Political Warfare and Public Diplomacy: Part 1

January 11, 2012

Over the past few months one piece of terminology that has popped up in conversations around the Institute is ‘political warfare’ .  In this and  the follow up I want to explore the utility of this idea for contemporary studies of public diplomacy.  An awareness of the history not just of the term but the institutional implications help to cast some contemporary issues into clearer focus particularly the rise of ‘strategic communications and Matt Armstrong’s complaint that ‘American public diplomacy wears combat boots’ .

As public diplomacy develops in the academy we are tending to place greater weight on public diplomacy as aspect of diplomacy but I think that this creates a danger of missing the way that the requirements of communications around conflict affect the way that national external communications are conceptualized and practiced.

As a starting point  what is Political Warfare?  From Psyops.org a 1942 memo from the British Political Warfare Executive: The Meaning, Techniques and Methods of Political Warfare.  This is one of more historically informed and nicely written government documents that you are likely to come across.  The PWE was the  Second World War  organization responsible for propaganda to enemy and occupied countries.  It had responsibilities for coordinating white, grey and black propaganda.  Political Warfare is sometimes seen as the equivalent of Psychological Warfare in the American lexicon.  The memo describes he motives of political warfare

In terms of foreign policy, when the normal channels of diplomacy are blocked, political warfare becomes the instrument of appeal to the people within enemy or enemy-occupied countries. It is also the indispensable adjunct of Economic Warfare, since, when the limits of blockade and other direct economic action have been reached, one means (apart from air bombardment) of exacerbating that blockade, is through political warfare action. Political warfare is inseparable from the strategy of the three Fighting Services. Its primary object is to destroy the foundations of the enemy’s war machine as an auxiliary to military action; it is in fact the Fourth Fighting Arm…

Britain’s Political Warfare Executive is concerned only with enemy and enemy-occupied countries as distinct from the Ministry of Information which deals with domestic and Neutral populations and with unoccupied Allied territories (i.e., China, Russia, U.S.A. and South American allies). This dispensation arose from practical experience and expediency, but the distinction is a logical one. The attitude to the enemy and to his subject peoples is belligerent; the attitude to friendly and still independent peoples is persuasive. One is disruptive behind the lines of the enemy; the other is conciliatory in the councils of our friends. One requires the mentality and techniques of subversion; the other, in open relationship, means frankness and information. The one seeks to destroy the confidence of the enemy; the other seeks to win the confidence of friends.

(vii) To clarify this distinction, it is necessary to define (a) Publicity, (b) Propaganda, (c) Political Warfare.


(viii) Publicity is the straightforward projection of a case; it is the build-up of a picture in the mind of the audience which will win their confidence and support. It is information which we want them to have, but also information which they want to have. It seeks to create the right impression and to remove the wrong impression. Its object is mutual goodwill. It is the presentation of the evidence, leaving the judgment to the audience. It is succinctly, as the Americans expressed it in their original information organisation: “Facts” and “Figures.”


(ix) Propaganda, on the other hand, is the deliberate direction, or even manipulation, of information to secure a definite objective. It is an attempt to direct the thinking of the recipient, without his conscious collaboration, into predetermined channels. It is the conditioning of the recipient by devious methods with an ulterior motive. Propaganda emphasises those facts which best serve its purpose. It creates the atmosphere in which the audience is most susceptible to suggestion. By power of suggestion, which in favourable circumstances becomes instruction, it secures positive action.


(x) Political Warfare employs both publicity and propaganda…

There follows a more detailed discussion of Political Warfare that concludes

(xv) Political Warfare could be described as “Propaganda in battledress” in the sense that it has to convert propaganda into a striking force and to ensure that, at the right moment and under proper discipline, ideas and emotions are translated into action. It must, psychologically, disarm the enemy. It must instil into the hidden armies behind the Axis lines not only the spirit of resistance to the enemy, but the will to strike down that enemy. It is this emphasis on its fighting service function which makes it necessary to distinguish Political Warfare from the “propaganda” it employs. It is this characteristic of Political Warfare which is still not clearly understood and which, while it retains an identity distinct from the Fighting Services, makes its close association with these Services of paramount importance. It is its balanced relationship between the three Services, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Economic Warfare and the other agencies which are operating against the enemy, which is the justification for the separate existence of the Political Warfare Executive.

In a following post I will argue that political warfare as a mode of operation where ‘normal channels of diplomacy are blocked’ is  stil around and in thinking through what public diplomacy means in contemporary international relations this conflictual application of communications needs to be kept in mind.


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