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Publics and Elites

April 23, 2010

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.

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