American Public Diplomacy: Obama Era

Diplomacy is a very modern word of today’s agenda and international areas and also it has similar meanings in different studies and the mindset of thinkers. It is the term which makes it possible to run relations between humans since the early ages of communities. In today’s situation, diplomacy can be defined as the balancing of interests between international societies with the appropriateness of international law (Ergüven, 2017). Diplomacy is also defined as a strategy which is applied foreign policy making process of states. Diplomacy is the solution process which does not making discrimination of ethnicity, language, religion. (Abdurrahmanlı & Bağış, 2021). Diplomacy is the thing which is used by states as an efficiency tool in their foreign policy actions and means running international relations with peaceful approaches not with war and conflicts. However, fundamentally diplomacy can have two meanings. One of them is the narrow sense of Diplomacy and it is the states’ mutual communications which are made by official representatives of states such as diplomats and other one is a wide sense of diplomacy which means politically efficiency styles which are used in a state’s foreign policy (Kodaman & Akçay, 2010). According to Abdurrahmanlı & Bağış, 2001, a narrow sense of Diplomacy can include international treaties and international organizations such as the UN, WHO, EU can be examples of a wide sense of diplomacy. 

Diplomacy also has very different styles, approaches, ways and techniques. For example, cultural diplomacy, public diplomacy, nature diplomacy, intermediary diplomacy, economic diplomacy, digital diplomacy, multilateral diplomacy, coercive diplomacy etc. In this study, American Public Diplomacy will be studied so firstly we need to gather the public diplomacy meanings which are studied and thought in different studies, articles and answer the question of “What is public diplomacy?”

1. Public Diplomacy

Public diplomacy is large and one of the most famous diplomacy areas and also it has various definitions in different mindsets. Public diplomacy is located in the intersection point between international relations and public relations and its importance is increasing (Yağmurlu, 2007). Every diplomatic action which is run by a state to another state’s citizens is public diplomacy (Abdurrahmanlı & Bağış, 2021). Public diplomacy is the attempt which is made by states to affect other states’ people, intellectuals and other states’ politics in a way which will be to the advantage of the state itself. (Akçadağ, 2010). Public diplomacy is the gaining of minds and hearts of people who live in other states and it has a functional role in the point of providing legitimacy to foreign policy actions (Öncel, 2018). From the most general perspective, public diplomacy can be defined as a diplomacy type which is pursued by states to public opinion (Ekici & Taş, 2020). Mark Leonard stated that image and recognition of a state is the power and available ground for interactions. According to him, the state’s understanding of other states’ people, culture and fixing the wrong perception of itself with the founding of common stakeholders are the aims of public opinion (Ekşi & Erol, 2018).

In public diplomacy, the main target is people. Public diplomacy is the method which a state’s tryings to introduce itself, it’s lifestyle, it’s culture, it’s history in the international area and make other people’s perceptions about itself more positive. Most important examples of public diplomacy can be educational exchange programs, scholarships and television series. Also investments which is made in foreign states is the example of public diplomacy because aim of this investments is the creation of positive image or destroying the negative image (Abdurrahmanlı & Bağış, 2021). 

With those ideas, we can say that, public diplomacy is the type of diplomacy which takes the public opinion, people, intellectuals of other states to it’s agenda and aims to affects those actors without using the hard power but using peaceful ways, media, culture, intellectual of itself, ideas and soft power tools also with the helping of other diplomacy types such as cultural diplomacy, digital diplomacy etc. 

2. American Public Diplomacy

In the USA, the history of public diplomacy depends on the 1st World War. After the 1st World War, there were many legal regulations and When we look at the historical process of public diplomacy, we can see that the USA was the leading state in literature and institutionalization of public diplomacy (Günek, 2018). However, public diplomacy and soft power terms have come to the agenda of the USA in the 2000s. Soft power is the blocking of the creation of the enemy, instead of killing or destroying the enemy with hard power (Öncel, 2018).

2.1. Obama Era

In the Bush era, the American image of the World was very negative and bad because of bilateral actions of the USA after the 9/11 attacks. Obama has adopted a new and different public diplomacy strategy to repair the deteriorated image of the USA around the world. This strategy, which took a new tone in international relations, also aimed to reset the relationship of the USA with other nations and people. The philosophy of this new policy is based on global cooperation and mutual respect (Günek, 2018). When Obama started his presidency, despite losing its legitimacy significantly in the international arena and despite all the negative economic developments, the USA continued to be the world’s military and economic leader. In addition to military and economic developments, Obama needed to improve the image of the USA, which was damaged both in the international arena and among US citizens (Öncel, 2018). This new understanding of public diplomacy, which Obama summarized as “Common Interests and mutual respect” has emerged (Günek, 2018). 

