Friday, November 19, 2010

Public Diplomacy or Propaganda?

When does public diplomacy become propaganda? There’s a fine line and the audience can’t always tell you what their definition is but they can tell you when it’s propaganda. In a close reading of Joseph Nye’s “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” he often references propaganda and cites cases where public diplomacy has slipped into the realms of propaganda. But he never defines propaganda nor fully outlines the circumstances under which public diplomacy becomes propaganda. I seek to give three signs to look for, and for practitioners of the art of public diplomacy, to be cautious of.

The first answer is when actions and words don’t match. Nye explains that no matter how good the packaging and the sell, when a government says one thing and actually does an entirely different thing, the sell becomes only propaganda. He writes, “Actions speak louder than words, and public diplomacy that appears to be mere window dressing for hard power projection is unlikely to succeed.” He goes on to write, “A communication strategy cannot work if it cuts against the grain of policy.” To give a modern example, this is why Guantanamo Bay and the actions at Abu Ghraib have been so devastating to the mission of American public diplomacy. The hard sell was the spread of democracy and freedom while the action was to take away the basic human rights of those who were not American citizens.

Answer number two is when public diplomacy only allows for one point of view or one stance only. Nye describes it as a two-way street. Diplomats must talk as well as listen. Public diplomacy that leaves room for ‘our view only’ will fall flat and will become merely a propaganda tool. James Glassman describes this phenomenon in his Public Diplomacy 2.0 speech as a lecture rather than a conversation.

The final answer and perhaps the most important, is when public diplomacy lacks credibility. Whenever a situation is sensationalized or the facts are stretched makes foreign audiences less receptive to the message. Nye writes, “Skeptics who treat the term public diplomacy as a mere euphemism for propaganda miss the point. Simple propaganda often lacks credibility and thus is counterproductive as public diplomacy.” (101)

The audiences of today’s public diplomacy have a flood of information from which to choose to listen. They can tune in and tune out at will. Now more than ever it is important that successful public diplomacy will be seen as a means of creating long and lasting relationships between countries rather than merely propaganda.


Joseph S. Nye, Jr. 2008. Public Diplomacy and Soft Power. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616: 94-109.

James Glassman, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Speech Dec. 01, 2008 to The New America Fondation. "Public Diplomacy 2.0"


  1. Great post, Anna. I think one of the reasons countries have such a hard time getting public diplomacy right is that traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy are usually conducted completely separate from one another - GITMO is a great example of this. To an extent, it's unavoidable that large bureaucracies end up working at cross-purposes at least some of the time. However, I think it's important to recognize that unpopular policies will not be made more palatable by a PR campaign, and that a hypocritical attempt may do more harm than good.

  2. I agree that if public diplomacy is unidirectional, it can come across as propaganda, even if it is truthful.

    When I think of propaganda, I think of the old approach to public diplomacy and the idea that governments could simply beam messages and the public would absorb them. Now, people are have increasingly more access to alternative sources of information and beaming propaganda becomes even less effective.

    Once a public is convinced that a message is part of a propaganda campaign, I think the become less receptive to messages from that source. I agree that effective public diplomacy is necessarily a conversation, a multidirectional exchange of information that goes beyond even a two-way street.