Archive for June, 2013

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The Irony…..

June 25, 2013

This morning a copy of Michel Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College De France, 1977-78 dropped through my letter box.  This is one of his main discussions of ‘governmentality’ and the state.

Have a look at the bottom of the title page…

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It’s translated into English courtesy of a Quai D’Orsay cultural diplomacy fund….so even if Foucault’s point was to reveal the operation of power the state still exploits him.

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Inspecting the International Information Programs at State: Kicking Delivered

June 24, 2013

The empire of the American Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has three parts:  Public Affairs, Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and International Information Programs (IIP).  Last week the  Office of the Inspector General issued an inspection report on IIP and it’s not a pretty picture.  There are implications of cronyism and poor management and there have already been changes in the leadership of the Bureau.  Diplopundit has some comments here and here but I just wanted to comment on some of the more specifically PD aspects of the report.   OIG reports are always worth looking at because of the detail they give you about what’s going on at State.

  1. Firstly OIG is unhappy with the state of PD at State.  The last report in 2004 argued that the Bureau should be led by an assistant secretary but this requires Congressional action.  Recommendation 1 in this report is that IIP should be run by an Asst Sec.  Further State doesn’t have a “Departmentwide PD strategy tying resources to priorities” ie the high level vision documents that we’ve seen over the past few years haven’t been converted into action, hence a recommendation for a management review of PD at State.
  2. My reading of the report says that IIP operates in large part as a provider of content.  The effectiveness of this kind of operation depends on effective relations with the other parts of State and the report questions the degree to which these relations actually exist.
  3. The report criticises IIP for not paying sufficient attention to one of the classic tools of PD – writing articles that can be passed to foreign media. This gets a big thumbs up from me –  despite all the excitement about social media the reach that mass media gives you cannot be ignored.
  4. Evaluation has been limited and ineffective the report says that the whole operation should be passed over the ECA.
  5. Lots of translation work is done by outside contractors with very limited oversight.
  6. IIP is responsible for funding American Spaces, a programme that has had a major increase in funding, but (as you would expect from studying the history of any country’s PD) there are problems with staffing the work in the field and with coordinating with the embassies. IIP shipped thousands of e-readers overseas without  agreeing management procedures with local posts.
  7. The US may lead the world in Digital Diplomacy if you look at numbers of likes but as the report says it appears to have got those numbers through an exercise in maximizing numbers than in pursuit of a PD strategy – social media managers were worried that if they posted too much policy related material their numbers would drop.

What struck me in reading this report is how familiar these problems are -not just in American terms but in terms of the history of PD .  One of my general points about PD is that it operates between a complex set of pressures policy/communications. Post/MFA, different publics, centralization/decentralization these are tensions that are not going to be resolved but need to be managed.  My advice?  Push for greater engagement between IIP and the Bureaus, look for greater policy involvement and try to reduce the reliance on contractors.

From looking at OIG reports on Regional Bureaus it’s pretty obvious that the IG is less than happy with the way that PD is being embedded into the Department generally.  The one exception seems to be in Western Hemisphere Affairs where a 2010 report praises the integration of PD in to the work of the Bureau

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EU Aid to Egypt ‘well intentioned but ineffective’

June 21, 2013

Adding to my occasional series of posts on democracy support

The European Court of Auditors has just issued a report on the EU’s efforts to support reform in Egypt in the period since 2007 (press release), the bottom line is that programme (involving €1Bn) has been ‘ineffective’.  This programme had two main strands providing budget support to selected bits of the Egyptian state and grants to civil society organizations.

Reading between the lines the Egyptians have been taking the money and not worrying too much about the EU agenda of transparency, anti-corruption and human rights while obstructing grants to CSOs.  While there are some differences between the Mubarak, military government and current periods the continuities are more obvious.  In return the European Commission and the European External Action Service have failed to insist on conditionality and to use their leverage against the Egyptians.  My reading is that in dealing with multiple programmes applying conditionality is just too difficult, further I suspect that a calculation was at work that continuing the dialogue was more important than applying pressure.

