The USSR and the Limits of Relational Public DiplomacyJune 13, 2011
I’m reading Gienow-Hecht and Donfried’s very interesting edited collection Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy. I was struck by an interesting juxtaposition of two chapters; the first by Jean-Francois Fayet on VOKS: the Soviet All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries that operated from the early 1920s to the late 1950s, the second by Rosa Magnusdottir on the Soviet embrace of cultural relations in dealings with the US at the end of the 1950s.
VOKS operated by building relationships with the intelligentsia in non-communist countries in the hope that these networks offered to develop a more positive portrayal of the Soviet Union. In retrospect this can be seen as an application of what we would now call relational public diplomacy. The emphasis on combining communication and organization strikes me as a signature of 20th century communism but it’s interesting to note that this was an insight that wasn’t confined to the communists, in International Political Communication W. Phillips Davison (1965) argues that the most important impact of public diplomacy communication is in supporting friendly organizational efforts a thought that hasn’t had much prominence in recent thinking.
In a sense Magnusdottir is pointing to the limits of the VOKS model, She argues that in 1950s America the only people who were listening to the USSR were the members of the CPUSA and its associated front organizations. In network terms the pro-Soviet organizations were suffering from closure (eg Burt 2005) they were unable to effectively form new relationships to expand their reach. Part of this was due to the comprehensive ideological opposition in 1950s America but also reflected the type of stereotypical propaganda material that circulated within the network. The lesson that the more thoughtful Soviet observers drew was the need to use alternative networks with different content in order to have a real impact in the US, for instance publishing magazines with interesting content and decent translations.
The broader lesson is that network building is a powerful tool but one of its characteristic pathologies is closure. The network turns in on itself and doesn’t allow engagement beyond. This can happen for reasons of protection as in the case of the Soviets sympathisers in 1950s America but can also happen because people gain status as insiders and have an incentive to keep others out.
Burt, R.S. (2005) Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Oxford: OUP Oxford.
Davison, W.P. (1965) International Political Communication. New York: Praeger.
Fayet, J.-F. (2010) ‘VOKS: The Third Dimension of Soviet Foreign Policy’, pp. 33-49 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.
Magnusdottir, R. (2010) ‘Mission Impossible?: Selling Soviet Socialism to Americans, 1955-1958’, pp. 50-72 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.