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US public diplomacy in the Asia Pacific: Opportunities and challenges in a time of transition


This paper assesses policy-setting for US public diplomacy in a regional context that has received little scrutiny in recent debates on US public diplomacy: the Asia Pacific. The garnering of soft power and diplomatic consensus through public diplomacy should be regarded as an important platform for US foreign policy in the region, given Washington's extensive strategic and economic interests in the Asia Pacific, and because the region is currently undergoing considerable structural changes that suggest that hard power alone will not be sufficient to secure Washington's desired outcomes. This paper has four sections. First, I survey contemporary debates on US public diplomacy and the global setting in which US public diplomacy operates. I then outline the three key components of US public diplomacy, emphasising how key initiatives pertain to the Asia Pacific context. The third section examines the bureaucratic structures through which US public diplomacy initiatives are designed and implemented. Finally, I provide an outlook on the future of US public diplomacy in the Asia Pacific in the context of regional geopolitical transitions, emphasising the potential contribution of public diplomacy to US interests in the years ahead.

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  1. 1.

    On the ‘crisis’ of US public diplomacy see also Kiehl (2005), Johnson (2006) and Zeller (2006). An excellent review of the recommendations of official review bodies and the wider literature is that of Epstein and Mages (2005).

  2. 2.

    The War on Terror, and the operations at the Guantanamo Bay facility in particular, have come to be seen also as a touchstone for many broader global public concerns about US foreign policy, including the Bush administration's failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol, its selective interest in the United Nations, anti-globalisation concerns and other international issues.

  3. 3.

    Significantly, however, a 1997 study completed by David I. Hitchcock under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies indicated that concerns among Asian opinion leaders about Washington's unilateralist tendencies, and willingness to assert influence rather than seek accommodation in the context of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, were extant before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Summarising the findings of a qualitative study of elite opinion in seven Asian countries, Hitchcock concluded that the Clinton administration's key diplomatic challenge in Asia was ‘to fashion more sensitive, less culture-bound foreign policies … The United States must recognise more fully that the most successful negotiation is where both sides win. If such relationships are to develop further, the United States must hold back threats of sanctions, public scoldings, and pressure tactics that, in Asian minds, do not fit with … a new level of equality and cooperation’. This observation attests to a central analytical point that is developed here within my chapter, namely that the impact of post-9/11 developments must be situated within the context of broader political trends in the Asia Pacific case (Hitchcock, 1997: 3–4, 48).

  4. 4.

    The Bureau also maintains foreign press centres in Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles to provide ‘foreign journalists with a variety of services to help them report on American society, politics and culture’. However, the Advisory Commission noted in 2005 that the centres did not yet appear to be used in significant numbers, and recommended that the centres be better publicised as a resource for foreign media professionals in the US (2005: 7–8).

  5. 5.

    Cultural programmes were adopted as part of the Department of State's foreign policy initiatives in 1938, and the model for the first phase of Fulbright Program (founded in 1946) was undertaken by the Hoover administration when surplus currency from the First World War was used to fund a programme of educational exchanges between the United States and Belgium.

  6. 6.

    In 2005, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy noted that 35 per cent of the funding for ECA programmes came from the private sector (United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, 2005: 17).

  7. 7.

    Grantees to and from the Asia Pacific have increased slightly as a percentage of the total over the last decade. I do not, however, believe this is significant, and there is no evidence that the Fulbright Program is in any way targeting the Asia Pacific. It is likely that this is the result of economic factors that account for more students overall attending university in the Asia Pacific region, and the rising global influence of China attracting interest from students and professors in the US. In fact, State Department documents have instead emphasised that exchanges between the US and the Middle East under Fulbright Program auspices should be boosted (see (Djerejian, 2003). While there have been moderate increases in the numbers of students and academics travelling to and from the Middle East, new visa requirements have also hindered the deepening of educational ties between the US and that region, which also seems to account for the marginally higher proportion of grantees from the Asia Pacific. The Western Hemisphere and Western Europe are the two regions where most Fulbright exchange activities take place (Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, 1996–2005).

  8. 8.

    The placing of key public diplomacy functions within the State Department's geographical bureaus during the 1999 reforms still provokes strong reactions in Washington. As Shawn Zeller has recently reflected, many of the key reports on public diplomacy commissioned by State point to the repercussions of the 1999 reorganisation as a key problem for US public diplomacy, particularly the low morale among public diplomacy staff and a lack of coherent policy guidance within the new bureaucratic arrangements (Zeller, 2006: 24).

  9. 9.

    The Bureau is located within the Office of Research of the Department of State. This office also incorporates small teams of specialists within the Media Reaction Division, the Rapid Response Unit and the Digital Outreach Team, all of which monitor how the US is portrayed within different formats of the global media environment.

  10. 10.

    Michael Wesley offers a contending perspective that insists that the emergence of more robust multilateral frameworks within Asia represent a convergence of US and Asian interests, since ‘during the 1990s, both sides of politics in the US [went] … through a learning process about the processes and potentials of the “new regionalism” that developed in many regions of the globe after the end of the Cold War. Whereas at the start of the decade many were inclined to see the new regionalism as a challenge to US goals and pre-eminence … by the end of the decade … regionalism had showed itself to US policy makers to be incapable of constituting … a challenge to US power’ (Wesley, 2006: 66).


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This paper was completed while I was 2007–2008 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Studies, University of Southern California, and I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Center, its administrative staff, and its director Pat James during the writing of this paper. Helpful comments on the draft were also provided by Nick Cull and the MA students of the Center for Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California; Yusaku Horiuchi, Tomoko Akami, Matthew Linley and Benjamin Goldsmith at the Australian National University; Mike Hannahan and Jerry Mileur at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; John Robert Kelley; and two anonymous reviewers. I would like to thank the current and retired government officials I interviewed on an off-the-record basis and those who are named in the text below in Washington DC and Los Angeles in 2006 and 2007, whose insights gave me a great deal of background for this paper.

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Correspondence to Sarah Ellen Graham.

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1was 2007–2008 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Studies, University of Southern California, with a concurrent affiliation to the Center for Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School for Communications, University of Southern California. She completed her PhD in International Relations at the Australian National University and has past and forthcoming publications examining US public diplomacy in Diplomatic History, Orbis and the Australasian Journal of American Studies. She now lectures at the Department of International Relations at the University of Southern California.

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Graham, S. US public diplomacy in the Asia Pacific: Opportunities and challenges in a time of transition. Place Brand Public Dipl 4, 336–356 (2008).

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  • Public diplomacy
  • Asia Pacific
  • Voice of America
  • Radio Free Asia
  • cultural diplomacy
  • United States