The full report also contains a spectacularly defensive paragraph by paragraph rebuttal by the Commission and the EEAS.  Technically the report is into the management of the programmes and the response is concerned with showing that the Commission and EEAS did a good job ‘in the given circumstances’ which included ‘continuous resistance from the Egyptian side’ on some issues.  Where the Auditors point out aspects of a programme have been ineffective the response is that as the programme still has some time to run there’s still room for progress to be made even though there’s no sign of it. I particularly enjoyed the phrase that occurs at several points ‘this file has been closely monitored’.  The best though is the abbreviation of budget support to BS hence ‘future BS operations’.

In the end the report and the rebuttal are operating within a relatively narrow bureaucratic discourse and  I’m left with a bigger set of questions about these programmes.  Essentially the EU is attempting to generate change in a foreign country that doesn’t want to (or can’t) change; was there any realistic prospect for success? If this type of programme is unlikely to succeed are there alternatives? Is it possible to effectively use complex, multifaceted, technical programmes, executed through mediating organizations as an effective tool of influence – this doesn’t just apply to the EU but to large parts of contemporary statecraft.

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New British Council Report on Influence and Attraction. Not Very Attractive

June 19, 2013

The British Council have just put out a report Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century – sounds exciting doesn’t it? I’ve just read it and I’m not sure that was the most useful thing I could have done this afternoon.

What does it say?

  1. In the modern world culture is good…for everything…it can solve social and political problems, it can improve economic performance, social cohesion etc.*
  2. Cultural relations activities have to be less about projection.  We are in a peer to peer world
  3. The BRICS and other new players (eg in the Gulf) are spending lots of money on cultural relations
  4. The traditional players in Europe are cutting back.

A few comments

  1. The report uses the term culture in such a broad way as to render it meaningless
  2. Cultural relations is used here both in the traditional British Council sense of what it and similar organizations do but also as a synonym for a large part of transnational relationships as a whole.  See Comment A
  3. There’s an interesting tension between the view that we are in a new peer to peer world and the emphasis on the rise of the BRICS.  It seems to me that in large part following traditional European models eg opening cultural centres, teaching languages etc, hosting expositions.
  4.  Ironically one of the oldest tactics in the cultural relations book (going back to the 19th century at least) is to point at what your competitors are doing and say that we must do more or at least not do less.  Which is what this report is doing.
  5. The intention of the report is to build support for cultural relations but because it does such a big job of lumping everything (sectors, regions, countries) together it is ineffective in doing so.  If, as the report argues, governments are ‘relatively powerless’ then action needs to be focussed precisely through identifying what can and cannot be done and what should be prioritised. Making statements like ‘cultural understanding is a precondition to solving pressing global problems’ is just pie in the sky.
  6. There’s too many lazy cultural sector cliches here – I loved the comment that ‘political and corporate elites’ don’t understand the scale of the changes  in global communications.  Well maybe except these changes were brought to you by corporate elites who have handed all your data over to the US state.
  7. At several points the report emphasizes the importance of an arms-length autonomous relationship between organizations like the British Council and government – standard BC boiler plate.  I’m sure that this is true in some cases but I’ve had numerous conversations with people from outside the UK who always say that the credibility of the BC is strengthened by the fact that they see it as being a UK government organization.
  8. I do like the compilation of which countries have cultural institutes where.

*Showing my age here but It’s like the snake oil in Big Audio Dynamite’s Medicine Show from 1985.  (I’d never seen this video before so reading this report did some good.)

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New Book on French Scientific and Cultural Diplomacy…in English

June 18, 2013

I get quite a lot of hits on the blog from people searching for material on France so I’m pleased to be able to draw your attention to a new publication from Liverpool University Press, French Scientific and Cultural Diplomacy by Philippe Lane. ‘Lane is Professor of French Linguistics at Rouen University and is currently seconded to the French Foreign Ministry as Cultural Counsellor to the French Embassy in Jordan.’

