The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts

Craig Hayden
Mar 7, 2012

In The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts, Craig Hayden, assistant professor of international communication at American University, presents a well-researched discussion of soft power and its application in the name of public diplomacy. Framed in the context of both theoretical and practical thinking about soft power, the book offers four case studies to explore some of the soft power themes articulated in the introductory chapters.

Hayden sets clear boundaries for the book, noting it is not intended to evaluate public diplomacy outcomes; rather, the goal is to “develop a theoretical treatment [of] soft power and public diplomacy through an interdisciplinary investigation” (p. 3) using interpretative and observational methods. Writing about the investigatory process, Hayden explains that he employs textual analysis designed to illustrate the contexts of soft power and its manifestations in public diplomacy.

The interdisciplinary nature of public diplomacy is clear throughout the book. On this point Hayden notes “ever increasingly, the business of soft power links the resources of communication with the imperatives of politics” (p. 4). The three research questions at the book’s core explore these connections between international politics and communication theory at different levels: First is the question of how policy intentions are expressed through public diplomacy and strategic communication. Second is the question of how countries’ intentions and behaviors are received in the international system. The final question concerns what different nations’ public diplomacy practices reveal about their assumptions surrounding communication’s influence in the international system. The answer Hayden offers is that soft power - both its promotion and its exercise - can serve as the justification for many examples of state behavior.

The academic study of public diplomacy is notoriously thin on theory (Entman, 2008; Gilboa, 2008) and in his introductory chapters Hayden states his intention to help fill that void. In fact, the book is presented as an exercise in the development of observation-based theory building. This is a legitimate way to tackle a complicated subject, but the approach positions the book for some of the same criticisms often leveled at public diplomacy evaluative efforts (Banks, 2011; Bayles, 2005; Melissen, 2005; Pahlavi, 2007), chiefly that the presentation of case studies does not guarantee increased theoretical awareness. The result, in this case, is a thoughtful discussion of soft power and an impressive collection of well-researched case studies, but few universally applicable theoretical insights.

One of the frustrations associated with public diplomacy literature is the vagueness of terms. The Rhetoric of Soft Power, for example, employs a broad definition of soft power. That is not unjustifiable given the body of literature from which the discussion is derived. The difficulty, however, is that almost anything other than projection of military might can be grouped into a catch-all category dedicated to promoting or exploiting soft power. That there is confusion in definition and usage of terms is not Hayden’s fault. Indeed, consistent vagueness may be at the core of the public diplomacy literature’s difficulty with theory development. Theory is intended to explain and predict the world, but it first requires established concepts. Social science methodology teaches that the most important task for concepts is “provid[ing] the tools for communication” within a field (Nachmias & Nachmias, 2002, p. 24) and that only after establishment and acceptance of concepts can researchers “focus on some aspect of reality by defining its components and then by attempting to discover whether that aspect is shared by different phenomena ” (Nachmias & Nachmias, 2002, p. 25). In other words, it is only after a field’s agreement on concepts that it becomes possible to develop theory at all. With understandings of soft power and public diplomacy still unsettled, it is no surprise that workable theory has yet to emerge.

With respect to the case studies in The Rhetoric of Soft Power, Hayden bases his analysis of countries and their views of soft power on three components: scope, mechanism and outcome (p. 59). This is similar to what Gilboa (2008), Gregory (20011), and others have promoted in their categorization of public diplomacy programs, intentions and time frames for outcomes. Although Hayden addresses the request for comparative studies, he has not organized them around a single template to help facilitate theory-building observations. The result is an interesting interpretation of soft power, public diplomacy and its implications for each country, but not theoretical insights.

Another opportunity for organizing the case studies presents itself in the three principal behaviors Hayden associates with public diplomacy and soft power early in the book. He identifies the principal behaviors as agenda-setting/framing, persuasion and attraction. Had he focused discussion in each case study around these three behaviors it might have allowed for a more consistent presentation of the information and thus more opportunities for generalization among cases. That each of those behaviors could also be associated with theoretical concepts in the literature of mass communication and international politics represents a further missed opportunity for multidisciplinary theory building.

To be sure, the case studies make useful contributions on their own. They reflect careful analysis of each country and the broader context within which each seeks and exercises soft power. Important points emerge about each country’s motivation for engaging in the soft power game: in the case of Japan, since it lacks natural resources, it relies on soft power to maintain influence in the international system. For China, it dedicates its soft power quest to reassuring the world that its rise will be peaceful. Venezuela seeks to provide a counter narrative to American influence in the region and in the global South. Meanwhile, the United States wants to exploit modern communication technologies to achieve wide-ranging foreign policy goals.

Although the case studies are information-rich, they raise familiar concerns regarding the frustrations of generalizing about this subject matter. The irony is that discussion of public diplomacy - even that here intended to fill gaps in theoretical understanding - still falls victim to the pitfalls of lack of established language for addressing the subject. No matter how valuable the various insights provided in each case study, those insights are not synthesized at the end of each chapter or at the book’s conclusion. And that is perhaps the book’s greatest weakness: The scope of research and the value of the findings are undermined by the lack of a single unifying thread to tie all the pieces together. Hayden does not offer a new paradigm for thinking about soft power and public diplomacy, but he does provide a detailed landscape of the current paradigm in all of its still-undefined glory. While the work does not represent a Kuhnsian paradigmatic shift (Kuhn, 1996), it does revisit territory that may previously have been assumed to be settled and in doing so ensures its place in continuing debates about public diplomacy theory and outcomes.

Hayden concludes that “soft power is inevitably a construction of a particular context” (p. 287). That is an important insight and, indeed, perhaps the book’s most valuable contribution. But this conclusion raises concerns about whether it will ever be possible to theorize meaningfully about soft power and its utility in the international system. It suggests not only that the term “soft power” is fungible, but that the conceptualizations and applications of it are, too. Such a conclusion does not better our understanding about the role of soft power in international politics. Instead it confirms soft power’s reputation as a moving target for both scholarly research and practical understanding. In a well-meaning and well-documented effort to standardize understanding of soft power concepts underlying the practice of public diplomacy, Hayden may have opened a Pandora’s box, loosing the rhetorical demons that have long plagued discussions about power in all its manifestations - both hard and soft. If soft power can indeed be all things non-military to all international actors, then it may ultimately prove easier to talk about soft power by detailing what it is not. And that does not deepen our theoretical understanding of the subject. A similar problem plagues attempts to define public diplomacy. If public diplomacy is the term to describe nations’ policies intended to communicate with foreign publics by sidestepping formal, traditional diplomatic tactics, then that would qualify any foreign state action, behavior or statement of which another country’s public becomes aware as public diplomacy. Such an over-broad definition does not help distinguish the concept from other terms often used in the same context. Many scholars, including Hayden, imply there is a difference between public diplomacy, strategic communication, nation branding and even propaganda, but do not offer an explanation of what those differences might be.

The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts

Lexington Books

ISBN: 978-0739142585

308 pages


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