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Lessons from the Cold War US Public Diplomacy?

by on April 30, 2012


It is evident that the post- ‘9/11’ revival of interest in US public diplomacy includes a wide ranging notions, most of which are critical. The unprecedented drop in U.S. standing in world public opinion due to its infamous ‘war on terror’ suggests fundamental flaws in US public diplomacy efforts and a clear sign that they were ineffective.

It is argued that the much has to be learnt from experiences of the cold War-era standing of public diplomacy. The spread of liberal democracy behind the Berlin Walls were seen to be aided by mass communication channels like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and that cultural exchanges with influential members of Soviet society helped create the foundation that undermined the communist regime.  Insofar, America’s informational campaigns were seen instrumental in hastening the fall of the Soviet Union.  Lord and Dale (2007), maintains that with the end of cold war, U.S communication machinery is seen to be underpowered and not engaged effectively with the global ideological environment (Lord and Dale 2007, p. 1).  They argue that to restore America’s voce, government leaders should draw on the nation’s Cold War legacy to build the foundation in promotion dialogue with foreign audience, nurture institutional relations and share ideas – all seen as important aspect of national security. Acknowledging the importance of idea, they call for America’s leaders to draw on lessons from cold war strategies to rebuild the nation’s public diplomacy capabilities (ibid. pp.6-7).


However there is much scepticism in ascertaining the degree to which the Cold War’s campaign of information, influence and engagement could be viewed as success. Reflecting upon the dynamic of the new geopolitical environment there are many forward-thinking propositions which follow different schools of thoughts.

Firstly, it is accepted that the advance in international communication technologies heralded by the new ‘information age’ saw changes in ways people obtain and share information. Secondly, it can be noted that increasingly culture as oppose to ideology is seen as a basis for transmitting messages among foreign populations (Kelly 2007, pp 74-76).

Furthermore, it is maintained that as cultural difference rather than nationalism is a contemporary account of miscommunication between peoples, as such the logic of targeting public diplomacy to a sovereign state with distinct polity and hierarchy of leadership is turned obsolete. Therefore even with communication engagement, without a base of cultural knowledge from which initiatives can be developed, fitting a information content to adhere to tastes and habits is seen more complex compared to the cold war era ( ibid. 77).

Nevertheless it is argued that problems facing public diplomacy will require long-term solutions. There are calls for more focus on ‘exchange of ideas’ between the U.S public diplomacy apparatus and especially the Muslim world. It is maintained that Cold War histories that deal with certain aspects of public diplomacy can contribute from experience of programs and activities which are on way to be forgotten now. Through a meticulous record of such success and failures, it is argued U.S government can emulate the achievements and avoid past mistakes (Critchlow 2006, p. 89).




Critchlow, J. (2006), ‘Public Diplomacy during the Cold War: The Records and Its Implcation’, ‘Journal of Cold War Studies’, (1)6, pp. 75-89. Available from <> [17th March 2012]


Kelley, John R. (2007), ‘US Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Success Story?’, ‘The Hague Journal of Diplomacy’ (1) 2, pp.53-79.

Lord, C. And Dale, Helle C. (2007), ‘Public Diplomacy and the Cold War: Lesson Learned’, ‘Backgrounder’ No.2070, September 2007, The Heritage Foundation, Massachusetts Avenue. Available from <> [20th March 2012]


Shaw,  (2012), Nightmare on Nevsky Prospekt: The Blue Bird as a Curious Instance of U.S.-Soviet Film Collaboration during the Cold War’, ‘Journal of Cold War Studies’, (1)14, pp. 3-33.

Zaharna, R. S (2010), ‘Battles to Bridges: US Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy After 9/11’, Palgrave, Macmillan.




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