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Policy vs Communication? It’s all relations to me

June 5, 2010

You don’t have to spend too much time reading about US public diplomacy before you encounter discussion of the lack of connection between ‘policy’ and ‘communication’  (or ‘the say-do gap’).  What this means is something like ‘ don’t waste your money on public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East if you plan to keep invading countries in the region, people don’t like your policies and communicating more won’t actually change that.’

It may be that this separation is entrenched in the policy world but intellectually it’s not helpful. The language of ‘policy’ and ‘communication’ tends to perpetuate a view of PD as communications technicians.  One of the consequences of the relational perspective in public relations is the argument that PR has to be seen as strategic management function not as simply about communications.

What would this mean in an international context? My starting point is that we can conceptualize foreign policy  as a set of relations.  The context for a country’s public diplomacy is its existing and desired external relations.  By choosing other actors as friends or enemies you make a decision that affects your relationships with their friends and enemies and with your existing friends and enemies.

A simple example of this is in the saying that my enemy’s, enemy is my friend.  Another example of this kind of relational thinking is Raymond Aron’s  response to criticism  by other French intellectuals that his opposition to Soviet communism effectively allied him with all kinds of unsavoury right wing dictators (and the US of course).  His response: ‘you choose your enemies not your allies’.   His apparent alliances were actually an unintended consequence of adopting a negative attitude to the USSR.

This is what can be called the horizontal dimension of relations (I’ll address the vertical in the next post).  The message is that we may think about relations as dyads but a set of dyads is a network and choices  about single relationships have  effects that ramify through  the network.  This isn’t just network analysis this is the realm of classic balance of power diplomacy.  It’s Bismarck manipulating the European order or Kissinger appreciating that improving the Washington-Beijing relationship affects both the Washington-Moscow and Beijing-Moscow dyads.

A criticism of the Obama Administration is that in its determination to improve relations with countries that had ‘difficult’ relations with the US  have led to damaged relations with allies.  For example the decision to scrap the missile defence systems in eastern Europe may have improved relations with Russia but at the cost of strained relations with governments in Warsaw and Prague.  Similarly the opening to Syria weakens the anti-Syrian front in the Lebanon.  The Obama initiatives can be seen either as a calculated trade off (fair enough)  or as a failure to understand the relational dynamics at work (bad).

You can see a similar network dynamic at work in the Israel-Turkey relationship.  Although some commentators point to the role of the Gaza War in undermining the relationship you can also see the issue in a network context.  The traditional foreign policy of Kemalist Turkey was to turn towards Europe and away from the Middle East.  To become modern you needed to disconnect from the East and connect to the West.  In decoupling from the Arab world Turkey encountered another country in a similar position, Israel.  A key relationship at work here is that between Turkey and the EU.  Turkey has been negotiating with the EU since 1963 but it has now become clear that the major countries in the EU will not accept Turkish membership and the weakening of the relationship with the EU has facilitated a new policy direction.   In the last few years Turkey has pursued what has been called a ‘neo-Ottoman’ policy turning to back to the Middle East.  It might be expected that closer relations with the Arab countries and the need to manage those relations would tend to undermine relations with Israel.

I’ll address the implications for PD in my next post but some interim conclusions.   Foreign policy as a whole is about the formation and management of relations.  Relations are interdependent and sophisticated foreign policy thinking has to deal with the implications of this interdependence.  This may require a recognition that some choices will have negative impacts on existing relationships.   The key point is that these political choices form the context in which PD operates and which structure the possibilities of success and failure.

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