The Four Paradigms of Public Diplomacy

I’ve argued before that public diplomacy should be thought of as an umbrella term covering a range of different activities rather than a single thing what pulls the different activities together is communication with foreign publics.  Having spent the past few months digging into the history of public diplomacy programmes in different countries I now think that it’s possible to identify four distinct ways of thinking about external communication.  These are differentiated by the purposes of PD and are associated with particular organizational forms.  The relative priority of these paradigms differs across countries and across time.

  1. Expanded Diplomacy. PD is an adjunct (or part of) diplomacy.  Hence it needs to be closely integrated with the routine operations of foreign ministries. Historically the organizational expression of this is the press office or news department.  It will often express itself through an engagement with the media
  2. National Projection.  Public diplomacy is a matter of creating a favourable impression of our country often this will be regarded as the concern of the trade department but historically any other external communications activity will tend to take on  some aspect of projection concern.  Nation branding is the latest and most elaborated version of this paradigm.
  3. Cultural Relations. In this version our external communications are part of an effort that will lead to  a transformation of overall relations with other countries though the development of cultural relations.  The concern is with medium and long term processes. The emphasis on the cultural is also reflected in an argument for the autonomy of this activity from the day to day influence of foreign policy. Within the cultural relations paradigm we can see a continuum between exporting our culture and a genuine mutuality.
  4. Political Warfare (ideological conflict?).  PD is a matter of defeating an ideological opponent or spreading a set of political values.  One aspect of this paradigm is that PD should be separated from the work of the foreign ministry because the MFA is too wedded to the niceties of diplomacy.

These paradigms are abstracted from arguments around public diplomacy activities and are intended to be ideal types that summarize typical views of PD activities.   They are rooted in the purposes of external communications activities rather than means.   Exchange programmes can be run on cultural relations or political warfare grounds or broadcasting can be operated as an instrument of any of these paradigms.

The value of a typology like this is in developing a language for comparative research.  To what extent are these theories represented in national public diplomacy debates? To what extent do they map onto organizational structures?  What is the relative strength of these positions within the debate?  We can map these arguments onto national organizational fields

For example in the UK the different paradigms map onto different organizations – FCO as extended diplomacy (and at points political warfare) , cultural relations in the British Council and BBC, trade promotion, tourism etc as projection.  This has resulted in quite a stable organizational field where the FCO is top dog but everyone else has a degree of autonomy.  In the US the balance between the paradigms has been  different, political warfare is much more prominent, and the lines of argument cut across organizational boundaries in  a way that has tended to promote instability.

In future posts I’ll work through some of the implications of this typology.

UPDATED:  I’ve now written up a paper based on these ideas you can find it here

16 thoughts on “The Four Paradigms of Public Diplomacy”

  1. I like this typology. I get pretty much the same things in my own case study, although through a different route. Confronted with a complex field, I have tried to identify the actors, what they do, and why. This has brought patterns of action very similar to the ones you underline.

    I would have two comments, though.

    Trade promotion, I would argue, often exists in a sphere of its own, that you can’t completely reduce to national projection. It involves different actors, and has a different feel, although it is difficult to determine.

    Coming from my own case, I would dedicate a fifth paradigm to the identity incentive. Not only as the act of “promoting our own culture abroad”, but also as the operation through which various actors define, construct and spread notions about the national self. This is a bit of a “metastructure”, spread across the paradigms you mention. But in my case, it is a clearly identified and strong incentive. For small nations especially, public diplomacy efforts are rooted into identity debates and the feeling that selling the nation abroad is also constructing it at home. This is poorly worded, but basically what I am aiming at is taking into account the psychological process of collective self-definition involved in public diplomacy.

    I also agree with the starting point: public diplomacy works as an umbrella concept (I would prefer “national communication” for my own case, but that is because the actors I study use it much more prominently than public diplomacy).


    1. Hi Louis – as always valuable thoughts.

      Part of what lies behind this typology is being able to map arguments onto organizations. I would agree that the trade area has a different feel to it with different players but for some countries at some points the trade activity has an important external impact as well as providing the context that other players are operating in. As you say whether it can be reduced to national projection is something to consider but commercial activity does have an element of projecting an image that is less prominent in the others.

      This also connects to the issue of identity because you can conduct diplomacy, struggle with an opponent, or build cultural relations without having an explicit idea of who you are even if there is an implicit idea. Once you are concerned with an image this issue becomes much more central. This is something that gets picked up in the nation branding literature both in the admonition of the practitioners that you must get buy in domestically and in the view of people like Nadia Kaneva that nation-brandings has an authoritarian aspect to it. These debates may be more prominent in smaller countries but you can also see the identity concerns cropping up in arguments around US Cold War public diplomacy.

