Should Public Diplomacy Be About Values?

August 26, 2010

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.


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