The How and the What of Public Diplomacy

Not your usual European ministerial (Radio Praha)

My not-last post about the U.S. State Department’s public diplomacy snowballed some additional thinking about the tradecraft.  There really is no better way to illustrate good public diplomacy than through comparison and case studies; that is, examining what other people and countries are doing to reach the public.  I don’t think we do enough of that.

My concern since leaving NATO has been the gulf between the how and what of public diplomacy.  The what is strategic communications – the big think determinations about audiences and resources and message — 50,000-foot decisions that of course have to be made, but I’ve long been concerned that much can be lost between the high-altitude determinations and the ground-level PD where real people actually live.

The how is actually talking to the rest of the world, the last three feet, public diplomacy’s most strategic real estate.  It’s the how that we should be focusing on, and I’m concerned that both the academy and the State Department do very little toward teaching the mechanics of the how, which is where public diplomacy is made or broken every single day.  We make strong strategic judgments – in fact, strategic communications and public diplomacy policy are the rare arenas of conciliation and agreement in Washington – but those decisions are often fumbled in the execution.

I have always been a practitioner, so I like to look at the examples of others’ practice. Here, I’d like to look at the 2009 Czech Presidency of the European Union.  Every Presidency – held by a nation in the European Council for six months, a blink of the eye in American political life – is a unique opportunity for each country holding the office to promote itself and the European Union.  It is, then, a moment for the country to put its stamp not only on the Union but on Europe itself, to sell the idea of Europe to Europeans, and Europe to the world.

I lived in Luxembourg during that country’s presidency in 2005, which was marked (in my memory) by the epic exhaustion of what seemed to be the entire government of that very small country.  Nonetheless, as this welcoming site makes clear, the country’s motto is not “Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn” (“We want to remain what we are”) for nothing.  European presidencies tend to be fairly bland affairs.

Not so for the Czechs, who branded their presidency “Europa to osladime,” which observers were slow to note was a wry double-entendre.  It means, literally, “We will sweeten Europe,” but loosely translated it means “We will stir things up.”

The Czechs applied this double-entendre masterfully in this video produced to introduce the presidency.  It is perhaps the most playful political production I’ve ever seen, and it moves so fast and is over so quickly you might miss all the jokes.  (You can watch an annotated version here.)  All of the characters are well-known Czech personalities, arrayed around a table as if bored government functionaries at one of the thousands of interminable European ministers meetings (a subtle comment, no doubt from the euroskeptic Czech president Vaclav Klaus).  There’s a famous hockey player, a goalkeeper, an obsessive architect, a chemist, a ballerina, a fashion model, and an orchestra conductor.  And they’re all playing around with sugar cubes.

Why all these sugar cubes?  You need to be Czech to get the joke, and here the double-entendre slides into triple-entendre: the sugar cube was invented in Dacice in Czechoslovakia in 1843.  Did you get all that? It only took 30 seconds.  Short and (dare I write it) sweet.

“We Will Sweeten Europe” (Czech Tourism)

The Czech presidency used the cubes as a branding theme for the entire Presidency, although it didn’t go much beyond the videos and these posters. (I loved the Central European design and I still have some of their swag.)

That’s what the Czechs got right.  It’s almost incredible to me that a government approved something so clever, playful and even a little snarky.  (This site claims the initiative was dreamt up by the Czechs’ European affairs ministry, though I’m sure the story is much more complicated than that.)  But a government did, so something had to go wrong (Vaclav Klaus would no doubt agree with me). So what did they get wrong? Enough.

The Czech government commissioned David Cerny to complete a major art installation for the Presidency.  European public art projects are fairly common and usually forgotten (sometimes, in the case of the Euro, even torn out), but not this one.  Cerny built an enormous series of allegorical sculptures of the European countries.  Some were clever – Sweden bundled flat in an IKEA box.  Some were incomprehensible – Luxembourg obscured by a “For Sale” sign.  And some were simply and horribly offensive: Bulgaria, which was depicted as a squat toilet (in the waning days of communist rule, Bulgaria forcibly expelled more than 100,000 Turks).

“Entropa” (David Cerny)

Gone mostly unremarked was Cerny’s cleverest touch: all the countries were laid out in a huge plastic model mold, as if Europe just needed some glue to assemble yourself.  Of course the installation caused an outcry.  It turned out, too, that Cerny had committed outright fraud: to win the commission he had claimed that artists from the entire Union had participated in creating it (as part of the competition’s rules), when just he and three assistants built it.

I found the whole episode entirely bizarre but mostly because I, along with most of Europe, couldn’t even see the “Entropa” in person.  It was hung in the European Council Justus Lipsius building at Place Schuman in Brussels.  This building is normally closed to the public.  You would think that something paid for with public funds could be viewed by the people who paid for it. The furor over the installation, then, ironically brought the artwork more visibility than it would have ever otherwise had.

This matter of visibility is a common error, I should remark, of many institutions that commission public works like this.  I remember at NATO when we had about a dozen large multimedia boxes, very clever units, built for the Bucharest Summit in 2008.  They went on display first at the locked-down Summit location in Bucharest and then were left at our Headquarters behind two or three layers of security.  At both locations, after enormous expense building them, they had very little foot traffic.  I suggested at the time that we buy some space at Brussels Zaventem airport, but nothing came of it.  I don’t know what happened to the boxes.

The larger point to be made here is that you must shoulder both the risk and reward in public diplomacy, but by concentrating on the how you do these things you’re more likely to get the reward when you take the risk.  The Czechs were clearly very capable of getting the how very right but they also got it very wrong.  (That, appropriately to my mind, demonstrated everything that is both right and wrong with the European experiment: spirited and smart and clever but also deeply cynical and occasionally deaf to the public if not outright corrupt.)

The presidency, by the way, was a political fiasco.  The Czechs were true to their motto: they really stirred things up, but it was pretty sweet, too.  Looking back, I can’t help thinking, isn’t that what public diplomacy is all about?

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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