Public Diplomacy: Between IR and Communications

A quick thought on conceptual frameworks:

Public diplomacy stands between International Relations (including Diplomatic Studies) and Communications.

Communications deals with what public diplomacy activities are,   how they have influence and the media environment.  IR provides the legal framework and political context for these activities.

On its own IR operates at too high a level of analysis to say very much about how PD works.  Without IR Communications fails to understand the specific problems, context,  significance of PD.

The interesting thing is that if we go back to the ‘behavioral revolution’ in IR in the 1960s this divergence between IR and Communications is much smaller but that’s a subject for another post.

Socially Prevalent Social Theories

I wrote my PhD thesis on the theory and practice of escalation in military conflicts. In working on the thesis one issue was how can decision makers tell whether the strategic advice that they are being given is any good? Having wrestled with this for a while I happened to read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (it’s a really interesting book but I don’t remember why I was reading it) Chapter 3 opens with ‘A moral philosophy…characteristically presupposes a sociology’. This supplied the solution to my problem: we can evaluate a prescription by looking at the quality of the social analysis that underpins it. If the theory doesn’t seem plausible then it makes sense to be pretty sceptical about the prescriptions. Theory here doesn’t necessarily mean an academic theory but can refer to what Manning referred to in The Nature of International Society as a ‘socially prevalent social theory’ that is the conventional wisdom that exists in any group or organization. This may be given formal expression in policy documents, handbooks or doctrinal statements or it may be found in procedures or organizational norms or just in the intersubjective understanding of the world.

One of the important tasks for PD Studies is to sort through the theories that underpin prescriptions. We work in an area where a lot of different ideas about the world collide (or overlap) . This range of theories exist because of both the number of organizations (eg Foreign Ministries, Cultural Relations organizations, military, trade ministries)involved in the area but also because of the multidisciplinary range of scholars we have working in the field. We have people who come at the problem from a range of perspectives from international relations and communications. Further, communications covers a range of different perspectives and we see ideas coming from interpersonal communications, mass comms, political communications, public relations, marketing etc.

In later posts I want to explore some of these differences. In particular should we think about PD as communication? How close if the relationship between PR and PD? What are the mechanisms of influence that exist? By unpacking these different conceptualizations we can both move beyond some of the definitional arguments and start to focus on some key research areas.

Foreign Office Does South Park

In my last post I mentioned the best diplomatic service in the world…here’s another example of them in action.

The British Ambassador to the Holy See has had to apologize after somebody leaked an FCO memo suggesting that the Pope should bless a gay marriage and open an abortion clinic during his visit to the UK.  The Telegraph has the story here….

Different Public Diplomacies for Different Problems

Sitting in the UK and occasionally running into representatives of the world’s best diplomatic organization (that’s what they tell me) and reading about the British version of PD you notice that what PD means here is different from the US.  In fact at the root of the differences are different images of the problems that PD exists to solve.

Lets try and identify the ideal type cases that exist in the two PD imaginaries

In the British case the imagined problem is something like climate change:  it is a global or regional problem that requires a complex coalition with lots of different types of actors ranging from individual citizens through NGOs/IGOs/MNCs to governments with the governments understood as made up of different agencies.  This is a pluralist (or plurilateral or polylateral) world.  I think that this perspective is reinforced by the extent to which British diplomacy is linked to multilateral forms (particularly the EU).  This type of hybrid diplomatic action takes on board ‘classic diplomacy’ dealing with governmental elites behind closed doors, ‘classic public diplomacy’ reaching members of the public with communication plus a whole range of quasi public activities engaging with organized groups and networks.

In the US the imagined problem is …the USSR or something similar. Essentially you have a downtrodden population with limited access to the outside world who need to be told about how great the outside is and how bad their own rulers are in the hope that the downtrodden will get rid of the rulers.

The consequence of these two problem images will be different approaches in terms of objectives and means.