This was originally published in French as Présence française dans le monde: L’action culturelle et scientifique (I’ve no idea why cultural and scientific have changed places as they cross the channel) Before you rush over to Amazon to buy a copy a word of warning.  Rather than an academic study this is in the vein of an official discussion; it has forewords by Foreign Minister and the head of the Institute Française.  It deals with  the recent changes in the organization of French cultural diplomacy such as the creation of the Institute Française.  What it doesn’t do is put the changes in a historical or comparative context or really explain or justify the underpinning assumptions.

It provides a summary of a lot of things that have been happening and makes a connection to the discussion over the diplomatie d’influence but at the end I remained a bit puzzled about a lot of things; for instance even after the creation of the new organizational structures why does France continue to have so many mediating organizations? There’s a 120 pages of text and three full pages of abbreviations most of which identify some kind of organization with a connection to public diplomacy.  There are quite a lot of areas where you’re left wanting more explanation – for instance Lane discusses the involvement of local government in development diplomacy but without some background the whole thing is a bit puzzling.

Despite these reservations it will be a useful resource and it does provide some useful references to contributions to the debate over French diplomacy.

Philippe Lane, French Scientific and Cultural Diplomacy (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2013) ISBN 978-1-84631-865-8, £20.

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The Global is Local At All Points: Latour on Globalization

June 14, 2013

Some of the things that have caused me to re-engage with Latour and Actor-Network Theory are issues that specifically follow from working on public diplomacy.  PD exists in multiple places at the same time – not least in foreign ministries and in embassies.  As a field of research it exists in Communications and International Relations but Communications tends to focus on ‘small’ things like effects and strategies while IR deals with ‘big’ things like states and states-systems.  How then do you bring together the global and the local and the micro and the macro  to use a couple of distinctions beloved of theoretically minded social scientists?

Latour offers an attractively radical solution: throw the whole lot out.  The addiction to big/small, micro/macro, local/global are just more of the misunderstandings that social scientists use to confuse themselves.

So what does he offer in its place?

You can sum it up in the maxim that the global is local at all points.  Here he introduces the analogy of the railway – although you can travel for huge distances it never becomes ‘global’ it is made up of stations, tracks, signals, ticket collectors that are located in places.  ‘global’ networks are just collections of local places that are connected in some way.  The railway has another valuable property for Latour, however far you travel you can’t go everywhere; either because the track doesn’t go there or because the train doesn’t stop.  Networks are full of holes so deploying ‘global’ is a rhetorical strategy not a description of reality.  ‘Electromagnetic waves may be everywhere, but I still have to have an antenna, a subscription and a decoder if I am to get CNN’ (Latour 1993: ), The same applies to ideas, norms, culture they circulate within particular networks.  The challenge that Latour lays down is to follow the connections.

The basic characteristic of the modern world is that we have built networks that that connect more things in more places together but have mistaken changes in size for the emergence of new levels.

What, for example, is the size of IBM, or the Red Army, or the French Ministry of Education, or the world market? To be sure, there are all actors of great size, since they mobilize hundreds of thousands or even millions of agents….However if we wander about inside IBM, if we follow the chains of command of the Red Army, if we inquire in the corridors of the Ministry of Education, if we study the process of selling and buying a bar of soap, we never leave the local level. We are always in interaction with four or five people; the building superintendent has his territory well staked out; the directors’ conversations sound just like those of the employees; as for the salespeople, they go on and on giving change and filling out their invoices…Could IBM be made up of a series of local interactions? The Red Army of an aggregate of conversations in the mess hall? The Ministry of Education of a mountain of pieces of paper? The world market of a host of local exchanges and arrangements? (Latour 1993: 120-1)

The key to making sense of this is to follow ‘the thread of networks of practices and instruments, of documents and translations.’  (Latour 1993: 121)

I think this is good advice for studying public diplomacy.  Follow the networks but keep in mind that the network doesn’t go everywhere; public diplomacy is frequently a story about failure and unintended consequences.

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

 

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Public Diplomacy and the Hidden Hand: Part 3

June 10, 2013

Two final thoughts on the relationship between the hidden hand and public diplomacy.

