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Alumna Caitlin Schindler discusses the history of U.S. public diplomacy

The Institute of World Politics had the pleasure of welcoming back Dr. Caitlin Schindler, one of our own alumni, on May 20th for her lecture titled “New Century, Same Problems: U.S. Public Diplomacy in Context.” Dr. Schindler received an M.A. in Strategic Intelligence from IWP and has recently earned a Ph.D. from the University of Leeds after working in support of the U.S. intelligence community.

Dr. Schindler’s research represents a groundbreaking effort in one of the most understudied disciplines of the American diplomatic tradition. By correlating the lessons of public diplomacy throughout American history with the current issues and stigmas that ostracize the practice, she provided attendees with a general understanding of the reasons why this strategic necessity is neglected.

Dr. Schindler defined public diplomacy as “any conscious effort by either the U.S. government or private entities to interact or communicate with people of foreign nations beyond superficial relationships such as trade and administrative correspondences.” She states that defining the term is a crucial step because “public diplomacy is a relatively contested term.” As a matter of fact, consensus is so lacking that Dr. Schindler found it necessary to substitute the term “foreign public engagement” for public diplomacy in her research.

This conceptual crisis is the first of three issues that Dr. Schindler listed as accountable for the failures in American public diplomacy. The second issue is one of organization. The U.S. Government is currently experiencing a wide breadth of bureaucratic and strategic overlap regarding these matters. This concrete problem cannot be solved without first addressing an essential abstract: What is the role of public diplomacy in statecraft? This key research question has guided her through her studies.

Thirdly, Dr. Schindler attributed failures in American public diplomacy to ideological reasons. This issue is “connected to the deep-rooted beliefs about America’s relationship with the world and defining what that relationship should be in the context of these beliefs.”

As the lecture progressed, Dr. Schindler tapped into the precedents available in American history. The public diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin, William Seward, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and others, were discussed.

In observing the patterns across these histories, Dr. Schindler began to arrive at a more solid understanding of not only the abstract definitions mentioned above, but even of the tactical pitfalls a public diplomacy campaign might encounter in today’s world. For instance: Do we focus more on private sector efforts or public sector efforts as a vehicle for public diplomacy? How do we facilitate better communication between headquarters and the field? How do ensure that our traditional diplomatic efforts and our public diplomacy efforts speak with complimentary voices?

The IWP community looks forward to the publication of Dr. Schindler’s research, which will be useful for diplomatic practitioners. As noted in the presentation, if we do not take it upon ourselves to communicate our nature and intentions to the foreign peoples of the world, then others will.