Over Christmas I was reading J.M Mitchell’s, International Cultural Relations. He focuses on the development of cultural relations work in France, Germany, Italy and the UK going back to the origins of these activities in the late 19th century. For France and Germany in particular the starting point is schools for their diasporas. Schooling served as a way of preserving the identity of expatriates but also as a way of spreading cultural influence. From Mitchell’s account it is clear that for European countries there were very strong continuities in their practices throughout the century that he covers.
This underlines the danger of approaching the development of ‘public diplomacy’ simply through the story of American public diplomacy. I’ve commented before on the problem for scholars of using official or quasi-official definitions to define their field of study.
The thought that occurs to me is in an academic context we should see public diplomacy as an umbrella term that covers a range of activities concerned with the external promotion of a country and its interests (eg branding, broadcasting, cultural relations, policy advocacy, media relations etc). The important point here are that there is not a single model for how to do this and that countries will often pursue several different activities at the same time.
The objection to this that PD is used in much more precise ways. For instance there are the American definitions from Gullion onwards. In the UK there is the British Council view that they don’t do Public Diplomacy and that this is something that the Foreign Office does. I would respond in two ways. Firstly, PD is already mostly used in the broad sense. All I am suggesting here is an explicit recognition that PD isn’t just one thing. The second response is to find another term. In US official discourse ‘strategic communication’ seems to be coming in to use as the overarching term. My problem with this is that strategic communication is too general: the term is broadly used in the private sector. In my mind the advantage of ‘public diplomacy’ is precisely the connection to ‘diplomacy’ and the international dimensions of the practices we are interested in. It is that fact that this communication activities are being done by official or quasi official organizations in one country to influence relations with people in other countries introduces a set of issues that mark off the field.
Mitchell, J. (1986) International Cultural Relations. London: Allen and Unwin.