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The FCO Review of the British Council

September 22, 2014

UK government departments are now required to conduct triennial reviews of ‘non-departmental public bodies’ and in July the FCO published its review of the British Council. In general terms it concludes that the BC is doing a good job but that consideration should be given to spinning off some of its income generating activities into a commercial entity.

What is interesting though is the what the report tells us about the FCO concept of Britain’s influence in the world or more accurately the lack of one.

If you are going to review something you need some criteria to evaluate against. The report draws on three substantive sets of criteria. Firstly, the contribution to British cultural diplomacy and UK influence, secondly, the purposes of the BC and thirdly the views of stakeholders. If you’ve got three different sets of criteria you need to be clear about how they relate to each other.

The report immediately raises red flags by describing the BC as ‘the main official body for cultural diplomacy’.  At the BC being described a ‘cultural diplomacy’ would set nerves jangling  but this isn’t the real problem.  As I’ve noted before there is no tradition of official thinking about ‘cultural diplomacy’ in the UK. The BC has tended to talk about cultural relations and even in the past the Foreign Office had a Cultural Relations Department. As readers of this blog will know over the past 10 years government discussion has drawn on concepts of public diplomacy and soft power. The report pulls ‘cultural diplomacy’ out of the air and doesn’t provide any supporting intellectual framework.

The second set of criteria are the purposes of the BC set out in its Royal Charter:

  • Promote cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures between people and peoples of the United Kingdom and other countries;
  • Promote a wider knowledge of the United Kingdom;
  • Develop a wider knowledge of the English language;
  • Encourage cultural, scientific, technological and other educational cooperation between the United Kingdom and other countries;
  • Otherwise promote the advancement of education.

Hmm, nothing about British influence here.

Thirdly, the review draws on the views of ‘stakeholders’, which variously include government departments, cultural institutions, UK ambassadors and some of the BC’s competitors – especially commercial providers of education services and English language teaching.

The result is that report tends to shift between three stances. Firstly, is the BC doing a good job for British influence, secondly, is it working in accordance with its purposes and thirdly, are the stakeholders happy?

Evaluating an organization against its purposes is relatively straightforward. The report points out that the BC’s ‘society’ strand of work doesn’t fit with its purposes. The irony is that over the last 10 years ‘society’ has been where you find the more kind of projects that the FCO was keen on. It’s when you turn to ‘influence’ that things get difficult. I’m really not sure how you can evaluate an organization against a criterion like ‘influence’ that it doesn’t have a plan for and where the evaluators don’t know what it is and what it looks like. This also feeds into the question of ‘stakeholder’ opinion. Any organization needs to understand what stakeholders think but to make use of such data you need to recognize a few things. Every stakeholder has a perspective (where you stand depends on where you sit), some of these perspectives are inconsistent – particularly for an organization like the British Council – and this may mean you have to trade off some stakeholder views against each other. If you don’t have a clear idea of what the organization is doing it’s difficult to make these trade-offs. This leads to a rather random reporting of ‘stakeholder’ views. For instance there seems to support for the BC doing more arts work but because there’s no in depth analysis of stakeholder views and no theory of influence there’s no intellectual underpinning for this view.

In the appendix of the document that discusses language teaching there’s an example of precisely this kind of trade off. A foreign government is offering a contract for teaching its personnel English, in such a situation it might be OK for the BC to use its status as a government agency to win the business even though this disadvantages commercial operators because of the benefits to the UK. This is one of the few places in the document that tries to balance different perspectives instead of switching between them. The result is a sense that the FCO wants more control over the BC but it’s not sure why other than to ensure that it fills out its financial paperwork properly.

A few years ago I heard representatives of the FCO and the Quai d’Orsay talk about public diplomacy. The Brit talked about budgets, targets and key performance indicators, the French rep talked about the mission of France in the world. France has eventually realized that it may have the overarching concepts but it needs to manage its foreign outreach better, Whitehall needs to realize that managerialism isn’t enough: we need an overarching and enduring theory of British influence.

