Public diplomacy has long been a tool in the arsenal of diplomats, to paraphrase Nye, and it’s easy to see why. Closely intertwined with soft power, it is a strategic way of imparting information about key policies and messages to other countries. The appeal of some forms of public diplomacy are easy to understand – a female U.S. celebrity attending special an embassy event in another country and talking about women’s rights, for example, or a U.S. ambassador sharing a tweet to with thousands of followers. Recently, though, I attended a lecture about a far less obvious form of public diplomacy: moon rocks.
Yep, you read that right. Moon rocks. Now how on earth could a moon rock play an important role in the public diplomacy history of the United States? I was wondering the same thing myself a few weeks ago when I attended a lecture at the National Air and Space Museum about the moon rocks collected during the Apollo missions.
Although it sounds silly today, moon rocks carried a great deal of public diplomacy capital shortly after the Apollo Missions. At the time, a great deal of excitement and curiosity surrounded the rocks, which drew positive attention to the United States. The U.S. prominently displayed a moon rock at the 1970 World Fair in Osaka, Japan, where it was so popular that people would wait between four – seven hours just to see to it. I’m paraphrasing from my memory of the lecture, but one Japanese reporter apparently quipped that the United States needn’t have bothered to display anything else but the moon rock, and that people would have been grateful for the extra space to squeeze to see the aforementioned object. President Nixon also used the moon rocks as a public diplomacy tool. He distributed rice-sized fragments of moon rock to 135 foreign heads of state. The moon rocks were mounted on a wood plaque and looked fairly unimpressive, but this did not diminish their effectiveness as a communication tool. Part of the moon rock’s usefulness as a public diplomacy tool had to do with the scientific achievements that it represented for America and by larger extent, mankind.
While their popularity as public diplomacy tool eventually died, the moon rocks’ unusual legacy poses interesting questions about public diplomacy today. What kinds of public diplomacy tools do we have today, and are they more virtual than physical?