Locating Public Diplomacy in International Relations

April 14, 2015

The thing that started me working on the public diplomacies project was the observation that people were very keen to make suggestions about how public diplomacy could be improved but were very vague about the basis for these suggestions. As I’ve argued on several occasions discussions of public diplomacy tend start with the question ‘how can we make it better?’ But to answer this question we need to answer two other questions; what do people do (and why do they do it)? And why does whatever they do succeed or fail?

As the project has proceeded I’ve realized that there’s another question that needs to be addressed: how does the engagement of foreign publics fit into the broader picture of International Relations both as a field of study and as a field of practice? The difficulty with dealing with this question is that in order to fit in public diplomacy you need to some serious re-engineering of how we think about IR.

In a paper at ISA earlier this year Networked Realism? History, Theory and Transnational State Action I had crack at this. The first part of the paper reviews the background of the work that I’ve been doing on the history of public diplomacy/cultural relations and all the other sorts of foreign public engagement. I then go on and make three claims (all of which have been made on this blog at some time or another).

Firstly, IR tends to work with an opposition between a territorially defined state and a transnational civil society with an assumption in some quarters that the latter will overcome the former. History suggests that that this opposition is wrong. Civil society has been a major carrier of ‘the national’ not just in terms of expectations of mutual support from state actors, ngos, business, disapora etc but in the export of national models. Consistently from the late 19th c. non-state actors have initiated, pushed for, and participated in public diplomacy and cultural relations activities.

Secondly, history also tells us that states are relatively incoherent networks (which sometimes manage a degree of coordination), that need to draw resources from, and interact with other actors. Their ability to do this successfully explains quite a lot about the ability of states to act internationally.

Thirdly, parts of these networks extend well beyond the territorial boundaries of the state and as do civil society networks. Rather than discuss power (or soft power) as a single attribute of a state it needs to be broken down spatially and across issues to become a set of questions about influence in defined situations.

A lot of IR writing tends to use nation-state as a synonym for ‘state’ but my argument is that the ‘nation’ bit needs much more attention – less because of extreme expressions of nationalism – but because of the pervasiveness of routine national identification of compatriots and others. This ‘nation centrism’ gives a picture of world politics where states rest on a more robust foundation of national identifying civil societies, and where international competition is pervasive albeit less associated with military competition than in state-centric versions of realism.

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