The Incompleat Public Diplomacy Reader

When it comes to public diplomacy I am aware of no condensed reading list outside those assigned to the few academic programs in this country that teach the discipline formally, and even then I don’t have access to those syllabi.  In any event, I find most strictly academic reading lists to be limiting, not liberating, and when I was working in public diplomacy I found books and essays on advertising, photography, filmmaking and narrative journalism – not to say excellent specific representations of those things themselves – particularly important to illuminating and inspiring the work that I did.

That said, I’ll list here a thematic series of books that have helped me think through the problems of public diplomacy.  I do not claim that this list is definitive or exhaustive and I certainly encourage others to mount their own lists.  I always felt I never found what I wanted to read relating to visual media, for example, so I’m still looking and may add to this list at a further date.

Thinking Culturally

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West – A book so massive in its cultural ambition and scope that it is bound to have more detractors than defenders.  But to take the book for what it is, an heroic attempt to understand an entire country in its socio-historical situation, is to comprehend West’s project and to recognize that you probably will never know another country, including your own, as well as she did Yugoslavia. To try, then, as she did, is an effort we can admire and model.  I never traveled in the former Yugoslavia without my copy of this book, and I never found that it didn’t have something remarkably relevant to say to me.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith – I have cited Zadie Smith’s excellent essay on language before which could be a coda to her exuberant first novel, and this book could easily be a backstop to Richard Rodriguez’s series of essays cited below. But it’s just foreign enough to the American immigrant narrative to provide an all-important subjective insight into other cultures that requires thought about how others view themselves in the world. It is deeply sympathetic and humane, sad but also very funny, which allows the bitter lessons to go down a little more easily.

Thinking in Four Dimensions

The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig – When I write about thinking in four dimensions, I mean looking at physical places and understanding their evolution through time and history.  This provides both a deep and profoundly satisfying sense of place but also a humble sense of transience, recognizing that what is here or has come before us may not forever stand.  Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, published in 1943 by an unknown translator, is one of the most wonderful evocations of interwar Europe, its personalities and locations, that I have ever read.  It’s all the more redolent for knowing where Europe had been and where it (and Zweig) was going, but it’s no less beautiful for it. Zweig’s cultured ability to see deeply around him lends the book its magic.

Sketches from a Life, George F. Kennan – Diplomats of course read Kennan’s memoirs (and now his definitive biography), but this small collection of Kennan’s diaries collected over 70 years and nearly every continent is often overlooked.  Kennan was an obsessive diarist, but it is in these volumes that his ability to observe and recall detail is best displayed.  From his first attempts to describe post-war Hamburg as a junior officer to the desultory effects of a layover in Baghdad, he consistently demonstrates the importance of close and historical observation.  (I carried both of these books with me during a college hike through Europe.  They both survived and remain on my bookshelf.)

Thinking about America

America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, John Steinbeck – Steinbeck’s essay America and Americans is justly famous and peculiarly rare in our attempts to understand who we are. Politicians like to do this often but do it well infrequently, and writers of Steinbeck’s stature (Orwell was another but did it for the British) usually don’t like to do it all for fear of being labeled a propagandist.  Nonetheless, Steinbeck’s usual humanity comes through and he captures an essential heroic American decency in this and other essays in this collection. To read his eulogy of Ed Ricketts, the model of Doc in Cannery Row, is to recognize the particular love for that special person known only in your community. To read his account of Ernie Pyle’s march to his death in the Pacific is to understand that to be a hero some men must do deadly, heroic things. And that in America we have these people, too.

Days of Obligation, Richard Rodriguez – I could easily recommend any other of Rodriguez’s books, but I include this specifically for capturing the complex, painful and sometimes comic reality of the modern American immigrant that I was familiar with growing up in California.  Our immigrant heritage is a common rhetorical trope understood around the world, but its stupendous diversity, dynamism and hard truths are often lost and even more importantly very difficult to communicate.  Rodriguez is one of the few essayists today identifying an emerging America that in its multifarious identity simply baffles most of the world.

