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Public Diplomacy and The English School

September 2, 2011

I haven’t posted any gratuitous retro-International Relations theory posts for a while.  So here’s a question does public diplomacy have a theory of international relations?

We normally discuss PD as an exercise in applied communication but what does it mean in terms of international relations.

The English School of International Relations Theory (Hedley Bull, Martin Wight, CAW Manning, Herbert Butterfield)  loves to divide everything into three schools of thought which are variously labelled Realist /Rationalist /Revolutionist or Machiavellian/Grotian/Kantian or  were associated with the concepts of international system/international society/world society.

To stereotype:  realists believe that international relations is an amoral battle for survival, revolutionists want to replace the state-system with something better while rationalists think the state system is pretty good and should be seen as an international society rather than just as an international system, that is states have a shared interest in preserving the international order and this moderates the tendency to pursue their interests on a purely short term basis.  The  English School  is distinguished by its embrace of international society and its rejection of either power politics or utopianism.  The system of diplomacy is a key institution of international society

You can look at PD through any of these three lenses.  As an exercise in diplomacy PD would fit very much with rationalist view, it is about the amelioration of international relations and the strengthening of the mechanisms of international governance.  While PD is often conducted by states in situations of conflict and competition (which might lead you to expect a realist dynamic to be at work) the questions of credibility and reputation tend to push towards an enlightened self interest that is very much consistent with a rationalist world view.   But at least at a rhetorical level  there is a revolutionist strand running through PD .  Public diplomacy is constructed in opposition to elitist diplomacy and thus can imply a movement towards a world society model.  ‘Internet freedom’ somehow suggests something beyond a states-system

Of course the English School’s tripartite division is only one of many ways of looking at visions of world politics.  Particularly in looking at American foreign policy discourse I’m reminded of Kenneth Waltz’s division of theories of conflict in Man, The State and War  into those that locate conflict in human nature, the domestic political organization of states or the nature of the international system.  It’s the second of these that tends to exercise influence on political discourse with its message that the way to limit conflict is to change other people’s governments.

Although we often discuss public diplomacy as a matter of strategy the first step of strategy is to define the desired end state.  But for major powers anyway part of that end state should be about the nature of the international order that their diplomacy will contribute to.  Day to day public diplomacy deals with particular groups, networks and individuals but it is also important to keep the big picture in mind.  That big picture is not just the overall image of the country but the image of the preferred international order.

This is an issue that is returning to the agenda with the rise of the BRICs. These are countries that share a commitment to the norms of the Westphalian order: sovereignty and non-intervention but  at the same time Western countries to a greater (Europe) or lesser (the US)  extent are embracing a post-Westphalian agenda of global governance and human rights.  Over the period since the end of the Cold War Western countries have tended to treat this agenda as self evident.  The rising importance of the BRICs means that this case has to be made in a different environment and in a way which takes into account the perspectives and interests of a new set of countries.

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