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U.S./China relations and well beyond: Let’s double down on Soft Power/Public Diplomacy. PR pros can help.

“We believe that the world is big enough for both countries to thrive. “

(Treasury Secretary Janett Yellen, July 9, 2023 news conference.)

“China and the U.S., Still Adversaries, Are Talking. That’s a Start…”

“Treasury Secretary Janett Yellen … said the two sides would pursue ‘more frequent communication’ despite their deep differences.”


[Skeptics, please hold your fire.]


Relations between nations, especially superpowers, can, of course, be extremely complex, fluid, fragile, – and, too often dangerous. And current U.S.- China relations seem to oscillate among these geopolitical portals almost daily. However, there is a potential antidote – admittedly long-term – to this and many such international confrontations: Soft Power/Public Diplomacy.


The good news is that U.S. Soft Power/Public Diplomacy is now being conducted not only by U.S government agencies, but also by many American organizations, institutions, non-profits and individual citizens. With the U.S. reputation (”image”) now improving abroad, and public opinion mounting in importance, it’s time to double-down on such public relations commitments – and not only with China – to capitalize on this momentum.


Globally, there is renewed interest in Soft Power/Public Diplomacy. An excellent summary has just been presented in the current edition of Foreign by acclaimed international journalist J. Alex Tarquinio:

“Soft Power Is Making a Hard Return”,  . A few of her many valuable insights:

“Although the modern vernacular of soft and hard power implies opposition, since earliest civilizations it has been more of a continuum.”


“The world has changed markedly in the more than three decades since political scientist Joseph S. Nye popularized the term ‘Soft Power’…The information age has modified the nature of soft power but not human nature.”


“Soft Power may be pricey, but world leaders continue to pour money into a range of cultural offerings because they can’t be certain what will resonate.”


“Today, many world leaders still reach for sports, language, food, music, and movies to advance their interests.”


“The term ‘Soft Power’ evokes more than wishful thinking, although that was certainly part of its appeal after the barbarism of the 20th century. Alongside other forms of persuasion, it can help a country cut deals, win friends, or join new clubs.           Or not.”



Definitions: “Soft Power is the ability to co-opt, rather than coerce (in contrast with hard power). It involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.”

“Public Diplomacy is that form of international political advocacy in which the civilians in one country use legitimate means to reach out to the civilians in another country in order to gain popular support for negotiations occurring in different diplomatic channels.” – Wikipedia



Here is some of the good news on current U.S. Soft Power/Public Diplomacy:


It is well-rooted.

“The potency of U.S. public diplomacy is integrally connected to the American people. The role of the private sector in American public diplomacy is indispensable. To be most influential,[it] should tap into and mobilize these private actors as much as possible… the United States should find new ways to engage private actors and employ technology, media, and the private sector expertise.”  – Kristin M. Lord, 2009 .


It is protean, in play with many diverse agents, each with distinct objectives (humanitarian, geopolitical or both), cultures, operations and outcomes. Here are just few:

 U.S. Department of State – The Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA)

(ECA was created in the State Department in 1999 as the “inheritor” of some (but, unfortunately, not all) of the formidable Soft Power/Public Diplomacy resources and influence of the U. S Information Agency – the powerful U.S. global dialogue engine before and during the Cold War.)  “Global Ties Network” –

A recent report:

“Over last year, more than 600 citizen diplomats from non-profit organizations across the United States restarted in-person programming for the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP)… helping more than 3,900 international leaders connect with small businesses, schools, state and local government representatives and others in their communities to trade best practices on tackling the global issues of our time, such as democracy, combatting disinformation, global health and more … The Global Ties Network is the largest and oldest citizen diplomacy network in the United States, made up of people from all over the country who are committed to people-to-people diplomacy.”


United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

Where humanitarian and geopolitical missions coalesce.

“USAID’s work advances U.S national security and economic prosperity, demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience.”


Participation in multilateral soft power/public diplomacy

       Cultural Diplomacy:  “The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy supports and promotes international programs in music, art and other cultural exchanges… As the move towards more socially responsible business practices gains momentum, the ability to understand and embrace the different values and needs of diverse cultures and societies becomes ever more important.”

United Nations Global Compact Business for Peace:  “Businesses need socially stable, healthy, and economically viable markets to succeed. While the primary responsibility for peace, security and development rests with Governments, businesses have a critical role to play in contributing to the stability and security in conflict-affected and high-risk areas.”


Can fundamental public relations principles be applied successfully here? Is Soft Power/Public Diplomacy,  in effect,  “public relations writ large” – very large? Is it, literally, ( even if awkwardly stated), “inter-nations public relations”?


Two leading national academic institutions appear supportive of this linkage:

At the University of Southern California, “The USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) was established in 2003 [emphasis added] as a partnership between the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism and the School of International Relations …The study of public diplomacy is a new and expanding field. CPD defines it as a public, interactive dimension of diplomacy which is not only global in nature, but also involves a multitude of actors and networks …Marketing and public relations notions such as branding have been incorporated by public diplomacy scholars to great effect … the concept of soft power … has, for many become a core concept in public diplomacy studies …

“Thus, CPD sees public diplomacy as an emerging, multi-disciplinary field with theoretical, conceptual and methodological links to several academic disciplines – communication, history, international relations, media studies, public relations, and regional studies, to name but a few.”

Syracuse University addresses this linkage admirably in its course, “Public Diplomacy and Global Communications, MA” .

“The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications offer an 18-month multidisciplinary graduate program leading to the Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in Public Diplomacy and Global Communications. Students complete one half of their course work in the Maxwell School’s Department of Public Administration and International Affairs and the other half in Newhouse School’s Department of of Public Relations.” Courses include publicrelations research, writing and campaign planning/execution as well as “Issues for 21st Century Public Diplomacy”.

Marketing for the course has been quite engaging: “It’s easy to change the world for the worse. It’s harder to change it for the better. We’re here to teach you how to do the hard part.”


Finally, there is this:

An introduction to the recently published book, “Soft Power and Great-Power Competition”, ,   a collection of essays by Joseph S. Nye, , offers this stirring point of view:

“Ultimately, the US-China relationship is a cooperative rivalry’ where a successful strategy of ‘smart competition’ is necessary and cooperation on transnational challenges like climate change, pandemics, cyberterrorism, and nuclear proliferation, will serve to benefit not only China and the US, but the world as a whole.”


Or, to put it more succinctly,

“Give peace a chance.” {John Lennon, 1969)