Thinking about the Job

Russian Journal, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa – Steinbeck and Capa visited the Soviet Union soon after the end of World War II, with avowedly idealistic goals: both had covered the war (Capa had famously shot anti-fascist brigades in Spain and went ashore with the first wave on D-Day) and want to know more about our Allies.  It’s clear from their reporting that their Soviet minders did not see them the same way, viewing them variously as potential propagandists and threats as independent journalists.  There are lessons herein for the public diplomacy officer in how to treat professionals and also what that kind of professionalism reads and looks like (Capa’s wonderful photographs pervade throughout, providing some lessons in how to think visually).

Slightly Out of Focus, Robert Capa – This is Capa’s memoir primarily of World War II.  It is jaunty and slightly flippant given the subject matter, which may have been pro forma for the age (although his account of D-Day is terrifying, and it is a wonder he survived).  It provides little understanding of his approach to the visual medium.  But it does provide a whole lot of insight into working with handlers and minders and public affairs officers, what we might today call the embedding process. Capa had been exiled by the fascist government of Hungary prior to the war, but since he had not naturalized by the outbreak of hostilities he was treated as an enemy alien by most countries he traveled with and through as a combat correspondent. A lesson in how to treat the media. Capa, as an American citizen, was killed covering French forces in Indochina.

Thinking Visually

The Photographs, National Geographic – Public diplomacy isn’t nearly as visual as it could be, since usually that involves money (for advertising or other printed media), equipment (which you must know how to use) or PowerPoint (a horror), but in any case effective visual communication can make the media worth the effort and cost. National Geographic should be a mandatory subscription for every public diplomat, since the magazine has mastered the visual and narrative nexus of communicating complex socio-political and scientific issues. This book is a concise collection of the magazine’s photographs since virtually the technology was invented and is an astonishing inspiration for what can be conveyed with a camera.

The Definitive Collection, Robert Capa – Capa again. Others of course have their favorite portraitists – Annie Liebowitz, Richard Avedon, Gordon Parks come to mind – but I return to Capa for two reasons.  First, his humanity and compassion for his subjects, whom he invariably places with dignity in his frame. He once said “[i]f your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and I’ve come to understand that not just in terms of physical proximity but by emotional proximity. Second, he was a political photographer. He may not have admitted it, or even acknowledged it, but many of his images had a political intent and political effect.  It is important not only to be able to recognize that but to understand, acknowledge it, and recognize that it has its place.

Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People – Rockwell was a serious scholar of art and was without peer as a narrative artist.  A close examination of his best work demonstrates just how much story you can pack between two vertical and two horizontal lines. This will give you some ambition (and humility) when documenting and recounting events.  Like Capa he was a political artist — and straight propagandist during the war — but in both cases he brought an extraordinary realism that is difficult to imagine and render. He’s also deeply respectful of his subjects, which makes him, I think, uniquely American in addition to strictly a popular artist.  Others again may have their favorites (Jacob Lawrence is another of mine), but he is an inimitable place to begin.

Thinking About Narrative

Advertisements have virtually replaced the short story or magazine serial as examples of popular narrative, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from them.  I have personally always loved the HSBC bank advertisements, produced by JWT, which often have an international cross-cultural focus that diplomats would find sympathetic. They can be quite funny or moving at times.

This one in particular, though, I’d like to highlight because it captures an entire Hero’s Journey — from leaving home, struggle, and failure to redemption, discovery and worldly success — in just a minute, entirely without language.  It could work probably in any linguistic or cultural context:


Similarly, anybody who has seen Pixar’s “WALL-E” knows what can be done entirely without words. The animated short “Lifted,” a similarly wordless narrative, demonstrates that an entire story can be told completely visually.  If you think I’m kidding, just mute this video:

The point of placing these two videos here — about as far removed as you might imagine from a list of books ostensibly about public diplomacy — is to demonstrate how to communicate effectively with visual and narrative elements. Think about your next PowerPoint presentation entirely visually, for example — PowerPoint is, at its base, simply a visual projection device — or your next memorandum purely as a story. These videos show you how compressed, complex, and compelling they can be.