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Recovering the Nation, Part 3: Why Doesn’t International Relations Have a Theory of the National?

September 1, 2014

I want to wind up this series of posts with a few thoughts on why we need to recover the nation at all. If it’s such an important piece of the architecture of the world why doesn’t it get more attention?

There’s an interesting clue in the story of Karl Lamprecht. Lamprecht (died 1915) was a German social historian, nationalist and advocate of Auswärtige Kulturpolitik. In advocating for world power without war (weltmacht ohne krieg) Lamprecht believed that through strategic application of German science, culture and economic resources Germany could achieve its rightful position in the world (Chickering 1993). In 1903 Lamprecht was writing about the ‘tentacle state’ that national influence could no longer be thought of in terms of the narrowly defined territorial nation state but one also had to include overseas political organization, the diaspora, investment and ‘atmospheres of exports and ideas’. In writing a history of foreign public engagement it’s pretty clear that 20th century states have been ‘tentacle states’ (given that the octopus is a staple of propaganda posters maybe network state is better) yet there’s been a gap between the theory and the practice (Conrad 2010: 398-9).

During the 19th century German history had been political history. At the end of the 1880s Lamprecht had started publishing a 12 volume history of Germany that shifted the focus towards ordinary people. This triggered a bitter struggle called the Lamprechtstreit. This was partly about method but it also reflected the tensions within Wilhelmine Germany. Most historians were supporters of the state and they feared that identifying the nation with the social as Lamprecht did under the influence of Herder would undermine the association of state and nation and open the way to socialism. Lamprecht was defeated and social history was to remain a minor part of German history until after 1945 – he was better received in France and can be seen as a forerunner of historians such as Bloch and Braudel (Breisach 2007).

The German effort to maintain the position of state/politics over society/the social echoed through the Weimar period as can be seen in Carl Schmitt’s efforts to define the political as a separate sphere. And from Schmitt we get to Hans Morgenthau and American realism. Realism is a pure theory of the state and states-system that lacks social roots. A central debate in American IR is then that between an apparently fragile political state and a cosmopolitan liberalism represented by transnational actors, non-state organizations, civil society, globalization, the internet etc, etc. The marxists have repeatedly pointed out that the realist state lacks social foundations but all they can offer is cosmopolitan class struggle.

This French Herderian theory is then quite different from realism because it’s based on the idea of national difference from below, the state as an expression of culture nation. It’s also different from the liberal or marxist critiques because nationality resides in the civil society.

The situation in sociology and social theory more broadly is a bit different. Up to around 1970 sociology followed, what was retrospectively labelled, ‘methodological nationalism’ that society defined by the nation state is the basic unit of analysis and that societies were self-contained organisms (Mann 1986, Wallerstein 1991, Robertson 1992). Subsequently the rise of globalization as a central analytical framework has done away with this. The problem is that there seems to have been an element of overkill here: getting rid of the nation-state as rigid analytical framework shouldn’t mean ignoring the way that nationalness is both a key institutional and cognitive and emotive element of the world – instead we tend to get a switch between the global and the local that obscures the national. Questions of nation and nationalism get shunted off into specialist research areas.

Given that one of the basic failings of Anglo-Saxon public diplomacy has been the tendency to underestimate the importance that foreign publics attach to nationalness this is of more than theoretical interest.

References

Breisach E (2007) Historiography : ancient, medieval, and modern. Third Edition. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Chickering R (1993) Karl Lamprecht: A German Academic Life (1856-1915). Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities

Conrad S (2010) Globalisation and the nation in Imperial Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. 398-9

Mann M (1986) The Sources of Social Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robertson R (1992) Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage.

Wallerstein I (1991) Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms. Cambridge: Polity.