1.  Particularly in dealing with closed societies material generated from intelligence has been an essential input for external communications:  Effective communications draws on knowledge of who you are talking to and on having something interesting to talk about.  People are interested in things that happen that affect them. In dealing with closed societies knowledge of relevant events and knowledge about the audience are in short supply and material gathered through covert means may become an important input into what you talk about.  If you look at situations where you can’t just turn to the news agencies for news external communications operations develops some type of intelligence or quasi-intelligence function to provide inputs.  This was clear as early as the First World War where control of ‘political intelligence’ was a bone of contention between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Information. Information on developments in enemy in neutral countries was an input for the diplomats as well as the propagandists . In the Cold War we have the Information Research Department in London or the research organizations of RFE/RL where the gathering of information on Communism and the Communist bloc was seen as a vital resource in formulating relevant communications.

2. Aldrich explicitly discusses activities that were undertaken ‘covertly’ to influence foreign publics, yet a good part of this work was widely known about.   The thought that struck me we need to think about the ‘covert’ and ‘overt’ in a more complex way.  From an analytical perspective rather than thinking about a dichotomy  it’s probably better to think of a continuum between the completely overt ie ‘this message comes to you courtesy of the government of x’  in big neon letters through all types of variants of the ‘discrete but not secret’ through differing levels of covertness.  Keep in mind that a good chunk of the news in democratic countries comes from only partially identified sources; ie ‘sources close to the minister’, a surrogate spouting talking points or the press release minimally converted into a story with a byline.

The standard typology of ‘white’, ‘grey’ and ‘black’ propaganda is supposed to apply to the identification of sources.  However, the assumption is frequently made that source identification maps onto  levels of veracity.  While it’s reasonable to assume that a black source is more likely to indulge in deception than a white one it doesn’t necessarily follow that black material is necessarily false.  This would suggest that we need to think in terms of multiple dimensions.

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Public Diplomacy and the Hidden Hand: Part 2

June 7, 2013

In the second post inspired by Aldrich’s The Hidden Hand  I want to reflect on two parallels between intelligence and public diplomacy; firstly as an area of study and secondly as an aspect of statecraft.

Intelligence Studies and the Missing Dimension

A famous contribution to the historical literature on intelligence is called The Missing Dimension (Andrew and Dilks 1984) and it took historians to task for failing to engage with the way that intelligence (and its failings) had shaped twentieth century politics.

Is public diplomacy and its cognate activities another missing dimension?  At one level it certainly is.  We have simply failed to appreciate the scale of these activities over the past century.  At another level it is harder to say.  Intelligence historians can (if they have the access to the archives) trace the progress of intelligence reports through the archives and  hopefully, make the connection to decisions and actions.  The impact of public diplomacy is harder to measure but the first step is to look for it.

Aldrich offers an insight into why intelligence was a missing dimension.  After 1945 the British intelligence services were determined to hide the fact that they had broken German codes.  At the same time they suspected that ‘intelligent historians’ would deduce what had happened from the speed of Allied reactions to Axis moves.  Aldrich argues that historians failed to look for the impact of intelligence because of their acceptance of ‘conceptual horizons’ defined by the official history.  I think that this requires students of public diplomacy to think about what impact would look like and how they can detect it.  Two thoughts here.  Firstly, the impact of PD may be much more obvious on governments than it is on publics.  For instance one of the staples of information programmes is attempting to influence the foreign news media.  In the foreign policy process news media are both a source of information about events but also about public opinion.  Secondly, the impact of PD may be more important not in changing opinions but in keeping them the same and in defining what is normal.

Department Stores and Industrialized Statecraft

In the last post I quoted Alexander Cadogan’s fear that the Foreign Office would become ‘a department store’ if it took on board the instruments of intelligence, special operations and information.

Regardless of whether the Department store was created as in the UK or shut down as in the US after 1945 the machinery of statecraft involved more people and organizations in more places.  Post 1945 intelligence wasn’t about running a few high level agents it was an industrialized process of data gathering.  The largest and most expensive of the intelligence gathering processes was signals intelligence (SIGINT), but in  the decade after 1945 hundreds of thousands of refugees or returning PoWs were debriefed,  scientific literature had to be monitored.  Covert action whether, funding political parties, operating front organizations or running paramilitary forces need to be supported.  Although the information and cultural activities of the US and the UK spent a lot less money than the intelligence apparatus they represent part of the broader evolution of the foreign policy machinery to one where there were more international linkages.  Foreign ministries had always had a degree of competition from other actors, whether the armed forces, secret services, colonial offices or the personal networks of rulers but the post 1945 marked a quantum leap in the level of complexity of the foreign policy machinery, particularly for the most global powers of the era.

