Theory and Public Diplomacy

May 25, 2011

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.



  1. Very interesting question…I believe that efforts to develop this theory are already underway – if I’m not mistaken Gilboa offered something like it in an article “Towards a theory of public diplomacy”.

  2. Hi Ivaylo – Molly Sisson’s original post is partly driven by frustration with Gilboa’s article so I think that we have some way to go yet.

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