The Ambassadors REVIEW
At the Crossroads Between Practitioner and Theorist
Michelle A. Lee, Ph.D.
Kathryn W. Davis Public Diplomacy Fellow, 2010-2011
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own views and not
necessarily those of the Department of State or the US Government.
e who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” Many educators would
bristle at least a little bit at this statement, originally penned by
George Bernard Shaw in his work,
Maxims for Revolutionists
the divide between practitioners and theorists in various subjects is long-standing, it has
never been more apparent in the field of public diplomacy than today. This is partly
attributable to the fact that the formal academic study of public diplomacy is a relatively
new undertaking. Increasingly in the past decade, academics, independent analysts,
councils, and commissions dedicated to US public diplomacy have produced numerous
articles, blogs, publications, and reports, often focusing on the weakness of American
public diplomacy. Many include recommendations on ways to improve the US
government’s efforts to engage foreign publics around the world. The extent to which
these analyses are read by actual practitioners of public diplomacy is unknown;
anecdotally, I venture the guess that few active field practitioners have the time to read
much of the published academic literature on the subject of public diplomacy.
Moreover, a good deal of this published material is not particularly relevant to the
day-to-day work of a practitioner. Some practitioners complain that public diplomacy
theorists are off-base, do not understand realities on the ground at our posts around the
world, and do not engage in meaningful dialogue with practitioners when they conduct
research. In some cases, these complaints are justifiable. While practitioners are reluctant
to concur with academic critiques of American public diplomacy, however, they are quick
to commiserate with one another about any number of internal deficiencies: lack of
staffing, inadequate training, dwindling budgets, poor communication between field posts
and the leadership in Washington, and so on. Yet these are issues that are in fact raised in a
number of publications on public diplomacy authored by non-practitioners.
The relationship between public diplomacy practitioners and academics should be a
natural one, generally speaking. After all, one of the key audiences with which public
diplomacy officers (and cultural affairs officers, in particular) traditionally engage in the
field are elite academics of the host country. It is back home, in the United States, where
the linkages between public diplomacy practitioners and their academic counterparts are
somewhat more fractured. I recently attended a panel organized by the Public Diplomacy
Council, which convened several former practitioners who now draw upon their
experiences to teach students pursuing degrees related to public diplomacy. In the audience
were mid-level public diplomacy officers currently serving in the US Foreign Service.