Public Diplomacy as an Umbrella Concept

January 27, 2011

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.



  1. I think your approach to defining public diplomacy has merit. I sometimes wonder if we need to accept that it has different meanings to different people, and accept the need to state this and clarify which definition we are using for our specific discussion or activity. For instance, do we want “public diplomacy” to be defined as you suggest — a range of activities concerned with the external promotion of a country and its interests — while “Public Diplomacy” (capital P and D) could refer to the formal activities and programs that different governments engage in under this term — which, as you note, differ from country to country.

  2. My thought is that a minimalist definition of public (small p and d) diplomacy allows us to recognize that there are different ways of doing and thinking about the same general type of activity. Coming from a background in international relations/strategic studies and political communications I tend to look at things from a particular perspective but I’m increasingly realizing that there are things to be learned from cultural relations and branding perspectives. Also terminology and organization differ from country to country.

    It seems to me that we need a broad term to encompass this range of variation within as well as more narrowly defined concepts that apply to particular cases.

  3. I agree that PD is a broad concept, and academically must be framed that way. Just like any other academic field, there are aspects subject to concentration and specialization. For example, while someone can say they are a physicist, he/she doesn’t necessarily have to conduct experiments in particle physics, astrophysics, theoretical physics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, etc. And so a state can be conducting public diplomacy and not concern itself about cultural promotion or other ‘sub-fields’.

    That said, I think the field would benefit from a consensus on a definition. Obviously that definition would have to be independent of governmental definitions of their specific PD practices. But also we must be aware of the blurry lines that bound fields together. Using the same analogy as above, it is often difficult to note where particle and nuclear physics ends and chemistry begins. Chemistry, after all, is simply the study of the ramifications of electromagnetism. With public diplomacy, it will always be hard—or impossible—to nail down the boundary between PD and international public relations, or PD and traditional diplomacy.

    Despite this, I feel that a singular, sufficiently precise definition is would benefit the field greatly. It would help orient and give perspective on scholarship henceforth. Because of this orientational vacuum in the field, we at the Exchange (http://www.exchangediplomacy.com/) have found it difficult to target the many facets that make up public diplomacy.

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