Publics and Elites

One of the ideas that is commonly found in the rhetoric of public diplomacy is the opposition between PD and diplomacy.  The difference is that diplomacy deals with elites and that PD deals with publics.  In rethinking PD this opposition needs to be deployed much more thoughtfully.  There is a danger of this reflexive distinction getting in the way.

  1. The idea of diplomacy/public diplomacy fusion implies an expansion of diplomacy to include actors other than a narrowly specified range of governmental actors. (There is an interesting question about how narrow this range ever was)
  2. The elite/public distinction can contain a huge payload of unexamined theory. I think it sometimes stands for a whole enlightenment, liberal theory of international relations.  Elites are bad – publics are good. More linkages will produce more peaceful relationships.  More public to public connections will produce better understanding.  More connections will be mutually beneficial.  This may or may not be the case but the assumptions here need to thought through.
  3. A key issue is what do we really mean by public?  One phrase that recurs is that public diplomacy is about ‘engagement with foreign publics’ (I’ve also seen Judith McHale refer to engagement with ‘global publics’.  This could be read as the plural of the public in other countries. The problem, is as a cursory examination of the literature on communication will tell you, is that it is impossible. You cannot engage with an entire public. If you set out to do this you will engage with a section of the public who are interested in what you do or happend to be reachable by the set of communications channels that you use.  The other way to think about ‘publics’ is as inevitably dynamic and plural called into being by the exigencies of a particular issue or situation.  This idea of plural publics is associated with theories of public relations but actually has theoretical roots in the work of Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1927)and John Dewey in The Public and Its Problems (1927) what they saw was the gap between abstract ideas of democracy and citizenship and the reality of an increasingly complex society. The consequence of their arguments was the view that democratic politics emerged from the way that issues were handled.  Publics were what emerged around concrete issues.  To think in terms of plural issue publics automatically generates questions about which public and how to engage them.  Further issue publics will tend to express themselves in organizations which will tend to blur the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘elite’.

The key point in here is that there is a danger of building an image of a kind of ‘pure’ public diplomacy that is based on a misunderstanding of what PD does and can do.

Diplomacy / Public Diplomacy Fusion

At the International Studies Association convention this year one of the top trending ideas (at least among the PD and diplomatic studies scholars there) was the idea that diplomacy and PD should be thought of as basically the same thing. This was tentatively mentioned on the first day and by the fourth was being casually tossed into conversation without explanation. So what do we mean by it?

I can see three elements.

1. There is an analytical strand. Diplomacy and PD are the same kind of thing and can be analysed in the same way. My take is that they are both about the construction and maintenance of relationships and hence fit with a social network approach.

2. There is a practice strand. D and PD aren’t separate activities and should be done together. You can argue that this was the logic of the State/USIA merger even if it hasn’t worked as well as hoped. Also if you talk to British diplomats they will tell you that lack of resources means that you can’t afford to think in terms of separate streams of activities. More generally this fits with the standard policy foreign lament that we (whoever we are) need to integrate all the tools of policy.

3. There is a normative strand. Should D and PD be fused? This remains to be explored. Within the PD world are plenty of people who argue that some kinds of fusion should be avoided eg cultural diplomacy, exchanges, broadcasting etc should be thought of as different from D and/or PD.

Twitter, Ash and Governance

I’ve got stacks of theoretical and conceptual material to work through so I don’t really want to get too much into commenting on current events…but for the benefit of anyone outside Europe…the Icelandic eruption and the consequent disruption of air travel is a big deal.  The media here is full of reports about people who have been stuck overseas and can’t get back to the UK.  The government is taking steps to use the Navy to evacuate people from the mainland.  Eurotunnel is booked to capacity, extra ferries are being laid on. There are lots of reports about people being charged extortionate amounts to rent cars.  It all sounds like one of those movies where a group has to race against time to get to the pick up point for the helicopter/submarine /ship etc.  Even if flights begin to get back to normal now it will be days before the backlog can be cleared.  Given this I was interested by the discussion at Global Dashboard about the organizational and communication performance of different UK and European organizations in responding to the crisis here and here.  The lesson is the usual one that it doesn’t matter how good the decisionmaking is if you can’t communicate with the key people affected.