Intelligence, like information offers a different way into thinking about the state.  If the traditional discussion of foreign policy is about decisions being made by national leaders the study of  intelligence shifts attention to the way that one of the basic sources of that decision-making is a product of complex networks that gather, process and try to distribute information.  The literature of intelligence studies is full of discussion of failures.  Public diplomacy is different in that it is more concerned with a foreign policy output but is also dealing with a complex, distributed network that seeks to reshape the state’s environment in favourable ways. By focusing on the logistics of foreign policy this kind of view undermines the traditional focus on decisions as the key element of foreign policy and on as states as unified actors.   This is one of the factors that is encouraging me to explore actor-network theories.  From this perspective even the most powerful states look rather ramshackle entities at the best of times – perspective that reading of The Hidden Hand will only reinforce.

Aldrich, R. (2001) The Hidden Hand: Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence. London: John Murray.

Andrew, C., and D. Dilks, eds. (1984) The Missing Dimension: Governments and the Intelligence Communities in the 20th Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Public Diplomacy and the Hidden Hand: Part 1

June 5, 2013

I’m working my way through Richard Aldrich’s The Hidden Hand: Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence(London: John Murray,  2001).  This deals with the development of the covert dimensions of British and to a lesser extent American statecraft from the middle of the Second World War up until 1963. Richard Aldrich is one of the best know British academic historians of intelligence and the covert world. The story he tells directly impinges on the ‘engagement of foreign publics’ through the exploits of the International Organizations Division of the CIA and the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office but also raises broader questions about nature of modern statecraft.  I’m going to reflect on this in three posts.  The first deals with the origins of British and American information programmes in the post war period, the second considers the implications of this type of history for the way we think about foreign policy and the state, and finally, the nature of the relationship between overt and covert in public diplomacy.

I’ve been puzzled as to why the US developed an independent information agency and the UK didn’t.  Although not specifically addressing the issue  Aldrich puts this question in the broader context of how to incorporate the wartime instruments of statecraft; intelligence, covert action, psychological warfare into the postwar foreign policy organization.   Anthony Eden, the wartime British Foreign Secretary, took the view that a) these organizations had caused enormous trouble for the diplomats and b) if they were going to exist in the postwar period they should under the control of the FO.  His view was not universally shared within the ministry, Alexander Cadogan, the chief civil servant within the FO rejected this view noting in his diary that  ‘we aren’t a department store’.  He lost the argument and Eden and his successor,  Ernest Bevin pushed hard to incorporate the remains of these agencies over the opposition of the agencies themselves and the armed services.  While there was some support in the forces for the retention of a separate covert action service like the SOE there was also recognition of the need for better control of special operations.  Indeed Aldrich points to comments in British documents of the time that praised the OSS and the benefits of uniting all covert activities in a single organization.  Ironically, this end was achieved but under the control of the FO not of an independent agency. Overt and covert information activities as well as covert action came under the control of the FO.  To the extent that the wartime capabilities were preserved the Foreign Office razed the organizational structures and forced any personnel to satisfy the Foreign Office that they were suitable people. In doing this the FO could draw on the fact that it had had a News Department in the pre-war period that had conducted overseas information activities and that it already controlled the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) so had a ready made home for those that it took over from SOE or PWE.

There was a parallel debate in Washington.  The Secretary of State James F. Byrnes favoured the incorporation of intelligence into State but as in the UK he was opposed by parts of his own department and by the Joint Chiefs.  Truman’s position seems to have wavered before confirming the creation of the CIA as an independent agency.  Despite the creation of the  State Department Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs on 1 January 1946 information programmes remained a semi-detached element of State.