When Obama took office, he redesigned the US security strategy as smart power, which is defined as a combination of hard power and soft power. Thus, in his security strategy, Obama preferred the idea of using hard power together with soft power, both to remain strong and to create legitimacy. At the heart of this idea was the idea that no state, no matter how powerful, could fight global threats alone (Öncel, 2018). Smart power can be briefly defined as the effective combination of hard and soft powers. It also means developing an integrated strategy with both hard and soft power to achieve America’s goals. Smart power is an approach that emphasizes the need for a strong military structure, while investing heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions to extend American influence and legitimize US initiatives (Akçadağ, 2010). 

Public diplomacy in the Obama era followed a different strategy at the discourse level. The political discourse was maintained in a softer, less demanding and conciliatory tone. With an inclusive and open-to-dialogue approach, no categorization was made of those who support or oppose US policies, as was the case in the Bush era. Obama’s constructive rhetoric has repaired the deteriorated image of the United States internationally among key allies in the West. However, this discourse did not have an effect on the countries where the USA had a deeper crisis and conflict (Günek, 2018). 

Obama giving his first interview to the Saudi channel al-Arabiya; Emphasizing that America is not an enemy of the Islamic world, underlining that it will listen to both sides in the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli problem, and talking about cooperation can be considered as an indication of its use of soft power. Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 showed that he wanted to build a new relationship with Muslim geography (Öncel, 2018). The most obvious example of the direct use of public diplomacy by President Obama is his speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009. “We met at a time when tensions prevailed between America and Islam,” said Obama, calling for a fresh start. “I came to Cairo in search of a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world. This start is based on common interests and respect. With the statement that America and the Islamic world are not separate from each other and there is no need for them to be in a race, he signaled that he would move away from the “either you are us or them” approach during the Bush term and that he would pursue a different foreign policy from the previous period by emphasizing common interests and mutual respect (Akçadağ, 2010).

Obama especially applied the soft power elements on the Middle East and Muslims. Indicating that there was no enmity between the USA and Islam, especially in the speeches he made when he first took office, Obama made an effort to build a relationship with Muslims and the people of the Middle East by meeting on common ground (Öncel, 2018). President Obama also delivered a speech in the capital of Ghana on July 11, 2009. “The 21st century will be affected not only by Rome, Moscow and Washington, but also by Accra.” He emphasized on multilateralism and stated that the USA attaches importance to relations with Africa. He also made references to the rich but challenging history and bright future of the African continent (Akçadağ, 2010). 


When Obama was elected president after Bush, US Foreign Policy needed the concept of soft power and public diplomacy. So much so that Obama should both give importance to military and economic power and save the USA from being a hated country. For this, it has adopted the concept of “smart power” in foreign policy by using the elements of hard power and soft power together. 

In summary, it can be said that with the Obama administration, America has made a serious effort to correct its deteriorated images.

Zeki Talustan Gülten

Diplomasi Çalışmaları Staj Programı


Abdurrahmanlı, E., Bağış, E. (2021). Diplomasi Tanımı ve Uluslararası Konjonktürde Mevcut olan Diplomasi Türleri. Anadolu Akademi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi3(1), 140-160.

Akçadağ, E. (2010). ABD’nin kamu diplomasisi stratejisi: Akıllı güç. Retrieved from http://www. kamu diplomasisi. org/pdf/abdkdstratejisi.pdf on December31, 2021.

Ekşi, M., & Erol, M. S. (2018). The rise and fall of Turkish soft power and public diplomacy.

Ergüven, N. S. (2017). Uluslararası hukukun tarihsel boyutuyla diplomasinin kurumsal gelişim süreci. Ankara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi7(1).

Günek, A. (2018). Amerikan Kamu Diplomasisinin Üç Evresi: Propaganda, Geleneksel Kamu Diplomasisi Ve Stratejik İletişim. The Journal of Social Science2(3), 54-72.

Kodaman, T., & Akçay, E. Y. (2010). Kuruluştan Yıkılışa Kadar Osmanlı Diplomasi Tarihi ve Türkiye’ye Bıraktığı Miras. Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi Fen-Edebiyat Fakültesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi2010(22), 75-92.

Ekşi, M., Taş, F. D. (2020). Dijital Diplomasi Yeni Bir Tür Diplomasi Midir?. Uluslararası Kriz ve Siyaset Araştırmaları Dergisi4(2), 213-239.

Öncel, M. A. (2018). ABD’nin Ortadoğu’ya Yönelik Kamu Diplomasisi: Obama ve Trump Dönemi. Uluslararası İlişkiler ve Diplomasi1(1), 92-104.

Yağmurlu, A. (2007). Halkla ilişkiler yöntemi olarak kamu diplomasisi.

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