Public Diplomacy

This week the United States announced new sanctions against Iran. Coincidentally, I attended a lecture at the USC Anneberg School for Communication on Tuesday about Public Diplomacy and, specifically, nuclear proliferation re. Iran.

The speaker was James Kelman, senior public diplomacy advisor for the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. Kelman was speaking primarily to graduate students studying Public Diplomacy. He said his job as a diplomat is to explain U.S. goals and seek support for them. He gave some statistics about just how unpopular the United States is right now. As Roger Cohen noted in yesterday’s New York Times, many Europeans are “floating on an Iraq-comforted wave of moral smugness”—and those are our friends. The fact that all American public diplomacy is now viewed within the context of Iraq makes life much more difficult for our diplomats.

Kelman talked about missile defense in Europe, and Russia’s opposition to it, WMDs, North Korea, and Iran’s nuclear goals. He said it is widely recognized that the exchange of people, especially young people, is the best long term diplomacy activity because “an open society is its own best witness.” Thus in the arenas of science, sports, music, and popular culture exchanges are being made. For example, university level wrestlers from the U.S. traveled to Iran for test matches and scientists from Iran have quietly been invited to do research here. Additionally, unsanctioned U.S. sponsored news outlets that broadcast U.S. goals have a wide audience in Iran.

He also talked about the many counter-proliferation initiative successes that cannot be reported and about disarmament reduction as an example of a “good news story” getting lost in a “bad-news environment.”

During the question and answer session, the anti-American sentiment of guests to our country sickened me, though rigorous intellectual debate was appropriate to the environment. However, in this case, I didn’t hear a single dissenting voice. Our diplomat was left to fend for himself.

First, there was a full-frontal assault from a couple of Iranians. One was a graduate student, the other a USC professor. He stood passionately jabbing his finger in Kelman’s direction and contradicting nearly everything Kelman had said about Iran. He called Kelman a liar three times and told him to go to his own website to find the truth. (Of course he has a website; we all have them now.) The professor said public diplomacy only works if it’s honest. Kelman’s response was brief; he countered that his evaluation represented a coalition perspective, not solely an American one. The graduate student audibly sneered at this answer.

Another audience member asked if he had any “push-back” with his superiors re. the bad policies he must sell internationally. He said, no, not unless public diplomacy has been part of the process from the get-go, a practice he advocated. A few students offered a bit of relief from the drama by asking strategy questions. Finally, an eloquent Irishman spoke. He told Kelman that he felt sorry for him, because he knows him, and knows that he is a level-headed guy, but to have to sell the trash he has to sell, well, that is not a job to be envied. One couldn’t help but smile.

It was a vibrant discussion that ended well for everyone except perhaps Kelman, who seemed a tiny bit rattled by the barrage. Odd for a diplomat to be rattled by a bunch of university rabble-rousers.

The talk got me thinking about the art of public diplomacy in Christian leadership both corporately and personally.  

My son Gabe was a campus representative one year at his college. He talked specifically to visiting minority students about campus life at his eminent school. He gave them his unfiltered perspective that it was rough going for black men on campus. (Most private Christian colleges have appallingly low minority populations of under 10 percent.) The recruiting director wasn’t too happy with him. Gabe explained that he had been “lied to” and that he wouldn’t do the same to someone else, even if it meant the prospect would be lost to another school.

Similarly, Jeff and I read about the pastor training school he attended in an affiliation magazine. I later wrote some articles for this same magazine. I would not call those articles journalism. They were public relations, or, public diplomacy, if you will. They highlighted successes, period. I wish we had read this quarterly with more discernment and wisdom before we bought into the ideal it was selling. Readers of official publications should recognize that the dark underbelly of an organization/community is generally not going to be scratched in official literature.  

However, there’s no wrong in highlighting an institution’s positives. What is wrong is when official publications misrepresent the truth. For example, one article I recall reading in this magazine was supposedly written by the affiliation founder. In it “he” identifies a particular person as his sole like-minded ally, implying that this person was Timothy to his Paul. We functioned for 2-3 years under this fallacy. The consequences were significant. Later I learned that the founder hadn’t written the article at all. No surprise there. In this case, “Timothy’s” wife is reported to have written it.

An example of honest public diplomacy is Bill Hybel’s recent admission that Willow Creek Community Church had made some foundational mistakes. Lately I’ve been reading that ours is an age of public apology. Hybels is leading the way with his willingness to risk Willow’s reputation with such an admission. I know from friends that this organizational soul-searching comes at no small cost as those who bought into the Willow model grapple with the shift in perspective.

True leaders lead.

Here are the tips I picked up from the Kelman lecture that might be helpful to ambassadors for Christ:

1. Public Diplomacy must be honest to be effective. When I invited an agnostic NIH scientist to my former church, I warned him that our pastor was likely to rail against the homosexual political lobby. That day he didn’t. Instead he lit into welfare mothers. The scientist was unperturbed. I had prepared him for the worst, so it bothered him little. He was impressed with the pastor’s rhetorical skills and with the size and scope of the church’s ministry.

2. The Golden Rule should govern public diplomacy for Christians. I think Gabe got that. He valued the potential student’s well-being more than the institution’s. Loyalty to an organization/community is a virtue, but there are times for higher loyalties to prevail. Generally, Gabe spoke well of his school, but it was important for these particular students to understand the unique challenges they would face there should they choose to attend.

3. Good news gets lost in a bad news environment. Why not turn the tide, like Hybels and Ted Haggard’s former church are doing by dealing forthrightly with the bad news, thus allowing the organization/community to release the past and move forward in freedom? Also, find ways to let the world know that behind the scenes there is action and debate. Most of us don’t want or need to know all the gory details; we just want to know that leaders are leading with integrity.

4. An open society is its own best witness. How many of us have lived ghettoized lives because we’ve not wanted to be tainted by the world, or to have our children tainted? Foreign exchange involves risk, but free societies aren’t ruled by fear. Besides, culture seeps in no matter how protective we are. I have relatives who are the most separatist Christians I know. They’ve escaped neither substance abuse nor mental illness.

5. Similarly, in the digital age, there’s no escape from subversive ideas. Truth comes out, and with it, a pack of lies and counterintelligence. Better for an organization/community to own its failures than to allow anarchic systems to frame discussion.

6. Ordinary human foibles can be and should be covered. Other things are inexcusable. It is the diplomat who looks like an idiot when charged with explaining away the unexplainable. Again truth eventually rises to the surface like flotsam. Think of Al Gore defending Clinton through his denial of the Monica Lewinsky affair. How it must have sickened him.

Finally, this:

One cannot love Christ and hate his bride. Perhaps this is the thing to remember when we represent her to the world. If she is stained and disheveled, we should try to straighten her clothes and clean her up before we present her publicly. Even so, not every bride is beautiful. We do her public honor nonetheless.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]

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