Thinking About Operational Space

Following up on my thoughts about influence chains the other concept that I put forward in my ISA paper this year was that of the ‘operational space’.

There has been a certain amount of discussion recently about ‘the closing space problem’ by which authoritarian regimes are obstructing democracy support activities or ‘the humanitarian space’ meaning the environment for humanitarian organizations to operate particularly in conflict zones.

In putting forward the idea of an operational space for public diplomacy I’m thinking in terms of a more general question; how does the context for PD operations affect those operations and their prospects?

The reasons for focusing on this question of the operational space is that from my historical work it’s pretty obvious that it really matters.  It makes a difference who you are and whether you are in London, Beijing or Brasilia.  Some activities by some countries are regarded as ‘political’ and criticised or obstructed. Others efforts are lost in space: allowed to continue with very little interest in them.   Thinking about the operational space is a way of focusing on the environment in a way which goes beyond ‘the public’ or ‘the audience’

If we understand the operational space as a national one (I need to think through what an issue based operational space would look like)   we need to consider five types of actors that may populate it.

  1. The local government. To what extent does it obstruct, facilitate or ignore our activities.?
  2. Our assets (if you like links in our influence chains) eg embassy staff, cultural centres, contractors that we use, NGOs we work with.
  3. Competitor assets
  4. Transnational actors such as business or diasporas that can aid our efforts or those of our competitors
  5. Local publics whether our targets or not. Do we have active supporters, advocates or are people not interested. Or are there publics that keep burning down the information centre or protesting outside the embassy and generally scare everyone else in to not talking to us.

These elements combine in different ways and point towards at least five issues:

  1. How big is the operational space: do you have freedom to operate or are you trapped in the embassy?
  2. Asymmetry: you might have a country (North Korea, Saudi Arabia, that is difficult for anyone to operate in due to government restrictions or public attitudes or (and I think that this is more common) some countries are more subject to restrictions than others.
  3. Competition: What’s got me interested in developing concepts around context are situations like the Franco-German competition over Latin America during the first half of the 20th century or efforts by the Soviet Union to block the deployment of cruise missiles in Europe in the early 1980s. These are cases where PD efforts were seen as being directly competitive and having serious political implications. But these need to be juxtaposed with cases where competition is quasi-commercial; will students go and study in Australia or the UK or where an embassy’s problem is not its competitors but the fact that nobody is really interested.
  4. Transnational linkages: The presence of ‘our’ businesses or compatriots can provide an asset to support our PD, it also tends to be a pull factor in that it demands more publicity/cultural attention etc or it can be a liability where we have a diaspora that’s out of sympathy with official policies.
  5. Path Dependency: If a country has been pursuing a PD strategy over time it will build up its network of relationships whether with journalists, policy makers, exchange alumni, cultural elites, HE institutions etc – normally this helps to shape the operational space in a way that helps it.

This treatment is preliminary and I’m coming at this from more of a politics/IR perspective but two other things in the operational space to consider are the nature of the media environment (h/t to James Pamment) or the nature of the urban space itself (h/t to Cristina Archetti) eg the size of the city, the layout, the location of the embassy or cultural centre.

Here’s a copy of the paper ISA 2014 v 6:

Introducing the Influence Chain

It’s one of the maxims of academic writing that you should stick to one new idea per paper. In writing my paper for ISA this year I shoved three ideas in each of which deserved a paper in its own right.   The overall question was if we’re thinking in comparative terms about PD what should we be comparing in order to build better theory.

In the paper I offer three ideas. Firstly, we should think about national public diplomacy systems*. That is the set of organizations and stakeholders that are responsible for the conduct of foreign public engagement. These systems are path dependent in that they emerge in response to quite specific problems, become institutionalized and the response to changes in the internal and external environment is constrained by the existing organization and ways of doing things. National systems develop specific repertoires of activities so faced with a new problem they reach into their toolbag and pull out a familiar tool. In posts this week I want to write about the second and third of the ideas that I put forward the influence chain and the operational space.

What’s an influence chain? Following Bruno Latour’s exhortation to follow the actors it’s the set of connections that leads us from intent to effect.   Here’s a very simple example: a government wants to influence another government using PD so in a very classical model there’s supposed to be a chain of influence that runs from left to right.

Ideal Type 4

But what you frequently get is something like this…

Fail 2

..the chain isn’t complete or it doesn’t go where you want it to go: for instance an implementing organization just does what it always does regardless of the situation. This isn’t surprising as that organization is probably going to be evaluated in how much it does, not what the effect actually is.

