10 Biggest Public Diplomacy Stories of 2013

As part of the CPD Annual Review, we highlight some of the year’s key public diplomacy moments in our Top 10 List of the most notable stories from 2013. To select the stories, we convened a panel of international public diplomacy experts and asked each to choose the most significant public diplomacy stories of 2013 from a list of 50 (see Appendix 2). From the panelists’ choices we ranked the top ten stories based on the number of votes, comments (some of which are excerpted below), and global significance.

CPD’s picks for the most significant public diplomacy stories of 2013 represent a wide spectrum of public diplomacy practices, from policy communication and national projection to cultural diplomacy and global advocacy. The list also features individuals as major public diplomacy actors, rather than only activities and organizations.

“One common thread runs through the 10 selected stories: how international relations, the positions and agendas of specific nations, or the salience of key global issues, are being shaped or impacted by the savvy use - or lack thereof - of soft power, country branding, and digital and social media platforms by state and non-state actors,” says Ambassador Sarukhan one of CPD’s expert panelists.

“In the 21st century, success in the international arena will belong to those that know how to successfully identify, use and deploy soft power, and maintain it via public diplomacy and the use of digital tools.” 

– Arturo Sarukhan

1. Pope’s Global Outreach Spotlights Poverty and Inequality

Since the inauguration of Pope Francis in March 2013, the Vatican has been engaging with publics around the world by acknowledging local equality, economic, and development issues. The resulting shift in public perception of the Catholic Church continues to unfold.

Leah Kasera, South African public diplomacy practitioner writes: “In today’s increasingly dynamic and complex world, Pope Francis’ ability to simplify the complex through actions and words speaks to many people … He has demystified Catholicism, giving it new meaning and making it attractive … He ably uses his platform not only as a member of the clergy but also as a communicator, advancing causes and advocating for the forgotten, warming his way into millions of hearts. After all, he is the Pope and a Vatican Public Diplomat.”

“Pope Francis, in less than a year after taking office, has succeeded in radically altering the perceptions of the Catholic Church. Cutting across religious and sectarian divisions, the Pope has reached out to unexpected quarters: atheists, gays, the incarcerated, and the marginalized, generating an enthusiasm for religion and the Church that appeared to be on the wane, particularly amongst the youth,” says diplomat Navdeep Suri.

“The Papal example is, in fact, the story of how the best examples of public diplomacy are inextricably tied to substantive change, that which occurs in dialogue with the society around them.” 

– Navdeep Suri

2. Putin Embraces Soft Power, with Mixed Results

Russian President Vladimir Putin had a busy year of public diplomacy efforts, including addressing the American public through a New York Times op-ed and authorizing the release of activists imprisoned on charges of blasphemy. However, his efforts toward enhancing Russia’s soft power in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were undermined by his public stance against gay rights, which created negative fallout in much of the Western world.

Media and Cultural Studies Professor Anbin Shi states: “Obviously, following China’s successful initiatives during and after the Beijing 2008 summer Olympics, Russia will be the global superstar in 2014 by ways of the Sochi Games and Putin’s charisma. Employing an effective media diplomacy by way of launching Russia Today, the official all-English news channel in Russia, publishing an open letter via The New York Times, and his annual press conference, Putin has proved himself as inarguably the most powerful global leader in 2013.”

“Of my ‘top 10,’ several stories are about Russia, an important public diplomacy player that receives relatively little attention,” writes Journalism Professor Philip Seib. “During 2013, Russia was controversial because of its policies related to the Syrian civil war, its attitude toward the presence of gay athletes at the upcoming Sochi Olympics, the content of broadcasts by RT (formerly Russia Today), and other matters. Russian officials, and particularly President Vladimir Putin, have been busy with their public diplomacy, but the results have been inconclusive.”

“Putin’s op-ed article in The New York Times and his pardoning of some political prisoners have attracted the public spotlight, but its glare has highlighted Russia’s diplomatic blemishes.” 

– Philip Seib

3. Girl Power: Malala’s Quest for Education

16-year-old Malala Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban to become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize nominee in the award’s history. Yousafzai’s message of peace has made her an international symbol of survival and strength for young people, women, and others impressed by her resilience against all odds.

“Malala shows both the power of a message of development for young women and the eagerness of the Western media to find an acceptable, indigenous avenue for social criticism of the Islamic word.” 

– Nicholas J. Cull

4.  Brazil Leads the Charge Against the U.S. After Snowden Revelations

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. surveillance of other countries, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff condemned the United States’ actions in the strongest terms before the United Nations General Assembly. Rousseff’s statement is representative of the tremendous hit the U.S. government’s image has taken across the globe.

Jennyfer Salvo, communication and branding expert states: “The world has to look carefully at what Rousseff and Brazil are going to do. As the main power in Latin America, with an economy twice the size of Mexico’s and a member of the BRICS, Brazil is a giant more aware of its strength and its potential role as a global power. At the same time, Brazil can be characterized as a developing society whose demands for greater justice, equity, and access to welfare are very difficult to satisfy. Brazil is in the eyes of the world because of the World Cup and the Olympics. The ability of authorities to manage these demands will be very important in either strengthening the prestige it has gained, or proving Brazil a disappointment.”

