Public Diplomacy – Winning Hearts and Minds

Martina Němcová

In today’s world, we hear the word power a lot. What is power? In general, the dictionary defines it as ‘the ability to control people and events’[1] or ‘to influence the way people act or think in important ways’.[2] But what does power mean in public diplomacy?

With the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it became apparent that using hard power was not enough to win a military conflict. The U.S. government had to use a different tool to advance and mould the opinion of the local population, so-called soft power.

The concept of soft power was coined by Joseph Samuel Nye Jr., an American political scientist, in the late 1980s. Nye describes it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion”.[3] In his book titled Soft Power, he also says that “promoting democracy, human rights and development of civil society are not best handled with the barrel of gun … Since the shock of 9/11, the USA has been exporting fear and anger rather than our more traditional values of hope and optimism”.[4]

A country’s soft power can come from three sources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are legitimate and have moral authority). America’s reputation has been tarnished and its ability to lead questioned, yet many people continue to look up to the U.S. for many good reasons. There are people who will always see the United States as the evil policeman of the world and nothing can change their mind, but there are many others who can be persuaded by means of soft power.

In the U.S., the main advocate of soft power is the State Department. It uses traditional as well as innovative tools of diplomacy to explain the United States and make its political system, values and culture more attractive to others.

American Spaces are the U.S. State Department’s primary tool for the engaging of a foreign public in a conversation about the U.S. Many of these spaces have been in operation for years or even decades as libraries or information resource centres. In 2013, the State Department launched a new initiative to bring all U.S. government-funded spaces under the stricter oversight of the Department. New policies were implemented to unify standards for each of these spaces and to establish basic rules for their operation, look, programming, evaluation etc. The logic behind this overhaul was clearly motivated by the idea of using these spaces more effectively to promote the United States to a foreign public.

An American Space is usually located in a publicly accessible location and overseen by a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Its primary mission is to engage with the local population to promote U.S. foreign policy, but also to inform and inspire through its programs and events. It is focused on support of important democratic values, such as human rights, anti-corruption, sustainable environment, gender equality and women’s empowerment, as well providing information on the U.S. election process, culture, the education system, American society, economic development, entrepreneurship, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

American Spaces help to build and strengthen relationships, using their five core programs:

  1. English language learning. These programs are a critical tool for engaging a foreign public and represent usually successful activities that attract a large audience. English Language Clubs are the most popular ones. For example, the American Center in Prague offers Coffee with American English, a conversational club led by a native speaker, where people converse on specific topics while learning about American culture. To reach out to young people, the American Center organizes the monthly program Czech English Out, which addresses students aged 14-18 years and is coordinated by American high school students. English-language film screenings can also be an effective tool for learning English, and many American Spaces organize regular film clubs showcasing American movies.
  2. Educational advising and promoting study in the United States. EducationUSA Advising Centers associated with American Spaces provide information on opportunities to study at U.S. colleges and universities, which without question are ranked among the best in the world. The Prague-based EducationUSA Advising Center runs a Competitive College Club whose participants undergo an 18-month-long process of preparation for university admission which substantially differs from the Czech admission process. English teaching assistants (ETAs) placed in English classrooms overseas are another great example. These serve as a great resource for local English-language teachers. ETAs also conduct enhancement activities that support language learning by helping students to increase their understanding of U.S. society and culture.
  3. Cultural immersion and relationship building with future leaders. American Spaces cooperate closely with the State Department on the International Visitor Leadership Program, a short-term exchange program which enables professionals and future leaders to develop in-depth knowledge of the United States and to establish contacts with their counterparts in the U.S. Among the alumni of this exchange program are many contemporary leaders, such as ex-Prime Minister Sobotka.
  4. Cultural and outreach programs. These programs can include panel discussions with local or U.S. speakers on a variety of topics, such as politics, culture, history etc. Cultural activities also include exhibitions, special screenings, performances, and book clubs organized at the American Spaces.
  5. Information about the United States. One example for all – the Speakers Bureau program is focused on engaging students at local schools. During this program, a U.S. diplomat meets with local students and talks to them about his or her work in the Foreign Service and shares experiences of living in a foreign country. This program represents a massive outreach to the younger generation, which will have an immense impact on the future of the host country. It also facilitates interactive discussion in which diplomats can demonstrate many of the fundamental values the U.S. wants to disseminate through its soft power – free speech, human rights, transparency etc.

The American Spaces are intended to mould a positive image of the United States and clearly project a recognizable American identity. They are places where people learn and share ideas, express their thoughts, and cordially debate a variety of topics.

I have introduced one very specific tool that the U.S. government uses to influence the opinion of populations outside of the United States. There are, of course, many other tools for the use of soft power, and many of them are beyond the government’s control. While we know that the reputation of the U.S. has been tarnished many times, the U.S. continues to aspire to lead by example. Using soft power is thus an integral part of its diplomatic efforts.



[1] Cambridge Dictionary, Accessed November 13, 2017

[2] Cambridge Dictionary, Accessed November 13, 2017

[3] Nye, Joseph S. Jr. Soft Power the Means to Success in World Politics. PublicAffairs, 2004

[4] Parmar, Inderjeet; Cox, Michael. Soft Power and US Foreign Policy: Theoretical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Routledge, 2010