The International Politics of Public Diplomacy

June 9, 2010
    I’ve been working on the promised follow up to the last post but getting a bit stuck so here’s part of the idea.

    Underlying the last post was the idea that we could overcome the ‘policy’  and  ‘communication’ tension by recognizing that these are both choices about relations.  This means simply recognizing that some choices about who we have friendly/hostile relations with affect other relationships including those with those ‘foreign publics’.   It may be that we make a conscious decision to trade off relations against each other.  The bigger error is not recognizing that these trade offs exist.

    The nature of the basic diplomatic relationship between two countries (plus the nature of political regime) will shape the space within which public diplomacy can operate.

    State of Diplomatic Relations Motivation for PD Activities Target Country Attitude
    1 Good Reinforce relationship Positive
    2 Good Influence policy stance Positive to Ambivalent
    3 Good to Ambivalent Influence political development Ambivalent
    4 Poor Improve relationship Ambivalent
    5 Poor Undermine regime/support opposition Hostile/Obstructive

    What I’m suggesting in this table is that the prospects for PD activities are actually going to be shaped by the political context not just the quality of the communications.

    In case one we have good relations with another country and we develop say exchange programmes.  In two we have good relations with another country but we would like to influence their position on a particular issue.  The reaction here will be shaped by regime type.  If you have an open plural political system you probably won’t be to bothered (although there are limits eg in support for particular parties) a more closed regime may be more concerned.

    The third case probably has an authoritarian/semi-authoritarian regime as a result public diplomacy engagement with civil society groups is regarded with a certain degree of suspicion.   Not least because Western PD organizations tend to have a public commitment to the development of civil society as a support to democracy.

    In the fourth case we might be looking at symbolic acts such as the exchange of sports teams that are a direct extension of the diplomatic game.

    The fifth case reflects a situation where a deteriorating diplomatic relationship or increasing domestic repression leads to increased support for PD activities that support the domestic opposition.  Cases 3 and 5 are interesting because for the host government the difference between them may not be obvious.  In both cases there are likely to be increasing restrictions on the operations of PD organizations.  It has been reported that the Egyptian government is insisting that US support can only be provided to government approved organizations.

    What this analysis suggests is that one factor influencing the possibilities for PD and the impact are diplomatic relations and regime type.  The language of public diplomacy, particularly in cultural relations organizations,  tends to portray it as non-political but from the perspective of host countries this may not be the case.  For example we can see the restrictions that the British Council operates under in Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran, Sudan and Russia.  From the point of view of a receiving government regime PD activities may actually contribute to a worsening of diplomatic relations.

    PD practitioners have good reason to portray their work as non-political. But from an analytical point of view looking at the politics of the activity in terms of the diplomatic relationship and the domestic situation adds an important dimension to our understanding of public diplomacy.


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