Thinking About Language

Politics and the English Language, George Orwell – Routinely assigned to hapless undergraduates, this essay by Orwell is underestimated as an earnest, straightforward guide to good English prose. But more profoundly, it is part of Orwell’s larger critique of and reaction to political language following his experience during World War II that led, with a series of other essays, directly to Animal Farm and 1984. But it is the fundamental examination of political language that should concern us here, because that is what we are engaged in primarily with public diplomacy. His lessons are just as relevant to us now as they were to Britain then.

In Our Own Words, Sen. Robert Torricelli with Andrew Carroll – Nobody much remembers Robert Torricelli, who served a single term in the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, but he edited (with historian Andrew Carroll) probably the best single volume of American 20th century political rhetoric. From William Jennings Bryan’s well-known  “Cross of Gold” speech to the unheard words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared to take responsibility for failure at D-Day it is an astonishing and well-annotated collection of the American public word — a great and growing nation articulating itself to the world.

Thinking about Propaganda

The Commissar Vanishes, David King – This book appears only mildly and subtly disturbing at first, revealing itself mostly as a collection of original and doctored photographs documenting the years of Josef Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union.  But King’s extraordinary personal collection mounts to a massive indictment of historical obliteration executed by the paranoid megalomaniac who tried to erase all evidence of his rivals, temporal and metaphysical. King has heroically resurrected the ashheap of the memory hole: the eerily airbrushed or crudely blotted photographs, the rank propaganda, the “vaporized” leaders and bureaucrats who once enjoyed Stalin’s favor but crossed him and were erased from the historical record just as they were from life.  (The “commissar” of the title refers to the most famous non-person of all, Leon Trotsky.)  I list this extraordinary book, now out of print (you can see some of the King collection online here), to warn of how others may interpret what you produce and also to cast a skeptical eye on the work of other governments. (Today, they have Photoshop.)

State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda, Holocaust Memorial Museum – I saw this exhibit at the Memorial and found its blanket definition of propaganda too broad, but as an historical record it has few rivals. Again it is important to understand how regimes such as  Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Russia, China and Iran issue propaganda so that we do not recycle their tropes or techniques. This may not seem to be a danger, but we often do not recognize what others see until we see what they have seen. (The memorial exhibit closed in December 2011, but you can view the online exhibit here.)

Thinking about Organization

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, John A. Nagl – This book may appear at first glance to be about counterinsurgency in Vietnam and Malaya, but it is in reality about organizational culture: specifically, how large organizations (such as the Army or State Department) learn, hence the title borrowed from T.E. Lawrence’s famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  For those unacquainted with bureaucratic theory or military structures, Nagl’s book is a good introduction to both and a welcome eye-opener for those working inside a large organization. (The short lesson: learn how to learn, or be prepared to lose again.)

Bill Mauldin, Up Front

Up Front, Bill Mauldin – If Nagl’s book is a thesis, this is the Dilbert equivalent.  But don’t let the visual medium fool you.  Mauldin was a profoundly intelligent, humane, and darkly funny artist, and his cartoons and commentary dating from World War II stand time’s test. Underneath these smart illustrations of the fighting man’s common lot runs an anarchist streak recognizable in any organization: commentary on hierarchy, abuse of power, powerlessness, absurdity, ignorance, fear and anxiety.  You’ll understand a lot more about military culture but also much more about organizational culture, too, from this book.

Thinking Historically

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Slavenka Draculic – This may be the only book that describes how the systematic deprivation enabled by communist central planning fundamentally degraded the status of women during the 20th century.  An enduring example of the “banality of evil,” Draculic documents the punishing effects of how communism’s inhumanity deprived millions their essential dignity in ways we in the West could not possibly imagine. This book helps us comprehend both that particular historical experience but also the importance of subjective understanding in approaching others who live in places you have never known.

The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz – If Draculic places you in the bread line or at the kitchen table during a particular historical moment, the Nobel laureate Milosz places you inside its head.  This is a hard book, but it goes far in trying to explain why thinking people, when faced with the monstrousness of the state, behave the way they do. Again it is important to understand not just as an historical document but as a matter of conscience.

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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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