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More on the International Relations / Communications Gap

May 31, 2010

In the Public Diplomacy studies the dominant voices come come from  IR and communication.  This creates a problem in that both tend to work at very different levels of analysis – IR with states and communications with individuals.  This leads to a huge gap between the call for a more ‘strategic’ approach that you find in the policy literature and individuals who may or may not being influenced by PD activities.  When IR people look to the communications literature for insights they tend to end up with individual level cognitive models of influence.

Bridging these different levels of analysis is important.  Filling in the gap between strategies and individuals tells you who you have to influence but also if and how they can be influenced.  This sounds a bit cryptic but what I mean is that the people you are trying to influence are office holders or opinion leaders who are embedded within organizational and social networks that shape what they pay attention to and how they are going to act.  Looking at these people through the lens of individual level communication effects or models of dialogue really misses the point that these are not isolated individuals.  Influence has got to be thought of as something more social.

Here I think that the politics literature can help.    I’m reminded of William Riker’s notion of the missing liberal art of heresthetic – as he puts it in the preface to The Art of Political Manipulation (New Haven CT.: Yale, 1986) heresthetic is differentiated from rhetoric because while it is

‘true that people win politically because they have induced other people to join them in alliances and coalitions.  But the winners induce by more than rhetorical attraction.  Typically they win because they have set up the situation in such a way that other people will want to join them  – or will feel forced by circumstances to join them – even without any persuasion at all.  And this is what heresthetic is about: structuring the world so you can win.’

Two points.  Firstly, this sounds pretty much like some of the earlier formulations of soft power.  Secondly, in the real world influence will often operate through a mix of factors, it includes structuring the choices that actors have to make, negotiating,  bargaining, exchanging  that have a ‘material’ component not simply an ideational one.

Conceptualizing the public diplomacy problem purely as one of communication limits the theoretical (and practical) tools available and may actually make the problems look more difficult than they actually are.

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