As a Center for Public Diplomacy in the College of the Liberal Arts at the Pennsylvania State University, World in Conversation would like to discuss “public diplomacy” and what we mean when we use that term. As with so many things, this phrase has its complications.
Let’s start with diplomacy: Diplomacy happens when parties representing different interests come together in formal negotiations to seek a mutually satisfying outcome. This usually means the parties are traversing boundaries and borders–whether geographical or ideological–to discuss subjects that involve conflicting positions. The intention of such encounters is to forge an agreement about how to constructively manage some kind of impasse.
Most of us imagine diplomacy to involve high level officials facilitating difficult exchanges between representatives of different nations. We usually envision these government-to-government encounters to be focused on treaties about borders, weapons, rights to resources or ways of doing international business. When we think of diplomacy in this way, we are envisioning what is known as “Track I Diplomacy.” But there are times when similar efforts are convened by non-governmental people who have personal access to decision-makers. These private individuals can sometimes play an unofficial role in diplomatic efforts by opening lines of communication or helping to build confidence between influential individuals in adversarial situations. This is known as “Track II Diplomacy.”
There is a third track of diplomacy–public diplomacy–which is a grassroots, people-to-people version. These efforts focus on bringing ordinary citizens together as a base for cross cultural understanding, trust and collaboration.* Although Track III does not have official capacity, it can be instrumental in supporting global problem solving, peace and security.
World in Conversation Center is building on this third track. By convening dialogues led by facilitators who have particular skill in effective communication strategies, cultural groups that tend to be segregated from one another can openly explore shared challenges. Once they are no longer strangers to each other’s histories, mentalities, beliefs and customs, they are more willing to work together–and they have a better chance of doing so. This informal kind of diplomacy is what our facilitators have been engaged in since 2002. We are just finally naming it.
But here’s the complicated part: Some say public diplomacy is a tool of governments to influence foreign people in ways that are friendly to their own interests. Others say it is a true grassroots kind of contact between people to build relationships and bridges. Our very own State Department Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has this to say: “The mission of American public diplomacy is to support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security.” In other words, their goal is to influence foreign citizens. This makes sense from the State Department perspective. But it is not at all how World in Conversation dialogues operate.
World in Conversation became the Center for Public Diplomacy with the belief that public diplomacy in its essence brings ordinary people together for the purpose of expanding “cross border” understanding (whatever those borders are) and opening the possibility for collaborative relationships. The intention of our dialogues has always been to challenge people to expand their perspectives and to humanize one another in the process, not to convince them to adopt a particular view. We invite all sides, all communities, all parties in a conversation to influence one another through the stories they tell of their lives and experiences. As a Center, all of our efforts are devoted to exploring, examining and expanding this kind of public diplomacy. Though it may be bold to say, we’ll say it: We are not seeking to advance any side; we are seeking to advance humanity.
*This doesn’t mean we ignore issues of inequality and privilege as if “we are all the same.” It just means that we are not seeking a unidirectional influence except as it pertains to minimizing objectification.