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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