Thinking About Operational Space

April 25, 2014

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:


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