 

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Recovering the Nation, Part 2 : The Persistence of Nationalness

August 29, 2014

In the previous post I pointed to the centrality of the ‘national’ in the French account of influence. Although I’ve focused on France because of the relatively coherent theory you can extract from Foucher’s Atlas, the national cultural view is strongly present in the approach of many other countries large and small. Germany is the obvious example but I’d particularly emphasize that the post socialist reconstruction of Chinese and Russian external outreach has taken on board national models, not least in the emphasis placed on language.

From the perspective of a think tank in Washington or London the French discourse of influence with its discussion of the national and geopolitics may sound quaint next to the post international politics of global governance, climate change and the internet revolution. The response from Paris would be might be something like this:

Firstly, : “countries will always advance an agenda that is important to them. Why do you assume that your agenda is the only one? What about our agenda ? for instance of cultural diversity.”

Secondly, “the new agenda of global politics is an addition not a replacement. New issues will always be refracted through the lens of national differences. Nations are permanent issues and regimes change”   It’s noticeable that while ‘Europe’ is frequently invoked in Foucher’s book it is seen as an atout (an asset or even trump card) for French influence not as something that replaces France or its project of influence.

We don’t have to buy into a Gaullist metaphysics of the nation to recognize that they may have a point. The nation may be socially constructed but some social constructions cannot be dismantled in any politically feasible way.   Nationality does not mean a self conscious effort to assert or promote the nation but the existence of particular ways of seeing the world. As Billig argued in Banal Nationalism everyday life is shot through with assumptions of the national. This isn’t just confined to old nations. The most recent wave of the World Values Survey asked individuals in a variety of countries whether they were proud of their country;  in many former colonies or post communist countries 95% or more answered that they were proud or very proud. As might be expected answers in ‘post national’ developed countries were lower: Germany could only muster 70% and the Netherlands 81% but asking whether people felt part of the nation added another 10-20%.  Even a large part of the minority who refused national pride could not escape the nation as a social fact.

If we move from individuals to institutions the national remains important. Institutional models in government, law, and business are endure.   What the French see is that Anglo Saxon or French institutional models give advantages to some actors and disadvantage others (see for instance this issue of Mondes). For instance structuring contracts for major infrastructure projects on Anglo-saxon models tends to disadvantage firms that operate under a different legal system. In a 2012 book Sarah Stroup shows that British, American and French transnational NGOs remain closely linked to their countries of origins and operate in distinct ways. From my own work on PD institutions it is also clear that national models are highly persistent.

This suggests to me that it’s less the French insistence on the continued relevance of the national that looks odd but the refusal to recognize its significance.

In the final part of this series I’m going to point to some theoretical sources of this failure to recognize the national

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Recovering the Nation, Part 1: The French Theory of Influence

August 26, 2014

In last post I suggested that the importance the France has attached to questions of cultural diplomacy is a function of the way that the nation is discussed but this goes further: the French theory of influence sees France within a world of nations. In this series of posts I’m going to outline my take on the French theory of influence as a matter of inter-national relations before asking the question whether Anglo-Saxon policy and academic thinking has a blind spot towards questions of nationality and nationness what the implication of this are and where it comes from.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the failure of US and UK research to really engage with French (or German) concepts of statecraft is a major gap in our knowledge of public diplomacy. This is important not just because France is an important international actor in its own right but also because it shows up some of the gaps and assumptions within Anglo-Saxon (but also other liberal) modes of thinking about influence particularly the question of the nation.

Michel Foucher’s edited Atlas de l’Influence Française au XXIeme Siècle (Paris: Institut Française, 2013) provides a good place to start. which between the publisher and the institutional affiliations of many of the contributors has to be seen as a relatively authoritative statement. Although Foucher provides an up to date discussion the project that he discusses is pretty much the same one that was sketched out at the end of the 19th century.