      Finally, public diplomacy, in the book I’m working on I’m experimenting with ‘government external communications’ although this does require a clumsy expansion at points with ‘quasi-government’ to indicate situations where government is steering or funding external communications activities. One of the points that I’m making is that the modern history of these actvities is tied to the emergence of nationalism so national communication may be a good term.



  2. Interesting approach…I would also suggest that you can look at public diplomacy by level of structural approach — for example, are you talk about “PD” as the work of a specific agency (e.g., Foreign Ministry, British Council, Department of State), an entire government across agencies, or all engagement by citizens and organizations of a nation that involve public communication and engagement with citizens and organizations of other nations?

    1. Hi Dan

      I’m currently working on a book where I’m making the argument that it’s useful to see ‘public diplomacy’ or ‘national communication’ in a historical and comparative perspective. This means that I need a way of talking about differences and similarities in external communications that are not too tied to specific national experiences.

      The paradigms represent views of external communications that, from the work that I’ve done so far, seem to recur in different places. They are sufficiently broad so as to cover different national experiences. Arguments over how to do public diplomacy and diagnoses of what’s wrong with it tend to reflect the viewpoints of these four paradigms.

      The relative influence of these paradigms varies across countries depending on geopolitics, culture and institutional configuration. In most countries more than one of these paradigms exists and so the overall national PD style emerges from the balance between them.

      Different paradigms tend to become associated with different organizations. However, these paradigms don’t always map organizations in he same way. For instance you could argue that in France and Germany cultural relations are prominent but in Germany the Goethe Institute has a great degree of autonomy while in France cultural relations has always been more integrated into the foreign ministry. Britain also has a relatively autonomous cultural relations organization but the BC co-exists with a foreign ministry that is more committed to an expanded diplomacy view of what it does.

      National styles emerge from the ways that different paradigms map onto organizations.

      I think these paradigms are also useful for understanding what’s going on some arguments over PD but I’ll work through these ideas the coming days.


  3. Thank you, Robin — I look forward to your book! I wonder if it makes a different whether or not these efforts are defined/delineated as “public diplomacy” or not.

  4. I’m increasingly thinking that ‘public diplomacy’ can get in the way of understanding what countries are doing.

    From an analytical point of view you need a concept that is broad enough to take in the whole range of government or quasi-government external communications activities. Some countries don’t use ‘public diplomacy’ at all while others apply it to parts of what they do. My preference is to cast the net quite widely because for some countries their external image is largely shaped by commercial work and tourism promotion. Also from some of the history I’ve looked at the space in which foreign ministries and cultural relations organizations work in is shaped by their coexistence with trade/tourism activities. So in trying to understand why countries do external communications in the way that they do you have take into account the total organizational field regardless of the labels that those organizations use.

    I think we need a concept that is ‘bigger’ than public diplomacy but which encompasses it. I think that for some people ‘strategic communication’ serves that role but for me it’s too tied to a conflict paradigm.

    Having said this when you talk about ‘public diplomacy’ people do have a general sense of what you are talking about even if they’re not very clear about the details.

    1. Would this “bigger-than-PD” concept encompass exchanges between small amateur football (soccer) clubs of different countries? When it’s one club in Europe, and one in China, it seems to me that it will still spell public diplomacy in China, but not be seen this way by the Europeans – not by European club, that is. When it’s between two European clubs, neither might think of it as “public diplomacy”. And still, if you asked these European countries’ diplomats, they might still see such exchanges as “public diplomacy” – people involved in politics usually tend to see things in a political light, anyway.

    2. My example/question is about small clubs where no public-diplomacy operators would even be aware of the exchange, let alone be involved, at least not in Europe.

  5. Thank you Robin for your answer(s) and this dialogue. I will just pick up two things quickly.

    First, I too find the same link between the historical evolutions of nationalism and the practices of public diplomacy. Someone you might know, Nikolas Glover from Stockholm University, draws the same parallel for the Swedish case, and in my own case it is also obvious that there is a link. As nationalism becomes less organic, less dramatized, less riden with symbols and meaning, so “national communication” moves into new directions. That is what a historical approach to this phenomenon will emphasize.

    Second, I absolutely agree with you when you write that “public diplomacy” is a blanket statment, covering a host of processes and phenomena that could be studied more in-depth as subtely different aspects. In my work, I have found the word good for abstracts and conference titles, because as you write everybody immediately understands what this is about. But in the research itself, I would rather use “national communication”.

    Keep them coming, and thank you for the blog!


  6. What a very well written scriptand discussion?Louis am humbled by your thoughts and through the discussion with Robin ,dan and Just i have gotten the rightful thought of what diplomacy entails and through that i have well been assisted to understand my study on diplomacy.
    Thank you all.

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