As tensions rose with the Soviet Union during the late 1940s they also rose with the British Chiefs of Staff who favoured a much more aggressive campaign of subversion against the Eastern Bloc.   I would argue that the absorption of the remnants of the wartime agencies into the FO put it in much stronger position within the UK foreign policy establishment than State was.  Another point to mention is that the British executive has much more freedom to organize itself that the American one does.  While the state of the ‘overseas information services’ was a topic of parliamentary questions during the 1940s there was no scope for the kind of intervention that was mounted by Congressional Committees during the 1940s and 1950s.

Obviously this is a counterfactual but I think that if the FO hadn’t moved so rapidly to absorb the wartime organizations then by the late 1940s there would have been immense pressure to re-establish these agencies outside the FO and with a closer relationship to the military and that part of this would have incorporated at least a covert  information agency.  Aldrich speculates that the agreement of the FO for SIS to become involved in armed subversive activities against Albania in the late 1940s, despite doubts, was in part a strategy to buy off the pressure from the UK Chiefs of Staff.  In the veterans of the wartime agencies like C.D. Jackson agitated for an information agency that wasn’t constrained by diplomats, while the elevation of John Foster Dulles to Secretary of State in 1953 saw the victory of the Cadogan ‘we’re not a department store’ line and overt information, like covert action and intelligence, were spun off into an independent agency.

Aldrich’s point is that victory of the FO in the struggles in the late 1940s meant that British foreign policy was less troubled by different agencies pursuing their own lines than the US. (Of course this didn’t mean that British policy makers were any less likely to make mistakes but that they were better coordinated while doing it!)

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Public Diplomacy and Actor Network Theory

June 3, 2013

I think that Bruno Latour is one of the most interesting figures in contemporary social science.  I first came across him about 15 years ago when I was involved in the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s Virtual Society Programme.  There were lots of anthropologists involved who kept talking about something called ‘actor-network theory‘ or ANT.  In the pub one night I innocently asked someone what ANT was the response:  ‘that’s Bruno Latour; he thinks that things are people too’.  I didn’t follow this up until a few years later where I was teaching a course that engaged with the social impact of communications technology and this stimulated me to get into  the science and technology studies (STS) literature which is where Latour comes from.  Although Latour is known for his radical positions it’s important to keep in mind that he’s an anthropologist who believes that researcher should look and listen to what people actually do.  This probably the core of his ideas that there’s a huge gap between what people in the contemporary world do and what we think we do.  I’ve also found Latour to be quite literal in his approach to the world, he has little truck with abstract impersonal ideas like society or globalization.

A few years ago I did write a conference paper exploring the application of ANT to IR but got a bit stuck with how to take it forward.   In working on public diplomacy I’ve been drawn back to ANT as a way of thinking about the nature of PD and world politics more generally so I’m starting an occasional series of posts exploring the application of ANT in PD and IR.  I this post I want to argue that actor-networks are actually a pretty good way of thinking about what public diplomats try and do.

What is an actor-network?  An actor (or actant) is alway a network in the sense that it is assembled from other actants .  A football team is a set of players.  Sometimes we see the team at other times we see a collection of  players.  A car is normally a unified object but if it breaks down or crashes we see it as a collection of parts. Hence actors have a dual nature.  But is a car an actor?  In the world of ANT anything that makes a difference is an actor (or strictly speaking an actant).  The football team is not just people it is also their team strips, their boots, their training equipment while the car is also dependent on the intervention of humans to build and maintain it.  For Latour humans and technology are inseparable and always have been.  Trying to separate the human and the technological is not just a waste of time it’s a mistake that stops us understanding the world.  The network that produces the actant is not just loca;l the football team is dependent on fans and sponsors, it’s part of a league….The car is the product of a global network of production, it depends on a network of mechanics, maintenance, fuel, licensing etc.  How far you need to go in following the network depends on what it is you’re investigating.  The point is that if there is a problem with any of these connections the operation of the actant is threatened and the missing connections need to be repaired or replaced.  When everything is running smoothly the actant is ‘blackboxed’ and is taken for granted.   This leads to one of the recurring features of Latour’s thought that the social sciences start in the wrong place.  That they take for granted the existence of ‘states’, governments, public diplomacy and Latour’s particular bete noire ‘society’ rather than asking how are these actors are produced and maintained.   You can’t explain things by reference to ‘society’ unless you can show how society is produced.

