Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World

Jolyon Welsh and Daniel Fearn, Supervising editors
Sep 22, 2008

For a PDF of the full FCO Publication, click here

For the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s response to this review, click here.

This is an excellent volume of essays on aspects of public diplomacy commissioned by Jim Murphy MP, the Minister for Europe at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and made freely available online at the address above. Mr. Murphy and the FCO are to be commended for this effort. The breadth of the subjects covered, together with the manner of their treatment and the format in which they appear are all testament to the central thesis of the collection, namely that the way many international relations are handled is changing and changing fast in response to globalization. These changes are no more in evidence than in the (re)emergence of public diplomacy as both an instrument of foreign policy exploiting new techniques of communication made possible by the revolutions in information and communications technologies, and as a way of conducting international relations in general with the potential to subsume, not only more traditional relations, but also the very actors between whom they are undertaken.

The collection consists of two parts, the first with ten essays on aspects of public diplomacy in general; the second of two essays with case studies. It begins with a look back at the lessons learned from past experience provided by the University of Southern California’s Nicholas J. Cull and Simon Anholt, a consultant who serves as an independent member of the FCO’s Public Diplomacy Board. Effective public diplomacy begins with listening, for example, and it also recognizes its own limits. You cannot simply brand a country in the same way you brand a product, but you can help people in other countries see your strengths and virtues more clearly. Alex Evans, a Non-Resident Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and River Path Associates’ Managing Director, David Steven then sketch out a theory of contemporary foreign policy influence for addressing primary global issues like terrorism, good government in developing countries, and climate change. Public diplomacy contributes to solving these problems by building successively: a shared understanding of what they are; a shared platform for a campaign of change; and a shared operating system within which collective response can be undertaken. Professor Brian Hocking, in contrast, is more interested in the processes engendered by a shift from hierarchical structures to horizontal networks in social relations. The challenge for governments and their diplomats is to learn how to task these networks and get them to do what you want by working effectively with a wide variety of stakeholders who inhabit them and need to be involved in the policy process as early as possible.

The focus of the volume then shifts from a world of possibly new, but familiar, players to the world of difference implied by culture. Inter-cultural connections build confidence, argues the British Council’s Martin Davidson, as he sketches out roles for diplomats as “boundary spanners” and innovative “network weavers” producing creative inter-cultural relationships. However, cultures are very different in quite basic and important ways, independent consultant Marieke de Mooij notes, and we can get into terrible trouble if we do not realize that this is so. Possibly, but if you take the time to get to know your target well, Conrad Bird of the British Government’s Cabinet Office maintains, through strategic communication pitched in terms of their interests and values, you can produce dramatic shifts in behavior unattainable by direct appeals based on one’s own terms of reference. This emphasis on technique, and the plethora of new techniques becoming available, is developed by Evan H. Potter of the University of Ottawa in his review of the interactive capacities of the second generation of the world wide web. Through the web, peoples can talk back to governments, they can talk to each other directly, and they may soon be sharing emotions, as well as ideas, if the promises of “Web 3.0” hold up. The kind of diplomats required for such a world and, particularly, the rough parts of it, is examined by Daryl Copeland, Senior Advisor in Strategic Policy and Planning at Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. In addition to the old virtues which, as Sir Harold Nicolson might say, can be taken for granted, they had better be fit, brave and very flexible.  The collection concludes with case studies by the FCO’s Lucian Hudson and Alan Anstead of how people from government, business and non-governmental agencies worked successfully together on French environment policy, Indian HIV policy and climate change legislation in the US, and by Louise Vintner of the FCO and the British Council’s David Knox on how the impact of their respective institutions’ programs is evaluated.