Toward a Public Diplomacy Research Agenda

My thought is that an empirical PD research agenda comprises several core elements.

1. Contexts: What is the context for PD? To a considerable extent this comes from international relations or international communications research. It has both longer and shorter term elements. In the longer term has does the changing nature of the political/media environment affect the practice and prospects for PD?  In the shorter term the impact of political events on PD.

2. Institutions and practices: This category is about what what states do: conceptualizations, policies, organizations, practices. Arguably most academic work that could be identified as PD studies actually falls into this category.
3. Impact and effects: Metrics in PD are a recurring problem for practitioners.  This is a major challenge for scholars as well. Here we need to draw on insights from other fields.  I will come back to this in future posts but this is a theoretical challenge as well as an empirical one.  What works, in what situations and why?

These three elements all fit together.  Context and impact can be assumed to affect the performance of institutions. Practices reflect assumptions about context and effectiveness.  I think that it’s important to clarify what research is trying to do.  In a new area like PD the temptation is to try and do everything at once.

Having identified three areas we can immediately start adding others.
4. Ethical and legal issues: PD raises lots of interesting normative questions. One one hand there are the questions of communication for instance issues about manipulation. On the other hand we are talking about activities that are undertaken by states and this raises questions of international ethics, for example what is the standing of foreigners in domestic debates?

I’m going to stop there for the moment.  I have a feeling that this is a post that I’m going to be coming back to.

Update: 23 April 2010

One additional set of issues that I would add are the determinants of national images.  If part of PD at least is about shaping the perceptions of images in the world we need understand what they are and how they are shaped.

Developing Public Diplomacy Studies

At the moment there is a movement towards building Public Diplomacy studies as an area of research and teaching in Universities.  There are two MA programmes up and running in the US and I know that there are others in development.  How should the field develop?

In order this to answer this question we need to take stock of where PD studies are.  The current wave of PD studies has two roots.  Firstly, the interest in mid and late 1990s on the transformation of diplomacy in the face of the media, the internet and the end of the Cold War. Secondly, the war on terror and the identification of PD as a way of managing the problem of Islamist extremism.

It is this second wave that has driven the recent growth of PD literature.  The consequence of this is a focus on the US and an emphasis on current policy issues rather than basic research. As PD studies develops we are beginning to move beyond this situation.  This leads a few prescriptions.

1. Recognize the particularities of the US case.  a) All countries have different institutional arrangements and external relationships and PD studies needs to recognize the impact of these differences.  b)  The position of the US in the international system multiplies the distinctiveness of the US case.  To put it crudely the US isn’t a ‘normal’ country.  Putting these two considerations together means that we have to cautious about attempting to generalizing from the case that has attracted the most attention.

2. Following on from this we need genuinely comparative studies of a range of countries.

3. We need to draw a clearer distinction between research and policy commentary.  PD scholarship ought to be able to contribute to the improvement of the practice of PD but that contribution ought to be rooted in a solid body of evidence and theory

I’ll pick this up in my next post

The New York School of Relational Sociology

One of the issues that this blog will explore is the use of relational and network ideas in both theorizing and doing public diplomacy as result varieties of network thinking is something that I’m going to be coming back to over and over again.

Network analysis is very often thought of as research method but in my view this is too narrow.  Relations (and the networks that they produce when put together) are the building blocks of the social world.  Networks are about the ontology and theory of the social world not just an empirical tool.  In thinking about this I’ve been influenced by work of people such as Mustafa Emirbayer, Harrison White and Charles Tilly.  What I hadn’t realized until now was they were all part of a conversation going on in the New York region during the 1990s.  Ann Mische of Rutgers has posted a very interesting draft chapter which goes through these developments here. One of the key developments that she discusses is the effort to link networks with concepts of conversation and language. I’d been beginning to see the similiarities in some of the people that she discusses but I hadn’t spotted the physical collocation. There are lots of really interesting references that I hadn’t seen before.

H/T Orgtheory.Net