The Public Diplomacy Challenge for Rising Powers

November 24, 2011

There’s quite an active debate in China about soft power and the public diplomacy requirements of being a rising power (eg Ding 2008) so I was really interested by this New York Times story about negative regional reactions to the rise of Brazil.  Brazil is seen, in some quarters at least, as using its financial resources to finance infrastructure projects that threaten national sovereignty in Argentina, Bolivia. Guyana, Peru.  The article quotes a Bolivian politician: ‘just as China consolidates regional hegemony in Asia, Brazil wants to do the same in Latin America.’  There’s scope for an interesting comparative study here.

I’ve always  liked Choucri and North’s (1975) idea that rising powers exert ‘lateral pressure’ . Economic and demographic growth generates a search for resources and opportunities, which in turn create new political interests.  Economic growth provides new resources for military spending with the effect that the frictions over investments and access and resources become security issues. For the neighbours the combination of a pattern of conflicts combined with expanding military resources mark the rising power as a problem.  What I like about lateral pressure is the implication that it is a natural consequence of growth rather than something that is planned.   The implication of this is that the process of an ‘antagonizing’ is piecemeal.  It’s not something that governments plan to do and may derive from actions that are nothing to do with government.  Choucri and North based their model of conflict on the period before 1914 and I think that in thinking about the current international system this is an interesting period to keep in mind with its combination of rising powers and popular nationalism mediated through interacting national media systems that tended to magnify international issues (eg Hale 1940, 1971)

Rising powers tend find it difficult to recognize their impact on their neighbours and hence to manage the situation diplomatically.  One source of this is the conviction that what’s good for  them is also for the neighbours.  The kind of infrastructure projects discussed in the NYT article are good for some of the people in the neighbouring states but also create losers and opponents who can then harness the power of nationalism against the project.   Where the exuberance of growth is coupled with a sense of grievance or entitlement then the propensity to overlook or overreact to negative reactions is reinforced.   In the Brazil case some of these conflicts are more internal to the neighbouring states but still have an impact on international relationships.

From a public diplomacy( and a broader diplomatic)  perspective rising powers need to understand that negative reactions are not just about misperceptions or a sense of a military threat.  These reactions are rooted in objective changes generated by the process of growth which need to be managed regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation

Choucri, N., and R.C. North (1975) Nations in Conflict: National Growth and International Violence. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Co.

Ding, S. (2008) The Dragon’s Hidden Wings: How China Rises with Its Soft Power. Lexington Books.

Hale, O.J. (1940) Publicity and Diplomacy. New York: Appleton Century.

Hale, O.J. (1971) Germany and the Diplomatic Revolution: a Study in Diplomacy and the Press, 1904-1906. Octagon Books.


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