Strategic Communications and the Crisis of Strategy

Last week Abu Muquwama had a justifiably scathing post  on the absence of strategy in the Libyan intervention.  He links to an article by the British military historian  Hew Strachan (2010) on Obama’s dismissal of Stanley McChrystal.  Strachan sees McChrystal’s comments about the administration as deriving from a frustration with lack of clarity over the strategy for Afghanistan.

Strachan has been arguing for some time (eg 2005) that Anglo-American  policy  has suffered from what might be called  a ‘strategy gap’:  that is a break in the ends-means chain that links political intent to military action.  A symptom of this is the tendency to use military force without a clearly defined end state in mind or a clear sense of how military force can be used to achieve this end state.  Strachan locates the source of this difficulty in the expansion of the concept of strategy in the context of total war and the Cold War this expansion broke the clear relationship between the  military and political dimensions of strategy.  The result is a political leadership who fail to provide proper policy guidance and a military who have to make something up to fill the gap.   From the military side of the ‘gap’ the concept of the ‘operational’ level or ‘operational art’ have expanded to partially fill the gap.*

There’s an interesting  a parallel with the rise of strategic communication .  I’ve commented before about the way that strategic communication has expanded from a military priority into something that demands the coordination of national level communications and actions.  The expansion of  strategic communication grows out of the recognition that things that are said or done in one place (or by one agency) have effects elsewhere.  It also creates an emphasis on how to do things  not what to do or why.  The expansion of strategic communication both in the UK and in the US has a bias towards the military and security issues.

This has grown out of the perceived requirements of the war on terror but hasn’t been accompanied by efforts to think through national level communication policy.    National level communications strategies have to grow out of a comprehensive view of national priorities (including civilian concerns like investments, tourism and trade)  which in turn places a limit on strategic communications as a set of techniques.   Perhaps what is required is an effort to synthesize the concerns of nation-branding with its  emphasis on generalized reputation and typically civilian concerns with strategic communications

* Of course the great practitioners of ‘the operational’  in both world wars were the Germans who consistently demonstrated their brilliance at operations and their ineptness at strategy.


Strachan, H. (2005) ‘The Lost Meaning of Strategy’, Survival, 47: 33-54.
Strachan, H. (2010) ‘Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War’, Survival, 52: 157-.

21st Century Statecraft at Work

The Zimbabwe government is reported to be mounting a crackdown on social media

The acting foreign minister is quoted as saying

The Internet and things like Twitter and Facebook are being used to destroy…We from the older generation do not know anything about these things. They are used for regime change and to make our youths revolt against their leaders

Sounds like he’s been reading up on 21st century statecraft.

The African-Indian Axis

I’ve been busy with marking (grading for the American readers) this week and I may have missed it but beyond the Indian  Ministry of External Affairs’s Twitter feed I haven’t seen any coverage of the Second Africa India Forum Summit being held in Abbis Ababa this week.

The India-Africa axis certainly seems like an interesting area for exploring current public diplomacy practice.

The Indians are concerned that their trade with Africa is only $45Bn a year compared with China’s $115Bn but these still seem like sizeable numbers.

The Times of India provides this summary of new Indian aid

With Love from India

Public Diplomacy? Whatever.

For most countries the big public diplomacy problem is not that other people disagree with you it’s that they don’t pay attention to you .  This is not a problem that the US has often so I was amused to see this in the Cablegate files.

In 2005 Washington is having a big push on countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and has asked the embassy in Ecuador if it needs PD assistance.  They respond that they will put an article in the newspaper because..

There simply is not sufficient interest here in WMD non-proliferation efforts and the PSI [Proliferation Security Initiative] to justify investments in DVCs , expert visits, NGO cultivation, and/or other PD strategies

The full cable is here

Incidentally while we’ve been paying attention to the Royal Wedding, Osama Bin Laden, etc WikiLeaks have released a lot of new material from the cablegate files – there’s now nearly 13,000 available.  From a PD point of view there’s more nuts and bolts traffic dealing with requests for visits and exchanges.  Some of the most useful tags you can use to search the cables are listed here.

Branding Canada

I’ve just finished reading Evan Potter’s Branding Canada and I’d highly recommend it.  It’s one of the few book length studies of a  country’s public diplomacy and it’s particularly valuable because that country isn’t the US.  The scope is comprehensive.  It looks at the history of Canadian PD back to efforts to promote immigration a over a century ago – silent films did not include images of the Canadian winter.  It looks at the full range of external promotional activities including trade and tourism promotion and it looks at PD both as national level activity and something that happens at embassy levels – there are interesting case studies of local campaigns.  There is particular attention to the role of PD in Canada’s relationship with the US.

Potter’s basic diagnosis of Canada’s PD problem is positive opinion based on low visibility.  This means that long established images of Canada shape the way that others engage with it lack of attention makes it difficult to change that image.  The position of Quebec both assists and hampers Canadian efforts.  One hand it builds connections with the Francophone world  and contributes to images of multiculturalism and federalism – it makes Canada more interesting but it sometimes cuts across efforts to promote an image of Canada.