Some future work is to develop a typology of influence chains based both on the type of actors involved and the type of influence mechanism.  From the point of view of comparative research the USIS at its most informational or the Goethe Institut at its most cultural are both building influence chains they are just composed of different types of links and work (or don’t work) in different ways.

For me the influence chain can exist in three forms. Firstly, it’s the ‘theory of change’ – possibly implicit that the decision-makers and planners have. In pure research terms actually looking at what these theories are would be a valuable exercise.  How to they vary across organizations, across the actors in the chain and across countries.  Secondly, following from this the chain can be thought of as a diagnostic tool; what’s wrong with this theory. Thirdly, it’s a way of exploring what is really happening. The ‘theory of change’ is likely starting from a fairly idealized picture of the world but when we start ‘following the actors’ we start to see what’s really happening

If we look at the connection between the first and second links in the chain as if under a microscope we notice that the two links have quite a few potential differences between them and something similar is going to happen all along the chain. In the language of actor-network theory, actors need to be enrolled (ie influenced to get on board with the project) but this leads to translation – that is the project is changed by this process. Given how difficult different bits of the same state find getting along what happens when we start to include, for instance, foreign NGOs? Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message to which I would add that in public diplomacy the medium is the organizational network.



*In responding to the paper Eytan Gilboa argued that ‘system’ was too orderly and suggested ‘establishment’. I hesitated before using ‘system’ for precisely this reason.

Here’s a copy of the paper:ISA 2014 v 6

If it’s not PD and its not aid what is it?

A couple of weeks ago the Public Diplomacy Council posted a piece by Joe Johnson on the ‘Cuban Twitter’ Fiasco where the US Agency for International Development set up an SMS based social network with the intention of circulating anti-Castro messages. What really attracted my attention was the title ‘Cuban Twitter Wasn’t Aid and it Wasn’t Public Diplomacy Either’.

Johnson sternly denounces the fact that

Over the past twenty years, the lines between aid projects and public diplomacy have blurred.  I have sometimes heard PD staffers cast their work as “aid lite” social development. And aid officials undertake public communication and educational exchange projects that look just like PD programs.

This leaves the question: if it’s not aid and it’s not public diplomacy what was it? This intersection between aid and (public) diplomacy is a fact. I wrote a while back about the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme – conducted via the aid agency. I would also argue that the UK’s largest effort to engage foreign publics for purposes of foreign policy is the attempt to influence Pakistan via the improvement of education and governance in Pakistan – managed by DFID

This opens up two sets of problems.

Firstly, from a research perspective there’s the fact that development agencies tend to get studied by scholars of development using a development perspective and PD/diplomacy activities by different sets of scholars with different perspectives. The result is a gap where the practice of statecraft has evaded the way most researchers look at the area.

Secondly, and more importantly, it creates an issue for the management of foreign policy.  In many cases the bulk of the national resources employed in a country are controlled by an aid department that will frequently be concerned to talk and operate in a way that maximizes the distance between them and the MFA and which structures its work as a series of projects. The problem is that you can find yourself in a situation where policy is being implemented and discussed in the technical language of development not in the language of politics.  This doesn’t apply in every aid relationship but in a case the like UK and Pakistan you have security objectives pursued via development means.

It is in this space between that a project like Zunzuneo gets started. The comment has been made that this was really a job for the CIA but the irony is that if it had been a CIA project it almost certainly would have been discussed by an NSC subcommittee, signed off by the President and subject to a rather rigorous analysis of costs, benefits and risks and probably would have been scrubbed before it got started.

MPs Don’t Trust the BBC on the World Service

At the beginning of last week the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee put out their latest report on the future of the BBC World Service and consistent with previous reports they remain deeply sceptical about the future of the World Service now that funding responsibility has passed to the BBC (ie from License Fee income rather than a grant via the FCO)

What is particularly exercising the Committee in this report is the way that the World Service is being integrated into the structure of the BBC. The World Service is part of the BBC News Group comprising all news services. The Director of the BBC World Service, Peter Horrocks is also Director of Global News and sits on the BBC News Board. One of the issues exercising the MPs is that there is no longer a separate World Service Board and in addition Horrocks does not sit on the main ‘board of directors’ of the Corporation the Executive Board. The BBC’s view is because Horrocks’ boss the Director of News and Current Affairs sits on the Executive Board the World Service is adequately represented. In addition they claim that the ‘worst outcome’ for the Service would be for it to be considered as a ‘ghetto’ or an ‘adjunct’.* The MPs suspect that despite the new agreement between the government and the BBC on the World Service it is essentially going to end up being subordinated to the broader corporate purposes of the BBC. William Hague doesn’t see it as his job to tell the BBC how to organize itself.

