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The Future FCO Report

May 11, 2016

On Monday the FCO issued Future FCO a report commissioned by the Permanent Undersecretary in the wake of the November 2015 Spending Review that looks at how the FCO can improve its ‘internal working, policy making and impact’.  Given that the lead author was the FCO’s leading digital diplomacy enthusiast Tom Fletcher it wasn’t surprising that press coverage focused on technology and how the ministry needed to become more like Spooks or 24 and it was hopelessly out of date.  There’s some of that here but surprisingly little.

This is a report the management of the FCO and its staffing not foreign policy.  It is not written for public consumption it assumes a high degree of knowledge of systems and procedures and it rarely bothers to explain its reasoning.  In fact much of the conclusions are foreshadowed in the terms of reference the first of which is ‘identify opportunities for better, flatter and more flexible organization of policy capabilities, including through delayering and greater clarity on roles and responsibilities.’  The report claims that this is the ‘first post-internet review of the FCO’ which is pretty odd given the serial reviews that went on under the Labour government.

I’d pick out three  particularly interesting aspects

  1. Shrinking the Whitehall Ambition.  One of the things that leapt out a me was this ‘the FCO should neither seek to lead not dedicate significant standing resource in London to thematic work’.  Non-security thematic work should be brought under a single multilateral directorate.  This isn’t really explained but it does imply a concession of policy space to the National Security Council and to other ministries, it’s not something I can imagine the ministry in Paris or Berlin doing without a big fight.
  2. Defend the Embassies.  There is quite a bit in the report about strengthening the capability of the embassies to support all UK overseas functions this is something that has been going on for a while under the banner of One HMG – trying to get as many departments as possible under the same roof.   There is a definite push to get the Embassy to be a more joined up activity with a more of a country plan and a soft power plan.  There are some good ideas for trying to take some of the ‘corporate’ weight off embassies and to provide a better service to other government departments.  If the FCO is conceding policy space to other departments I’m not sure that ambassadors will have much success in keeping those other departments under control in the field.
  3. Flexibility at all costs: Since the days of the Know How Fund in post communist Europe the work of the FCO has increasingly been organized around projects.  There’s an interesting discussion in the report about way this works in managerial terms – with strict oversight of relatively small amounts of money  – and some suggestions for reforming ‘programme’ as its referred to here.  Future FCO goes further and suggests that FCO directorates should have 25% of their staff in campaign pools rather than in permanent jobs in order to give more flexibility, in fact in an appendix the possibility is raised that the relationship with some countries (Nigeria is an example) should be managed on a campaign basis.  I can see the argument for flexibility but at the same time one of the features of diplomacy is its permanence.  As a student of British government I can also predict that the campaign pool will be the first thing to be cut when things get tough.

This report is very much in line with the past 20 years of FCO managerialism.  I think the difficulty is that in the UK these reports can be written without any consideration of foreign policy.  In them the FCO inhabits a kind of abstract policy space where what it does is ‘delivers policy objectives’ without any consideration of what the world is like and how well things are going.  In reading French or German reports the ministry is located within a more recognizable geopolitical world which gives some sense of what it has to be configured to do.

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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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