Public Diplomacy and Political Warfare: Part 3

February 4, 2012

The starting point for this series of posts was the argument that public diplomacy practice seems to combine two distinct approaches.  Firstly, the effort to improve interstate relations or to influence policy positions.  This is quite consistent with seeing public diplomacy as a normal part of diplomacy. Beyond this there is a second strand of thinking that is concerned with influencing the political regime or with ‘defeating’ an adversary.   This second strand of thinking is particularly pronounced in the US because of the historical impact of the Cold War and the War on Terror but also exists elsewhere.  This can usefully be thought of as political warfare.

To borrow from Kuhn and Kissinger you can think of these as two paradigms of public diplomacy ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’. However the point is that they coexist and as the PWE memo points out use many of the same tools.  While political warfare might be expected to  embrace instruments like deception that would not be acceptable within public diplomacy many of the same constraints apply; for instance building and maintaining credibility and relationships.  Even black propaganda needs to be based in truth.

The distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’  modes of external action may or may not be reflected in different organizations.  The arguments (and struggles) for separation and combination are a large part of the history of great power propaganda .

Both in the US and the UK the rise of ‘strategic communications’ can be seen as the reassertion of the political warfare paradigm growing out of the requirements of the War on Terror including countering violent extremism, Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is the source of Matt Armstrong’s lament that US public diplomacy wears combat boots.  But this is not confined to the military the State Department’s ‘ 21st Century Statecraft’ has a radical strand to it.

I think that the important step is to recognize that these paradigms co-exist and need to co-exist.  In criticising the rise of ‘strategic communications’ one of my concerns is that this paradigm fails to recognize the importance of public diplomacy as an element of diplomacy.  At the same time communications in conflict situations needs to be more focused and instrumental in its approach.

I don’t expect William Hague or Hillary Clinton to start talking about ‘political warfare’,  after all it contains two of the most offensive words in foreign affairs, but in my mind it has two major advantages over ‘strategic communications’.   Firstly, as a concept PW focuses attention on ends and the overall approach while SC is about means and secondly, it reminds us that politics matters – it’s not simply a matter of technique.

In what (I hope) will be the final part of this series I’m going to explore what we can learn from Marxist-Leninist versions of political warfare in an era of networks.


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