Taken together, the essays provide a very good introduction to the breadth and scope of the field indicated by the idea of public diplomacy. For those already familiar with the field, they also provide some insight into how the thinking of its leaders is evolving. Anholt’s lowering of expectations regarding national branding and Hocking’s argument about the pressures and imperatives for stakeholders to collaborate in network politics are instructive in this regard, while Potter’s and Copeland’s pieces convincingly demonstrate what a long, strange trip most of us will have to take if we really are going to embrace the idea of public diplomacy and all its potentials. From a more academic point of view, however, which admittedly may not be so important here, the collection disappoints. It does so in that the focus of most of the contributors remains firmly on a past which they all agree must be critiqued and left behind. It is this alone that holds what is, in fact, a very disparate collection of viewpoints and treatments of very different subjects together under the rubric of public diplomacy. If the intellectual side of the business is to prosper, however, it will need to move beyond critique and advocacy to sharpening the concepts used, teasing out the tensions and contradictions which exist between some of them, and generating interesting arguments and stimulating debates within the field of public diplomacy itself.

Let me offer three themes I believe are present in the essays but which are insufficiently developed. The first is the tension between seeing public diplomacy in foreign policy terms and in international relations terms. Those interested in foreign policy see public diplomacy primarily as a set of techniques for advancing the interests and promoting the values of entities which they take to be a given. Thus Murphy wants to know how we can get Afghan tribesmen to buy into “a long-term democratic vision for Afghanistan,” (p.13) and Copeland wants public diplomats animated by, among other things, “the desire to pursue national interests” (139). However, if we take to heart the international relations approach to public diplomacy with its emphasis on network relations, their corrosive effects on established identities and the opportunities they present for people to speak (and listen) to each other in new ways, we may be forgiven for asking “why?” in both cases. Why should Afghans buy in to democracy, and what is so special about the national interest? Neither question can be answered without first acknowledging that public diplomacy sometimes has political drivers and always has political significance, but this is an acknowledgement that the public diplomacy literature seems very reluctant to make.

The consequences of this reluctance are highlighted by my second theme, the old argument as to whether or not public diplomacy is really different from propaganda. Murphy notes that public diplomacy is not a new activity. Napoleon, for example, considered having his army convert to Islam prior to invading Egypt (p.7) while Evans and Steven maintain “Bin Laden is the quintessential public diplomat” (p.48). With the benefit of these insights, I found myself re-reading Bird’s enthusiastic account of how strategic communication can move people in the direction you want them to go (albeit, in this case, the worthy and wholesome directions of less smoking and more seatbelt-wearing), in a rather different light. If all this is public diplomacy or is, at least, on the minds of some of those practicing it, then I would not like to be one of their targets. People want relationships with one another as good things in themselves and for more instrumental purposes, but no one wants to be approached in the former terms for the latter reasons any more than they like a huckster who says he’s offering them a deal because he’s taken a shine to them.

This should not be big news, and I am not presenting the world of public diplomacy as populated by ruthless Machiavellis on the one hand and naïve transformationalists on the other. The picture is far more complex. As Evans and Steven suggest, it is perfectly possible for the transformationalists to disrupt and destroy a consensus or clear a deadlock blocking an outcome they conceive as good (p.57). That they can, however, brings me to my third theme, the tension between the conception of diplomacy as managing relations whilst things do or do not get done and the conception which prevails in this collection of its actually being at the coalface of major problem-solving. There is, and always has been, a place for both, and the place of the latter is clearly growing as a result of changes in international relations which it is impossible to ignore. A professional virtue of the managing-relations conception, however, is skepticism, and it is this quality that is almost completely absent from the collection. As some of these essays, perhaps unintentionally, reveal, old as well as new games are being played for old as well as new ends in public diplomacy, generating the sorts of problems which diplomacy was designed to ease as much as solve. This being so, perhaps an essay or two from more conventional diplomats on their experiences in the field might have helped remind us that even new public diplomats, if they want to be effective, will need to remember the old injunction associated with Talleyrand “surtout, pas trop de zèle.”

About the reviewer
Paul Sharp is Professor and Head of Political Science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, USA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles on foreign policy and diplomacy. He is currently co-editor of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy and Palgrave’s “Diplomacy and International Relations” Series and was the founding chair of both the Diplomatic Studies and English School sections of the International Studies Association.

For the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s response to this review, please click here.