Should Public Diplomacy Be About Values?

It’s only recently that I’ve noticed how often the idea of  ‘values’ crops up in conjunction with public diplomacy.  I’ve seen this as something that is advocated (public diplomacy should be about communicating a country’s values) and something that is practiced, for instance speeches that emphasize the common values between two countries.  I wonder to what extent this emphasis on values is really thought through and the extent to which it is a habit.

There are some good reasons for values talk.   In the abstract values are basically the same in most places so by talking about values you emphasize what we have in common and de-emphasize conflicts.  We also know that in domestic politics that voters tend to respond positively to talk about values.

On the other hand I’m still sceptical.

  1. What’s the connection between values and action?  Actions do not follow automatically from values.  Values are abstract concepts that can be interpreted in lots of different ways.  People tend to have value systems that aren’t internally consistent.
  2. It’s hard to live up to values – particularly as they are interpreted by other people; hence a slippery slope to charges of hypocrisy
  3. In domestic politics values talk serves to polarize and mobilize.  We draw a distinction between their values and ours.  International politics is full of values talk aimed at achieving precisely the same objectives.
  4. Values, in the sense of strong moral commitments, are non-negotiable.

So what’s the alternative?  Well maybe we should talk more about interests.

  1. In The Passions and the Interests Albert Hirschman argues that the concept of interest was developed in the early modern period keep a check on the passions.  Values are more benign than passions but have some of the same characteristics.
  2. If we talk about our interests we may defuse the hypocrisy charge.
  3. Interests are provide a language that we can negotiate and deal around.

I’m not entirely convinced by this:   interests can be constructed into something that is beyond negotiation and interests can conflict just as much as values both within actors and between them.  However, I am convinced that the language of values should be used with greater circumspection.

Heritage Foundation on Visa Waiver Program

At the Heritage Foundation Helle Dale has a piece on the US Visa Waiver Programme (VSP) as a public diplomacy tool.  The key point

The VWP has proven to be extremely beneficial by increasing the amount of international visitors to the U.S., a key element of promoting a positive image of America abroad.

As a result Dale advocates extending the number of countries eligible for the programme. Essentially the VWP means that you can travel to the US without applying for a visa in advance instead you  fill in a small form with your personal details and some simple questions on the plane.

As a UK citizen I can travel to the US under the VWP but in 2008 I spent a semester at George Washington University as a visiting fellow which required me to have visa.  US (or UK) visas require you to present yourself for interview (this isn’t true for all countries eg China allows you to do it by post).  It can take several weeks to schedule an interview.  In the UK this has to take place at the embassy in London after having submitted several forms and the necessary fee.  The interview requires you to go through security at the embassy which does give you a particular perspective on how the US sees the world.  With an invitation letter from GWU and a job and a mortgage to go back to in the UK the actual interview was straightforward.  What I didn’t appreciate was that by requiring a visa you come under a greater degree of scrutiny when you actually enter the US than if you are travelling under the VWP.  In the US you need to carry your documents at all times.  Also when I went to a conference in Amsterdam I had to get a letter from GWU certifying that I’d been turning up to teach my classes so I could get back into the US.

I thought that it’s worth sharing this experience becasue if you are used to travelling visa free it’s not obvious what the impact of rigorous (US and UK style ) visa programmes are both in terms of deterring travel and in making visitors feel like objects of suspicion.

The take away is that decisions about visa regimes need to take on board the PD dimension; given the domestic political sensitivity of questions about immigration I suspect that this rarely happens.