Why Doesn’t International Relations Pay More Attention to Public Diplomacy?

March 21, 2013

As some of you know I’m working on a book at the moment.  The strapline might be something like  ‘what would a theory of public diplomacy look like if we started with the history of the practice?’

This sounds pretty neat but almost immediately you run into to the problem of what you mean by public diplomacy given that a) the term didn’t appear until the 1960s, b) outside the US countries have different terms and concepts for what looks like PD and c) there are lots of arguments over what the term means.  My strategy is to start with  the minimalist definition of ‘engagement with foreign publics for foreign policy purposes’.   From this point of view building a national pavilion at a late 19th century exhibition,  French cultural projection in the 1920s, Japan offering scholarships to Chinese students in the 1930s, Soviet Active measures in the 1980s or 21st century statecraft, whatever the differences in approaches, objective, methods and outcomes, are all part of the same field of activities.

What has struck me in doing this work is how much ‘public diplomacy’ has been going on world politics over a period dating back to the latter part of the 19th century.  I would argue that it has been one most common forms of foreign policy action over the past century for small countries as well as the big players.  Given this it’s surprising how little attention it has received in the literature of International Relations.

How do we explain this? I could probably come up with more ideas but here’s four.

I think part of the problem is extraordinary fragmentation of the ‘PD’ literature and the absence of attempts at synthesis. Almost all of the studies that I’ve used in working on the historical part of my book deal with one country, in one period and probably one aspect of external engagement – for instance they look at radio or cultural relations or diaspora relations.  It’s rare for an author to refer to the experience of other countries and when they do it’s often obvious that it rests on a pretty limited knowledge base (references to the British Council often trap the unwary).  There’s a vicious circle here if we had a better frameworks for comparison it would be easier to put different cases into perspective but because of the fragmentation of the literature (and the fact that just because there’s no literature about a country it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do foreign engagement) it’s difficult to build up the knowledge to develop a useful framework.

Secondly,  this difficulty of building up a picture of what’s been going on is coupled to a loss of historical perspective.  Partly this is because scholars like to focus on what’s new (this isn’t just true of IR – I’ve often heard communications scholars make the same point) but it’s also to do with the way that theoretical shorthand cuts debates off from the real world.  A couple of weeks ago I was a bit sarcastic about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s comment that when she was growing up the US didn’t worry about what happened inside other states.  What was unfortunate about this was  that she was growing up during the Cold War and the US did seem extremely interested in what happened inside other countries.  Where her comment cames from is the common shorthand that Realists see states as solid objects that bump into each other ie as billiard balls.  When this metaphor came into widespread use (in the 1970s?) it was in opposition to pluralist school that who embraced ‘the cobweb’ that is world politics should be theorized as networks of transactions.  What frequently happens today is that billiard ball metaphor becomes historicised.  States used to be billiard balls but they aren’t now.  There are two problems here.  Firstly, a lack of precision over when those billiard ball states actually existed (which is how Slaughter got caught out) and secondly,  they never really existed,  This may not matter if you know that you are dealing with a theoretical simplification but it does if you get the simplification mixed up with history.   If you think that PD is a new phenomenon then you’ve got no need to consider whether it mattered in the past or not.

Thirdly, public diplomacy cuts across some of the typical theoretical positions in IR.  It’s state sponsored transnational action.  Typically IR scholarship tends to oppose the transnational to the state.  There tends to be an assumption that transnational actors (civil society, advocacy networks etc) weaken, undermine, penetrate the state, rather than sometimes at least being enablers of state action. States are also assumed to deal in material power (guns and money) not ideas and communications.  The Gramscians have made the connection between material and ideational sources of power but because they focus on hegemony that they’ve focus too much on the US and not on the fact that everyone else has been doing this too.

Finally, Iver Neumann recently made an interesting comment that one of the problems with IR is that it’s too focussed on outcomes and not enough on how the world is constituted.  Building on this I suspect that for most IR scholars it’s not obvious how PD affects outcomes and as such it’s not interesting.   I think that this is a mistaken view but I’ll take this up in a later post.




  1. […] Why Doesn’t International Relations Pay More Attention to Public Diplomacy? (pdnetworks.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] Why Doesn’t International Relations Pay More Attention to Public Diplomacy? (pdnetworks.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] Why doesn’t International Relations pay more Attention to Public Diplomacy? […]

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