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Plans! We Don’t Need No Stinking Plans!

April 5, 2016

One of the points I was making at the ISA Convention a couple of weeks ago was that in the real world public diplomacy organizations find it difficult to be strategic in the sense of creating a strong connection between their objectives and their means.  In part this is because public diplomacy organizations are always on, the routine logistical requirements of running a programme both on a day to day basis and in the longer term overwhelm the capacity of organizations to be strategic.   There’s no point worrying about SMART goals if you are more worried about keeping the show on the road at all.

Anyway another exhibit to buttress my cases emerged yesterday a US State Department Inspector General’s report on how the public diplomacy work of the embassy in Baghdad was contributing to the counter messaging part of the overall strategy against ISIL

The first item from the summary:

“Embassy Baghdad’s public diplomacy activities operate without formal strategic planning and goals.”

Public diplomacy is not discussed within the embassy’s Integrated Country Strategy  and there is no Public Diplomacy Implementation Plan.

The report obviously thinks that there should be plans but that’s not my point: lots of public diplomacy is reactive, and improvised rather than strategic.  From an analytical perspective it’s often better to look public diplomacies it through an organizational lens rather than an intentional one.

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Hard vs Soft Power as Metaphor

March 30, 2016

One lament that I heard at the International Studies Association this year was the fact that ‘mainstream’ International Relations doesn’t attach much importance to questions of narrative, metaphor and meaning, that is to ‘soft’ aspects of world politics.

Of course having been primed to think about metaphors it leapt out at me that advocates of ‘soft’ approaches are never going to get anywhere as long as they keep using the hard/soft metaphor.   Poststructuralism 101 teaches you that binary oppositions always privilege one side of the pairing (hard over soft) and that the correct response is to ‘deconstruct’ that opposition etc, etc.

Leaving aside the technical literature on soft power, even in an academic environment  ‘hard’ gets used in a casual way to mean different things:  coercive, material, the geopolitical.  This ambiguity means that the assumption of the primacy of the ‘hard’ is easily accepted.

We can’t escape from hard/soft entirely.  The embrace of hard/soft in policy circles is an interesting area for investigation (as are policy categories in general) but as a scientific concept I think hard/soft is a major obstacle to intelligent discussion and I would employ with extreme caution.

The main reason is that when you put the hard/soft distinction to one side it is pretty clear that ontologically everything is mixed up.  Social formations and situations involve meanings and structures.   Armies have morale, and mechanics and doctrine not just tanks, the effects of armed forces are more often to do with the way that they are represented than the use of force.  Public diplomacies have buildings, computers, magazines and run on money, narratives need networks to circulate them.  Markets and exports depend on images of countries and networks of relationships.  In general terms influence emerges from combination of factors economic, cultural and political relations.  Resources matter but so do ideas, narratives, images.  From my historical research it’s quite clear that public diplomacies are just as much a part of  geopolitics as navies.  Competition for influence applies to the languages that people speak, the universities they attend, the legal systems they use, and the films they watch.

Methodologically and pragmatically we can choose to focus on different aspects of that reality, for instance on narratives or tanks but this doesn’t change the fact that hard/soft is a metaphor not an account of how the world really is.

The moral of the story is that metaphors really do matter in International Relations especially if they’re the ones academics use.

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French and German cultural action in Brazil in the 1960s and 1960s

February 25, 2016
Lanoe E (2012) La culture au service de la diplomatie? Les politiques culturelles extérieures de la RFA et de la France au Brésil (1961-1973), PhD, Lille: Universite Charles de Gaulle – Lille III.

 

680 pages of text on French and German cultural relations strategies in Brazil in the 1960s and 70s probably isn’t top of your reading priorities but it if is I’d recommend this, even if you’re not it raises some important points about how to go about analysing public diplomacies.

Lanoe works across France and Germany both at the level of institutional and policy developments at home and at the country level. This allows her to compare perspectives and developments across the two countries as well as between field and HQ. By looking at France and Germany together she’s able to track the way that changes in the Brazilian context, for instance the military coup, generated different responses from France and Germany.

The thesis also underlines some themes that I’ve seen in my research. Public diplomacies aren’t just about the country to country dyad but also about third parties. In the period under consideration France’s position in Brazil was affected by the conflict in Algeria and the activities of Algerian national sympathisers while that of (West) Germany was also influenced by the activities of East Germany. By covering a relatively long time frame it’s also possible to see the partial unwinding of the priority given to the Cold War in West German activities. There’s also an interesting discussion of generational conflicts within the German system where younger Goethe Institute directors chafed against the older central management of the organization and the foreign ministry many of whom had careers dating back to the Nazi era.