Public Diplomacy activities are fragmented and lack resources. Potter’s recommendations will be familiar – the development of a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy and organizations that can coordinate the full range of activities.

Potter, E.H. (2009) Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power Through Public Diplomacy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Theory and Public Diplomacy

In a post on her blog Molly Sisson raises the question of whether we need a theory of public diplomacy. I could go on at great length about this but I’ll keep my comments short.

Whether or not we need a ‘theory of public diplomacy’ the study and practice of PD are not theory free zones. As Molly points out PD research uses lots of academic theories drawn from a range of fields especially International Relations and Communications. As I’ve commented before the question is how to integrate these insights. There is a recurring gap between the macro and the micro levels of analysis .

However, its not just the academics who bring theory to Public Diplomacy. PD policies and practices are shot through with propositions about the world – what Manning referred to as ‘socially prevalent social theories’. To pick two familiar examples 21st Century statecraft is rooted in ideas about the transformative power of technology which are deeply embedded in Western culture. The official Foreign Office theory of international relations has more than a passing resemblance to concepts of post-international politics. Practices such as exchange of person are rooted in beliefs about the broader transformative impact of such activities. Messaging strategies have their origins in early communications research.  These theories percolate into practices via think tanks, consultancies, prior education and the media.

From an academic research perspective the task is not just to develop new theory but also to identify and evaluate the theory already at work in public diplomacy organizations.  Indeed one of the challenges with measurement and evaluation is to force PD organizations to make their theories of change explicit.

PD2.0: How Much Effort Do You Need?

Via Cat Tully’s blog I came across some discussion on the Socialbakers social media measurement site about corporate use of Facebook.  They argue that posting too much can undermine user engagement just as much as too little.  Looking at brands versus media companies thei view is that brands should post 5-10 times a week while media companies should aim for a multiple of this – somewhere up to a maximum of 100.  It woudl then follow that MFAs/Embassies should clarify what the objective of their FB presence.

In a later post they take up the issue of when does managing a Facebook page become a full time job.  Although posting 5-10 posts a week wouldn’t require anything like this they you also need to look at the number of fans and the level of interaction required.  Increasing numbers of fans means more comments and a greater requirement to respond.  Socialbakers point to cases where companies have a team of three people to manage their Facebook presence.  This comes back to the issue of how much resource social media requires if it is to attain its full potential.  The problem is one of relationship management- building a set of social media relationships requires constant attention.  The issue then becomes one of trading off the contribution of a particular level of FB engagement versus other public diplomacy activities.

Switzerland Trying to Change its Image…

Seems like nobody is really happy with their image – we think that that people think that we’re just a heritage theme park, the Canadians don’t like to be thought of as living in the Arctic..and   The Swiss aren’t happy that we only go there for the mountains.  Now they want to convince us to go for city breaks as well.  A shorter version of this clip is running on UK TV at the moment.

Competition and Public Diplomacy Innovation

Public Diplomacy scholars (including me) tend to write articles that point to the changing nature of the media or diplomatic environment and then make the connection to the need for innovation in PD organization and practice.  What is being argued implicitly or explicitly is that states adapt (or should adapt) to a generalized set of changes. ..

…But  the more I read into the history of public diplomacy and across the experience of different countries the more I begin to see the importance of interstate competition in driving innovation in public diplomacy.  French innovations in cultural diplomacy were driven by their competition with Germany, the British Council emerged from competition with Italy and France.  Cold War public diplomacy is obviously driven by competition.  But this is not just a matter of great power politics in reading Evan Potter’s (2009) Branding Canada I keep seeing references to Australia as a comparator you also  get the impression that it was the perception of a declining competitive position that stimulated the Ottawa into action.

What this means is that while PD scholars (like me) express scepticism at Hilary Clinton’s ‘war of ideas’ rhetoric these kind of arguments seem to be powerful motivators of spending and innovation in PD .  This is not to say that innovation can’t be driven by other factors but we shouldn’t forget that PD is something done by states and the history of international relations tends to suggest that competition drives innovation.

This leads to a few questions.  Which countries do states regard as their competitors?  What is the arena in which this competition takes place (politics, culture, idea, trade, attracting students)? How do different types of competition shape the evolution  of public diplomacy organization and strategy? A hypothesis might be that political competition tends to generate different approaches to PD than economic or cultural competition.

Potter, E.H. (2010) Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power Through Public Diplomacy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

More on Web Video as Public Diplomacy Tool

Looking at my Twitter feed this morning @edipatstate has retweeted a link from @usembassyta – the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to a video of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg responding to questions from Facebook users.  Aha I thought –  this is the PD push to manage the fallout from Obama’s speech on Thursday.  Steinberg has been in Israel the for the last couple of days and this is the second video that the Embassy has posted.

But what strikes me is the lack of interest that either of these video has triggered.  The first of these has had 20 views (21 including my view of it) and the other has had 25.  Neither has had any comments.  In looking at English language Israeli news websites over the years  I’ve always been impressed by the speed with which stories attract comments so given the reaction to Obama’s speech particularly on the Israeli right the absence of feedback is surprising.

Now it might be that the Embassy is running other media related activities but we come back to the problem of how Embassies can actually generate traffic to their social media platforms.