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A Forgotten Kitchen Debate and American Public Diplomacy

Though its tools of persuasion have changed, US public diplomacy is above all about human beings connecting rather than a government "pushing a message" on a "target audience."
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If there is one theme at today's impressive conference at George Washington University's "Face-off to Facebook: From the Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen debate to Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century", it is that US public diplomacy [PD], though its tools of persuasion have changed during the past fifty years, is, above all, about human beings connecting with one another rather than a government "pushing a message" on a "target audience."

Often cited during the conference were the words of Edward R. Murrow, the Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) during the Kennedy administration, who famously said that USG overseas outreach "is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. ... The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation."

To be sure, during the Cold War, PD's official message ("telling America's story," the logo of the United States Information Agency) was, on the books, essentially about the United States speaking to, rather than with, the rest of the world.

But as Jack Masey, USIA Chief of Design of the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, pointed out about the exhibition, what really worked best in the case of our Cold War "enemy" was that Russians were able to connect with real-life Americans -- the young US exhibition guides (fluent Russian speakers) with whom Russians talked about a wide variety of subjects, some of which had little to do to do with the exhibition itself.

Exhibition guide George Feifer, in his memorable account of his Moscow stay, stressed how important it was to him to speak with Russians directly and how much he had learned about them and post-Stalin society through their conversations. He eventually married one of the exhibition visitors.

The second part of the conference dealt with "The New Media in Today's Public Diplomacy." Here too a key word was "connect." The new media make it possible for persons throughout the world to link up on matters of shared interest via cyberspace without, arguably, being manipulated by governments or corporate mass media.

But a key question, asked by a member of the audience, is how the many-to-many "connections" made possible by the internet can, in fact, act as a last-three-feet, truly personal, one-on-one "human presence."