Because the thesis is looks at activities on Brazil it adds quite a lot to more general treatments that focus more on what’s happening at home – for instance Kathe (2005) on the Goethe Institut.  I think that this is important because it helps to put the German debate  on Auswärtige Kulturpolitik that unfolded during the 1970s into the context of changing priorities during the previous decade and of real practices.

Kathe SR (2005) Kulturpolitik um Jeden Preis: Die Geschichte des Goethe-Instituts von 1951 bis 1990. Munich: Martin Medienbauer.

You can download Lanoe’s thesis here

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The Secret of Public Diplomacy

February 22, 2016

One of the most stimulating books that I’ve read in the last couple of years was Ray Pawson’s The Science of Evaluation: A Realist Manifesto which is a book about….evaluating policy interventions.

There’s a lot in there but a core idea that recurs is this:

The outcome of a policy intervention is a function of what you do and how you do it in what context.

or to put it another way

Outcome = intervention + implementation + context

There are a lot of implications of this  but here’s four

  1. An outcome is not necessarily one you expected or wanted
  2. A great idea badly implemented will produce different outcomes from the one you expected even if the context is supportive.
  3. An intervention that produced a great outcome in one context may not produce the same outcome in another situation.
  4. In the right context a poorly implemented, badly conceived intervention might still produce a desirable outcome. The problem is that the lessons drawn will be that the intervention worked.

In terms of the analysis of public diplomacies a disciplined application of these four categories is very useful.  Much discussion of public diplomacy tends to focus on the design of the intervention ie communications strategy, message, narrative without too much attention to implementation or context.   The analysis of real cases tends to show a different pattern where  interventions are often a function of the context (we must do something!) and the mode of implementation (organizational repertoire) rather than any careful design process. Much more of this at ISA!

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More on the Closing Space Problem

February 16, 2016

I’ve written before about the ‘closing space problem’ where NGOs are faced by restrictive legislation on their operations and especially constraints on foreign funding. There’s an interesting addition to this literature by Jonas Wolff and Annika Elena Poppe which is worth the attention of public diplomacy researchers. They point out that much comment from Northern NGOs and governments tends to assume an unfettered right of freedom of association and an unlimited right to receive foreign funding. In contrast Southern governments tend to call on the norms of sovereignty as the basis for imposing restrictions. While the advocacy literature tends to see these claims as window dressing for political repression they argue that this should be seen as contest over norms: not least because Northern states impose restrictions on foreign funding of political parties. They also argue that donor states ought to take a more nuanced view on the issue, for instance distinguishing between restrictions on foreign funding and broader restrictions on civil society.

I think that this is an interesting issue for students of public diplomacy because the whole normative basis of the practice is rarely explicitly addressed. On one side there is a whole practice of state to state agreements where there is approval given to public diplomacy activities but there is also a strand of Western statecraft that would take the refusal to allow public diplomacy access as invitation to undertake it – based on human rights norms or a broader liberal political theory.

Jonas Wolff and Annika Elna Poppe, From Closing Space to Contested Spaces: Reassessing Current Conflicts over International Civil Society Support (Frankfurt: Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, 2015)

 

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90 Years of Russian Public Diplomacy

December 2, 2015

This year Russian cultural centres have been holding events to mark 90 years of ‘Russian public diplomacy’. April 1925 marked the formation of the All Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries frequently usually referred to, even in the West by its Russian acronym, VOKS. Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation), which has responsibility for what are now known as Russian Scientific and Cultural Centres, is making the explicit connection back to the Soviet era.  In the West we tend to treat Soviet external outreach in terms of Communist Parties, propaganda the KGB and the Bolshoi, but there was also a substantial component that followed the practices of  other nation-state cultural relations.   In Egypt or India the anniversary is being used as a reminder of the 40-50 year history of the cultural centres in the country. The important point is, as Tobias Rupprecht emphasizes in relation to Latin America, the the Soviet Union ‘looked fundamentally different from the South than from the West’ and this was as much about government perceptions as those of would be revolutionaries.

