Nationalisms at Work: British and French views of Public Diplomacy

August 20, 2014

A few months ago I was writing about the development of public diplomacy in the 1970s and I was really struck by the contrast between British and French responses to the deteriorating economic situation of that decade. To simplify, the British had a series of enquiries and started cutting everything that couldn’t be tied to a narrowly defined priority. In France there was an effort to not just keep things the same but to do more even as money got ever tighter. Eventually at the end of the decade there was a comprehensive review of the cultural effort but it still doesn’t cut back. Putting economic performance or institutional differences to one side the French are clearly much more attached to engaging foreign publics than the British are. Why is this?

One observation is that British discussions of public diplomacy are always (and have always been) instrumental: we do this to achieve some other end.  Every 10 or 15 years there’s a call to focus on what the FCO would call ‘commercial work’.  Yet for France there’s always been a view that France’s influence in the world is tied to the projection of its language and culture, for all the more recent discussion of a diplomatie d’influence this remains the case. The French discourse is pretty obviously about the nation in the Herderian sense: language-culture-nation-state may not be identical but are closely related.

This created a puzzle – why don’t we get a similar pattern in the UK? Here Greenfeld and Eastwood (2005) offer a two dimensional typology of nationalism.  Firstly how do you join? If you can choose to join or leave the nation your dealing with civic nationalism, if you’re stuck with the nationality you are born with it’s ethnic. Secondly, if the nation is composite (a collection of individuals) or unitary (imagined as a single entity). Although this should give you four combinations in practice you get three. The most common version of the nation is ethnic and collectivist but France and the UK fall into the rarer categories of civic/collectivist and civic/individualist. The French nation is civic because anyone can join but it is collectivist in that FRANCE exists separately from the individuals who compose it, when General De Gaulle talked about FRANCE he wasn’t talking about a collection of individuals.

A civic/individualist version of the nation – which Greenfeld and Eastwood attribute not just to the UK but also to the US – is much less visible. C/I countries also tend to be bastions of liberalism thus the collective identity tends to dissolve into a universalist political language.   The collective aspect becomes clear in comparison with other countries. Policies have to justified in terms of concrete benefits. Nationalism is expressed in terms of universal claims. Minxin Pei made the point a few years ago that Americans are extremely nationalistic but don’t actually notice it in themselves or understand how it works for other countries.

Seeing British concepts of the nation in these terms explains why Britain is so relaxed about people leaving ie membership is an individual decision.  It also explains a few other things – why the British debate on the EU usually turns into a discussion of economics. It’s also noticeable that the debate on Scottish independence is exactly the same – anyone can be a member of the Scottish nation and you might have an extra pound or two in your pocket (or not) – Scottish nationalism is still civil and individualist.

I’ve got more to say about why public diplomacy research and International Relations more broadly should pay more attention to the implications of nationalism but that’s enough for now

Greenfeld L and Eastwood J (2005) Nationalism in Comparative Perspective, in Janoski T, Alford R, Hicks A and Schwartz MA (eds) The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Society and Globalization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 247–265.



  1. Thanks for that Robin.

    One thing: isn’t the difference you suggest (instrumental/cultural) quite well summarized in Arndt’s dichotomy between “informationists” and “culturalists”? Or am I just showing off how little I understand Arndt’s – and your – thoughts?

    In my case (Finland), visions of the nation are one thing that influence public diplomacy. There is a very strong cultural streak before the war (“they need to know about us, because it is important the world knows about Finland”). “Informationists” however take the lead in the 1950s, with calls for a more practical and “modest” take on the process. By 1990, you had people saying that this is not anymore about identity: Finland is a “mature nation”, which just needs to sell its image better. Culture and identity, however, remain at the heart of many a propagandist’s discourse, or at least as a first, knee-jerk concern: they don’t know us, they need to know us, etc.

  2. Hi Louis – that’s a good question about Arndt. I tend to read his culturalist/informationalist distinction as an argument about methods – what’s the best way to ‘tell America’s story to the world’ – while in this UK/French comparison there are differences that are rooted in different ways of seeing the world and their role in it.

    I’m going to post something later on ‘the nation’ as a missing category in Anglo-American International Relations which will probably clarify things a bit.



  3. Good point. I tend to look at the two as overlapping: it is as much about the “how” (methods, tools, etc) than about the “what”. Informationists would insist more on doing concrete work for concrete results, and by using easily bench-marked methods (corporate branding, etc); culturalists would be more interested in conveying a general story about one’s country’s culture, and would be ready to do it through more varied means, even the kind of tools “informationists” would deem inefficient. Concerns about efficiency and trade on the one hand, concerns about culture on the other hand.

    Or am I reading too much into it?

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