Dry stone wall as actant Photo by Cristina Archetti

The duality of the actor-network 1: Dry stone wall as actant
Photo Cristina Archetti

 

The duality of the actor-network 2: It's a pile of stones!  Photo by Cristina Archetti

The duality of the actor-network 2: It’s a pile of stones! Photo Cristina Archetti

Dating back to Latour’s earliest work on scientists he tends to focus on the entrepreneurial work of building black boxes.  The entrepreneur has to enrol other actants in the network that is being constructed; money, equipment, other people, office space.  The difficulty each of the actants that make up the new actor network have their own interests.  Enrolling them requires a translation; bringing them together changes them and the collective.  As the entrepreneur, be it a scientist or a public diplomat, builds their network the enrollment of more actants causes shifts in what the network can do or will become.  Hence a central concern has to be with the stabilization of networks into black boxed actants and the maintenance of those actants.   From a political point of view Latour’s central problem is how things, both ‘small’ like scientific facts and ‘big’ like states, are stabilized.

So what does all of this have to do with public diplomacy?  By focusing on communication we are missing the bigger picture.  To put it very narrowly ‘getting the message out’ implies that you already have a channel through which that message can be transmitted.  The history of public diplomacy suggests that it is building that channel  that is the difficult part.   Successful public diplomacy is about drawing necessary actants into a stabilized relationship that alters the situation in way that benefits the initiator.   This suggests three possible outcomes

  1. It is impossible to construct a stabilized network that will do this.  Other actants refuse to play your game.  Your boss won’t give you the money for your project or no-one will listen to your radio station, or your local partners take your money and spend it on a new office instead of working with the public.  The two groups that you hoped will work together hate each other.
  2. You construct a stabilized network that won’t do what you thought it would do.  This is a very common one.  In the mid 1950s the most popular radio station in the Middle East was the Sharq al Adna, a very popular entertainment oriented station operating from Cyprus.  Most people knew it was controlled by the British but they listened anyway.  According to some accounts this station even made money.  It had been blackboxed.  But come the confrontation with Colonel Nasser in 1956 and the attempt to the British government to use it as a tool of strategic communication its popular Arab staff quit, as did its audience.   Sharq al Adna  was stable as an entertainment station but as soon as a new actor the, government psychological warfare operation, connected itself it destabilized the network and constituent actants split off.  More broadly public diplomacy activities build a public for their activity but the public they have doesn’t actually have the influence on attitudes or policy that they hoped.  But in many cases it is more important to make the project look like a success than for it to really be a success.  How can we continue to get funding? (money is part of the actor-network) we need to show that lots of people are coming to our events (or that they are really important people) hence the activity gets tweaked to produce the indicator that the funder wants.
  3. You build a network that is stabilized and does what was supposed to do.  Your network appears so natural that it is invisible.  For instance you carefully promote linkages between publishers in your country and your target.  It appears completely natural to go and study in your universities or to learn your language.   What you’ve done is to enrol others interests in a way that you may even be able to disengage from the network and do something else.

Another ANT scholar, Michel Callon, talks about ‘heterogenous engineering’ at work, the entrepreneur needs to bring together a coalition of people and things to make their project work.  Who and what you have in your network tells you an awful lot about what the network will produce.   There’s a paradox that the actants who are most valuable in your network are also the hardest to control.  During the 1920s and the 1930s the USSR sought to gain the support of western intellectuals but as you would expect the bigger the name the less able they were to control them, and the more keeping them onside became an end in itself.

If you’re interested in Latour probably the best places to start are with his Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge: Harvard UP: 1987) and or Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005). Latour also has a very comprehensive web site with copies of many of his papers here.

In future posts I’ll explore issues around an Actor-Network inspired theory of International Relations; my initial list of issues includes globalization, the state, representations, the role of diplomacy, the conceptualization of politics, how to think about conflict and competition,