As far as I can tell there has been no attempt to track the development of the Soviet Cultural Centres networks, we don’t know how very much about how they were managed or what they did.*  There are good reasons for neglect of this in term of access to archives, language skills etc but the neglect of Soviet public diplomacies during the Cold War is signficant gap in our knowledge of the period.

*If you know different I’d really like to know what I’ve missed.

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Foreign Policy Elite Defends the Foreign Office

November 24, 2015

This week we are hearing about the UK’s public spending plans for the next four years which will include substantial cuts. Given that the government has committed to spending 2% of GNP on defence and 0.7% on aid the only place for cuts in the foreign budget is the FCO and two groups have put out reports in the last couple of weeks to make the case for growth in foreign affairs expenditure.   First on the scene was Strengthening Britain’s Voice in the World from the UK Foreign and Security Policy Working Group and this was closely followed by Investing for Influence from the LSE Diplomacy Commission. The latter group has a more academic make up – although the ‘academics’ include several retired diplomats and the former is more drawn from the think tank community. The media is represented by the Financial Times and the BBC, the LSE has a banker.

As you might expect the ‘think tankers’ have produced a more narrowly focused report while the ‘academics’ take up broader issues of nature of the international system and the purposes of foreign policy but the two reports recognizably emerge from the same milieu. Both argue that the UK should pursue an active foreign policy and needs to invest in its diplomatic machinery. Both are concerned about the decline of spending on the diplomatic service. As the think tankers conclude governments ‘cannot talk the rhetoric of being a global player while at the same time cutting back on many of the institutions that sustain British influence abroad’.   They also agree what British foreign policy is about; for the think tankers it is the ‘support of an open, liberal international order’ for the LSE ‘a dispassionate advocate of both globalisation and governance.’ These two papers essentially restate the logic of the past two decades of British foreign policy which have produced the current situation where however persuasive the government finds the argument for 2%+0.7% everyone else finds the UK unengaged with foreign policy.

What is more interesting in these papers is the what is absent from them and looking at them this way suggests some of the features of how the British foreign policy elite constructs the world.

  1. This is international politics without politics. Britain should support ‘a rule based international order’ or in the words of the LSE ‘the UK’s key relationship, as it for all states, with international society as a whole: in a globalised, networked world, states’ interest in the system’s overall operation vastly outweighs their partial interests within it.’   There is zero insight that there might be different rule based orders and that the UK tends to favour a particular version of a rule based order.    Everyone might agree that the absence of rule based order would be bad but that doesn’t mean that they agree on which rules and how they are applied.
  2. This is international politics without priorities. Part of the reason for this is that there is no sense of geopolitics in these documents – indeed it is the think tankers who head a section ‘global not just regional’.  Geography is one way in which priorities can be set.       Both the reports slip into the typical British perspective of identifying Europe with the EU as something which is different from foreign policy. Here there is something that can be learnt from French thinking where the EU and an idea of Europe as a geopolitical space coexist, the EU is an asset that France can choose to use or not, and the existence of the EU does not abolish countries as geopolitical actors.   From this perspective Europe must always be a foreign policy priority for the UK regardless of the EU.
  3. There is very little in these documents about democracy and human rights – oddly the academics have less discussion of this than the think tankers.   How much significance should be attached to this? Are they advocating de-emphasizing these concerns or merely taking them for granted?
  4. There is also little about one of the centrepieces of British foreign policy thinking over the last decade and a half: the doctrine of stabilization.  That fragile and failed states are the sources of threat to the international order (not least through terrorism, drugs and refugees) recent events make this proposition plausible. The corollary is that the UK (and its partners) can, through a mix of military, political, humanitarian and development actions, resolve the situation. The problem is that while the proposition makes sense in theory it’s not really clear that it works in practice. The political and organizational challenges of stabilization are simply too much for Western coalitions to handle.   If organizational dysfunction is normal should the UK put so much effort into doctrinal and organizational innovations (eg Building Stability Overseas Strategy, Stabilisation Unit and associated funding streams)?

If you read these reports together you get an idea that British foreign policy is supposed to be about doing global good deeds with little sense of priorities or feasibility; it’s no wonder that beyond the members of these study groups most people (including the political class) don’t seem very engaged by it. These are the same ideas were originally set out at the height of post Cold War Western self confidence. If British foreign policy is not to be guided by George Osborne’s random enthusiasm for China we need some new thinking for a post Western World.

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