Do the Origins of PD Programmes Shape their Long Term Development?

October 23, 2011

Earlier this week someone tweeted a link to this story about press conference by Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa president  of the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority.  He outlines the steps that Bahrain is taking to ‘to project the truth abroad and debunk fallacies and lies’ including launching a new satellite channel and posting ‘media consuls’ overseas.  Presumably the driver for this is the negative publicity that Bahrain is attracting over its repression of anti-regime protests.

In looking at the development of national public diplomacy efforts it’s noticeable that countries initiate or innovate in what they do not based on abstract understandings of a changing media and political environment but in response to quite concrete problems. They do so based on their national contexts but also on PD models that exist ‘out there’ – in Bahrain’s case a media city like Dubai and a TV channel like Qatar (see also John Brown’s comment on how China seems to be copying the US)

Sweden provides a nice example of how PD institutions grow out of the attempt to deal with specific problems..  At the end of the Second World War the Swedes saw that the US was likely to be the dominant force in the post war world and that because of Swedish neutrality during the war the US was not well disposed  towards them.  The identified solution was cultural relations work conducted via a new organization, the Swedish Institute. The study that gave rise to the Institute was referred to at the ‘America Inquiry’ (Glover 2009).

This raises the question of the extent to which origins shape the way that countries practice PD.  Once you establish a set of organizations they will be tend to preserve themselves and to develop particular ways of defining problems and addressing them.   The nature of the approaches that are chosen grow out of national contexts and ways of thinking about them.  The result will be a national PD style one that it may or may not be appropriate for new or future challenges.  While we all like to comment on the persistence of the cold war model in US public diplomacy what is really needed is investigation of the extent to which this ‘path dependency’ is actually a more general phenomenon in PD – certainly there are styles at work.

Glover, N. (2009) ‘Imaging Community: Sweden in “cultural propaganda” then and now’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 34: 246-263. .


  1. Thank you again Robin for this post. Just a few quick words.

    . Shameless plug first: Nikolas Glover’s book (http://www.nordicacademicpress.com/bok/national-relations/) is well worth the effort. I have it on my to-do list…

    . Then to the question of “path dependency” in the shaping of PD practices. I will sound like a condescendant Historian, but bear with me.

    It seems to me that a part of the debate on “public diplomacy” or “nation branding” lacks a sense of historical depth: origins, history, national contexts obviously do shape the way things are done in various parts of the world in these matters too. Different international actors will have different ways to approach the question, different actors will be involved, different goals will be sought… The issue of dealing with their international image will be considered by some actors for some reasons while seen as irrelevant by others.

    If I consider my current research, there is an obvious link between the foreign language propaganda of the Finnish national movement circa 1890-1917, the Interwar’s activities of the Finnish Foreign Minister, the “national communication” of the 1950s-1970s, and today’s “public diplomacy” efforts. The modus operandi, the goals, the themes emphasized have much in common. The successive chronological periods sought inspiration in what their predecessors had done. One always would find, as well, a typical anxiety as to “what do they think of us?”. And at the same time one finds different contexts, with different emphases. Certainly I would agree that there are several, national styles at play. There is also a chronology of public diplomacy, with contexts and events dictating what is possible or considered as worthy of time and efforts.

    So I could regret a certain lack of communication between disciplines in studying these phenomena. IR scholars for example might be tempted to streamline historical complexities into categories labelled as “public diplomacy” or “nation branding”. This is of course a caricature, but coming from places (History of international relations) where the dialogue between IR specialists and Historians is more robust, I found some (most?) studies of “public diplomacy” surprisingly unconcerned with historical depth and context. I am ready to be corrected by someone with a broader vision of the field.

  2. Hi Louis – I agree. As a student I was exposed to quite a lot of diplomatic and military history and historiography. Even though I’m a social scientist that exposure to historical research has left me with a strong suspicion of the way that the two fields that I work in, communications and IR, tend to simplify, stereotype, misunderstand and forget history.

    To the extent that public diplomacy studies as a field exists today it has been driven by policy concerns primarily in the United States and only by historical and comparative work can we come to recognize the way in which that particular historical experience shapes the way continues to shape practice.

    From a social science perspective in developing public diplomacy research as field we need to recognize the variety of external communications practices that exist and have existed.

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