The starting point: France before all is a culturally, linguistically and historically defined community that exists in a world of other similar communities, states are therefore merely the political expression of these communities (this is pure Herder). Within this world of diversity it is important to resist the forces of homogenization represented by capitalism/globalization/English/the United States. Indeed it is instructive that part 1 of the Foucher collection the fundamentals of influence opens with a chapter entitled ‘the other language'; the French language is important in its own right but it is also important as the alternative to English.   Hence France is not only engaged in a competition for influence among other countries but is also part of an effort to resist homogenization. Of course such an effort not only preserves French influence but also builds it through the country’s leadership role in this effort.

Running through this approach is a fundamental assumption of nationality that links everything together, the Atlas covers the legal system (and its characteristic modes of thinking), the internationalization of French companies, food, luxury goods, design, education, expertise, development aid, public health, expertise, cultural industries, ideas, the formal instruments: MFA, Institut, Alliance, broadcasting form only a small part of the discussion. It’s all linked together: If you buy a Hermès scarf you are buying into as aspect of France’s influence but at the same time French influence does not float in some deterritorialized realm of globalization but must be considered part of geopolitics because a realm of nations is a geopolitical one.

But isn’t this just soft power? In his introduction Foucher explicitly differentiates French influence from soft power. Soft power is not a scientific concept of universal applicability but a distinctly American project with an emphasis on power. Soft power is always discussed in relation to hard power and aims at getting the other to accept your objectives and models. France is not in a position to make such an imposition thus ‘influence’ needs to operate through interaction and reciprocity. I’m not sure that I quite buy the claims of ‘influence’ put in these terms is that different but I think that the emphasis that soft power should be seen as a US project is correct. What noticeable about French influence is the way that it is placed in the context of a global order composed of ‘countries’ whereas American (and British discussions) often take on a strongly universalist tone without reference to questions of national difference. France is the home of ‘the rights of man’ and so also has to balance claims of national difference with universal values but in my next post I’ll pick up on some implications.

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Nationalisms at Work: British and French views of Public Diplomacy

August 20, 2014

A few months ago I was writing about the development of public diplomacy in the 1970s and I was really struck by the contrast between British and French responses to the deteriorating economic situation of that decade. To simplify, the British had a series of enquiries and started cutting everything that couldn’t be tied to a narrowly defined priority. In France there was an effort to not just keep things the same but to do more even as money got ever tighter. Eventually at the end of the decade there was a comprehensive review of the cultural effort but it still doesn’t cut back. Putting economic performance or institutional differences to one side the French are clearly much more attached to engaging foreign publics than the British are. Why is this?

One observation is that British discussions of public diplomacy are always (and have always been) instrumental: we do this to achieve some other end.  Every 10 or 15 years there’s a call to focus on what the FCO would call ‘commercial work’.  Yet for France there’s always been a view that France’s influence in the world is tied to the projection of its language and culture, for all the more recent discussion of a diplomatie d’influence this remains the case. The French discourse is pretty obviously about the nation in the Herderian sense: language-culture-nation-state may not be identical but are closely related.

This created a puzzle – why don’t we get a similar pattern in the UK? Here Greenfeld and Eastwood (2005) offer a two dimensional typology of nationalism.  Firstly how do you join? If you can choose to join or leave the nation your dealing with civic nationalism, if you’re stuck with the nationality you are born with it’s ethnic. Secondly, if the nation is composite (a collection of individuals) or unitary (imagined as a single entity). Although this should give you four combinations in practice you get three. The most common version of the nation is ethnic and collectivist but France and the UK fall into the rarer categories of civic/collectivist and civic/individualist. The French nation is civic because anyone can join but it is collectivist in that FRANCE exists separately from the individuals who compose it, when General De Gaulle talked about FRANCE he wasn’t talking about a collection of individuals.