Some policy advice: the BBC is up for the renewal of its Charter next year, the new Charter needs to be approved by Parliament so MPs have the option of inserting language into the Charter and/or the agreement that goes with it that protects the World Service. The BBC would hate this but I think that the license agreed with the William Hague is rather vague about the relationship of the World Service to the broader international activities of the BBC.

*This strikes me as a little ironic given that the reputation of the World Service has been cultivated while it was an ‘adjunct’ – outside the structure of the regular domestic BBC.

House of Lords Report on UK Soft Power

The House of Lords Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence produced its report Persuasion and Power in Modern World last week.

For readers of this blog there’s not much that’s very surprising about it.  A very short summary would go like this.

Britain is in a world increasingly characterised by hyperconnectivity and ‘the rise of the rest’ and this makes soft and smart power more important. The UK has lots of soft power assets but the government tends to neglect them and shows no ability to coordinate anything. We need stronger mechanisms for defining a national strategic narrative and pointing the great many players in the right direction.

You can get a pretty good sense of what’s in the report (138 pages of text) by looking at the summary on pages 5-7 or even better the conclusions and recommendations on pages 8-21. The report is quite neutral in its tone but many of the conclusions and recommendations are actually fairly critical of the government. They also echo the views of other Parliamentary Committees in the absence of strategy and coordination, the suspicion of the new arrangements for the BBC World Service, the negative impact of visa policies and so on.

Given that I often get the impression that hardly anyone is actually interested in British foreign policy it’s great to see the volume of evidence that the Committee attracted. Hats off the Committee for doing this and to Ben O’Loughlin for his work as the academic advisor.

Incidentally my evidence is here.


Interpreting Nation Branding

Back from the International Studies Association Convention in Toronto and faced with too many things to blog about I’m going to start easily by posting something that I’d meant to post before I left.

I’ve been reading Melissa Aronczyk’s Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity and it has stimulated a few thoughts about how we should make sense of the phenomenon of nation-branding.

Aronczyk, like other Cultural Studies scholars (eg Jansen 2008, Kaneva 2012) sees the emergence of nation-branding as an expression of the transformation of capitalism through globalization and the embrace of theories of value rooted in immaterial concepts – ie the reputation of our business is worth something. The difficulty I have with this is that it makes out the phenomenon of nation-branding to be much more significant than it actually is.

Rather than seeing nation-branding as marking a structural change I would read it as something much more conjunctural. It’s another incarnation of the push for the projection of a national image that has been around in its modern version since the middle of the 19th century when committees were established to oversee exhibits at international expositions. Ideas of ‘national projection’ recur across the 20th century. Indeed, I would argue that ‘projection’ is the default mode for any public diplomacy/cultural relations organization; telling the world about your country is much easier than exporting democracy/communism etc.   You also see the emergence of arguments over just what the content of that projection should be- unless there’s a particularly hegemonic version of that culture – being a totalitarian country helps.

Nation-branding is a new version of national projection that benefited from the conjunction of brand approaches in business (with the consequence emergence of branding consultancies) and the end of the Cold War which meant new states looking for a quick fix and a the reorientation of the external communications programmes of existing states towards economics. It’s noticeable that some scholars (eg Ociepka 2013) point to a declining interest in branding as an approach to external communications, and my own observation is that the number of abandoned branding projects is much bigger than those that have really been seriously implemented. This doesn’t suggest structural change more a fashion in external communications. Putting nation-branding in the context of debates over national projection really does make it look a lot less novel.

Aronczyk M (2013) Branding the nation: the global business of national identity. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Jansen SC (2008) Designer nations: Neo-liberal nation branding – Brand Estonia, Social Identities, 14: 121–142.

Kaneva N (ed) Branding Post-Communist Nations: Marketizing National Identities in the New Europe, New York: Routledge, pp. 79–98.

Ociepka B (2013) New Members’ Public Diplomacy, in Davis Cross MK and Melissen J (eds) European Public Diplomacy: Soft Power at Work, New York: Palgrave, pp. 39–56.