towards a new kind of engagement? People-to-people engagement online, with social networking and blogs, for example. Just to name a couple of cases from the parenting blogosphere, Matt Logelin and Heather and Mike Spohr are bloggers based in Southern California, but attract hits and comments from all over the world. They discuss parenting issues, tell funny stories about their kids, post photos, vent their frustrations, etc. Both of these families have lost loved ones, so themes of grief often come up in the blogs and their global readers offer words of comfort. Of course, parenting blogs are just one example, and there are countless other ways the internet is being used to connect people globally. Is it appropriate to talk about a new need to engage people when they're already choosing to seek each other out online?

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