A civic/individualist version of the nation – which Greenfeld and Eastwood attribute not just to the UK but also to the US – is much less visible. C/I countries also tend to be bastions of liberalism thus the collective identity tends to dissolve into a universalist political language.   The collective aspect becomes clear in comparison with other countries. Policies have to justified in terms of concrete benefits. Nationalism is expressed in terms of universal claims. Minxin Pei made the point a few years ago that Americans are extremely nationalistic but don’t actually notice it in themselves or understand how it works for other countries.

Seeing British concepts of the nation in these terms explains why Britain is so relaxed about people leaving ie membership is an individual decision.  It also explains a few other things – why the British debate on the EU usually turns into a discussion of economics. It’s also noticeable that the debate on Scottish independence is exactly the same – anyone can be a member of the Scottish nation and you might have an extra pound or two in your pocket (or not) – Scottish nationalism is still civil and individualist.

I’ve got more to say about why public diplomacy research and International Relations more broadly should pay more attention to the implications of nationalism but that’s enough for now

Greenfeld L and Eastwood J (2005) Nationalism in Comparative Perspective, in Janoski T, Alford R, Hicks A and Schwartz MA (eds) The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Society and Globalization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 247–265.

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A Tale of Two Diasporas: Chinese Control and British Indifference

August 18, 2014

At the Wall Street Journal Blog there’s an interview with James Jiann Hua To, about his book Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese. This discusses the policies adopted by China to monitor, protect and supervise the tens of millions of Chinese citizens who live outside the borders of the PRC

As To puts it

The purpose of qiaowu is to rally support for Beijing amongst ethnic Chinese outside of China through various propaganda and thought-management techniques. For the vast majority of the 48 million overseas Chinese around the world, many will be oblivious to qiaowu and its activity. The main target groups are those who are open to and even welcome receiving qiaowu and closer links to China and its foreign service, such as newer migrants or PRC students abroad.

In contrast last weeks Economist had a piece on the British diaspora.  Despite five million Brits living abroad the message is the UK doesn’t really care:

Of 193 UN member states, 110 have formal programmes to build links with citizens abroad. Britain is not one of them. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s database of Britons abroad is patchy. Of all the high-flying expats with British passports your correspondent asks, only one—Danny Sriskandarajah, a migration expert based in South Africa—has had any contact with local embassies or with UKTI, Britain’s trade-promotion body. And his Indian friend has received much more attention from his consulate.

Indeed, India is a trailblazer in this field. It has an entire ministry for its emigrants. Mr Gamlen says it partly has this to thank for the success of its IT industry, built by Indians lured home from Silicon Valley and Europe. Other countries are similarly welcoming. Italy and France even reserve parliamentary seats for their diasporas.

Just because a country has a programme it doesn’t mean that it does anything but it’s interesting to note a certain continuity. After the First World War the British government mounted an enquiry into why some expatriate communities didn’t seem to have been as helpful to the war effort as those of some other countries. The report recommended programmes to cultivate British identity including subsidies for British schools. In another continuity the Treasury said there wasn’t any money (eg Fisher J (2009) A Call to Arms: The Committee on British Communities Abroad, 1919-1920, Canadian Journal of History, 44: 261–86.)

It’s tempting to attribute this difference in official attitude to regime type(authoritarian control versus democratic indifference and I’m sure that this is part of it, but France and Germany have always had extensive provision for expatriates regardless of political regime.   Part of the difference is can be attributed to differences in how these four countries conceptualize the nation. This is an issue I’ll pick up in my next post.

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Strategic Communication at NATO

July 30, 2014

In March the National Defence Academy of Latvia put out a report by Steve Tatham and Rita Le Page on Nato Strategic Communication: More to be Done?

They argue that despite the importance of Strategic Communication in NATO’s operations in Afghanistan the alliance has failed to properly institutionalize the practice or develop a doctrine for it. If the key argument within the US military has been over whether Strategic Communication is a communication function or an approach to operations Tatham and Le Page argue for the latter while seeing NATO as too committed to former.   In addressing this they argue that responsibility for Strategic Communications should move from the Public Diplomacy Division to the International Military Staff.

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