"This has had a significant impact on the standing of the Obama administration, though the stock of the U.S. as a nation remains sound, perhaps because others are in such poor shape." 

– Nicholas J. Cull

Cull expands: “The U.S. needs to act to ensure that by its insistence on exploiting the Internet and its historical role as the point of origin, it doesn’t drive a Balkanization which would be disastrous in the long term for issues of democracy and diffusion of free thought.”

5. Beyond Mandela, South Africa’s Global Icon Lives On

Nelson Mandela leaves behind a legacy of unity, reconciliation, and human rights activism. For South Africa, and more importantly, for global society as a whole, Mandela continues to inspire those who work for peace.

“Mandela is the most important politician of these times. He has accompanied several generations and his leadership has transformed the image the world had of South Africa.” 

– Jennyfer Salvo

Salvo continues: “The shock of his death shows a global demand for ethical behavior based on a foolproof leadership. Although politics is about the management of power relations, it seems that the public seeks, perhaps naively, less transactional leaderships, less focus on narrow interests and more ethics, affection, and respect on political levels. Will it be feasible in real life?”

6.  Kosovo is a Nation, according to Facebook

Facebook has added Kosovo, recognized as a nation by only 103 countries, to its menu of home countries users can select for their profiles. By taking a stance and recognizing Kosovo, Facebook demonstrated the expanding global reach of social media companies and their growing agency in the international arena.

"Digitalization will prove the most authentic and effective way for PD, because it can spur netizens to participate in the global conversation and engage the younger generations in diplomatic maneuvers, hence fulfilling PD’s ideal that ‘everyone is a diplomat.’" 

– Anbin Shi

7. Newcomer Angola Takes Top Prize at Venice Biennale

In the first year of its involvement with the festival, Angola won the 55th Venice Biennale’s Gold Lion Award for best national participation. One of 88 countries in the running, Angola’s triumph emphasizes the strength of its cultural diplomacy and the rise of a truly global culture of art.

Nicholas J. Cull extolled: “I was so impressed that Angola won the best pavilion award in Venice at the biennale of art this summer.”

"Their pavilion was brilliantly conceived and is a symptom of one of the most welcome trends in PD: the emergence of newer voices with something important to say." 

Nicholas J. Cull

8. Muppet Diplomacy Goes to Kabul

Though the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan is far from perfect, the arrival of children’s television show Sesame Street signals a promising new chapter in U.S. cultural diplomacy in that nation. The Sesame Workshop has a programming presence in approximately 145 countries, now including its Baghch-e-Simsim program, designed specifically for Afghan youth.

“Sesame Street's international presence is a superb example of soft power. It presents American values related to literacy, tolerance, healthy living, and related topics in ways that are most likely to win the attention of its youthful audience,” said Philip Seib.  

"When public diplomacy changes lives constructively, it is doing its job." 

– Philip Seib

9.  China’s First Lady Makes Her Debut on the World Stage

Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, a beloved folk singer, accompanies her husband on high-profile state visits. Peng’s public image is a component both of China’s tremendous push to promote its own soft power abroad and to improve relations with citizens at home.

Public diplomacy scholar, Jan Melissen states: “The Chinese government is pulling out all the stops. It spends more on public diplomacy than any other government in the world. Apart from its stunning economic rise, Beijing is however struggling to come up with a convincing story … In Chinese eyes, Peng Liyuan is part of China’s cultural soft power. First Ladies may be a pretty familiar phenomenon for Western publics, but they are not in China.”

"First Lady public diplomacy is first of all effective at home, attesting to the importance of public diplomacy’s domestic dimension in this large civilization-state. First Lady public diplomacy could also be seen as an invitation to study parallels rather than differences between public diplomacy across cultures and political systems." 

Jan Melissen

Anbin Shi writes, “China’s new first lady, Ms. Peng Liyuan, has maintained an effective, balanced tool for public diplomacy at home and abroad. Her long-standing reputation as a well-known singer and a headline celebrity epitomizes the talent and independence of the Chinese new women … Aside from those impressive costumes and poses which attract media attention, Peng’s efforts as the WHO’s goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, plus her ‘panda diplomacy’ along with Michelle Obama, set her up as an example for the emergent ‘first lady PD’ as a part of China’s soft power campaign in the next decade.”

10. Dubai Set to Host the First World Expo in the Middle East

Dubai's winning bid to host the 2020 World Expo makes the U.A.E. the first Middle Eastern nation to receive this honor. Dubai is expected to receive the most international visitors in the history of the World's Fair. 

CPD Director, Jay Wang writes: “As a global mass cultural phenomenon, the expo still matters. For most participant countries, the expo is the single largest promotional event of a nation outside of its own borders. It constitutes a unique global communal moment.”

"Dubai winning the bid to host the 2020 World Expo is significant, as it sets to be the most international expo and it embraces partnership as an engagement model." 

– Jay Wang

The Top 10 stories encompass a wide range of public diplomacy activities and moments in 2013, but there were a number of additional stories mentioned by our experts that deserve listing here, and may reflect an even more diverse swath of public diplomacy activities for the year: Croatia’s New Chapter, EU Still Attracts; Rouhani’s e-Diplomacy and the Interim Iran Deal; Al Jazeera America Launched, with Small Audience; First Handshake between Barack Obama and Raul Castro; and Dennis Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” in Pyongyang.

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