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Public Diplomacy and Political Warfare: Part 2

January 26, 2012

From the set of notes that I’m accumulating on the topic I rather regret opening the can of worms marked political warfare but here’s a thought to inch things forward a little.

Although the PWE  document that I linked to in Part 1 talked about political warfare during wartime the resonance of the idea in twentieth century international politics emerged from the blurring of the distinction between war and peace.  Particularly with rise of communism and fascism political warfare was understood as the continuation of war by political means, with the end being the overthrow of the enemy.

One theme that is found in Henry  Kissinger’s writings (eg 1957, 1979)  is the problem of international relations in a period  of ‘revolutionary international relations’  where the states-system lacks shared standards of legitimacy.  Peacetime political warfare emerges from this contestation of  legitimacy.

In a recent book John Owen provides additional context for this.  He looks at patterns of forcible regime change in the period since the sixteenth century and argues that we can see waves of regime change. These  are tied to ‘transnational ideological networks’  (TINs) that promote different models of legitimacy.  These networks are symbiotic with states and seek to influence their actions.  He identifies four main waves of contestation;   around state and religion 1510-1700, between absolutism and liberalism 1770-1870, the contest between Communism, Fascism and Democracy, 1910-1990 and between Islam and the state from 1923.  Regime change occurs as different TINs use states to overthrow foreign governments and as non-TIN regimes strike back.

Owen concludes by looking at the possibilities for future waves of regime  change. He examines the possibility of  struggles involving a Hugo Chavez inspired Bolivarist movement and an authoritarian capitalism network.  He is sceptical  about an authoritarian capitalist network arguing that it lacks an   ‘unifying ideology’.  But what he does see around the post-communist areas of Eurasia is ‘one of the most robust and well funded sets of TINs in history’ that is the ‘[l]iberal governmental organizations, linked to the European Union and United States’, that seek to spread liberal modes of governance.  In Owen’s view  the possibilities for forcible regime change stem from the conflict between a liberal democratic TIN and authoritarian capitalist states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.   From this point of view the complaints that authoritarian regimes make about being under attack from the West and its democracy assistance industry are correct.

The PWE document makes the point that there are different modes of acting towards friends and enemies

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.

The PWE paper also makes the point that action towards friends and enemies make use many of the same communication techniques.

Contemporary Western public diplomacy  in some parts of the world it has elements of both these approaches.  Diplomatic practice has long experience in dealing with policy ambiguity so this is more of an issue for the academic effort to build a better understanding of public diplomacy.   Conceptually we need to manage the coexistence of two modes.

In a later post I’ll come back to see whether the concept of political warfare can help to elucidate the proper place of ‘strategic communications’ in the range of foreign policy instruments.

Kissinger, H.A. (1957) A World Restored: The Politics of Conservatism in a Revolutionary Era. London: Victor Gollancz.

Kissinger, H.A. (1979) The White House Years. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson/Michael Joseph.

Owen, J.M. (2010) The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010. Princeton, N.J: Princeton U.P.

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