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Analyzing Public Diplomacies: Four Dimensions

January 26, 2017

In thinking about how countries engage foreign publics I normally talk about public diplomacies in the plural.  I do this to signal that American public diplomacy is not the only way that countries conceptualize and carry out this work and that very often countries have engage multiple foreign publics for different purposes using different networks.

However in doing comparative historical work it has also become clear that discussion of public diplomacies often get stuck at the level of ideas and definitions.  This really isn’t enough to properly make sense of public diplomacies you need to understand what gets done and with what effect and that concepts don’t get you very far.

This means that I would argue for separating out four analytical dimensions:

  1. ideas and concepts
  2. activities and programmes
  3. organization and organizational fields,
  4. networks

Let’s briefly look at this in turn.

Concepts: There are lots of different aspects to this but I’m particularly interested in how do countries answer the why question? Why are we running these activities?  This can be broken down into two sub issues: a big question which often touches on questions of identity (to make our country known to the world, to spread the revolution) and a more precise question about how public diplomacies fit into statecraft more generally.   While some countries have quite clearly defined answers to these questions other don’t.  For instance in looking at the UK you can (literally) go through nearly 30 years from the late 1960s with minimal discussion of what the whole overseas information activity was for.  On the other hand if you look at contemporary Germany there are all kinds of policy documents as well as strong tradition of public discussion.

Activities: What do countries do?  Can you track activities over time, where they happen, where the resources go?  If you can do this there’s a good chance that discrepancies between concepts and practice will emerge.  Germany is a good example again because much of the conceptual activity is around areas like peace building  but the money goes into schools.  Also discussion at the level of ideas tends to mask the geopolitics behind lots of this activity.

Organizations: A lot of discussion tends to focus on organizations because they are visible (and they produce archives) but you can have activities without having a distinct organization and changes in organization may not change the activity very much.  Mapping the organizational universe that an organization that you are interested in inhabits is important because it helps you to recognize cross national differences.  This is directly relevant to the issue of whether to the US needs a new USIA

Networks: This dimension asks about how activities are supposed to have an effect.  Who do they act with or on.  How do activities, organizations and concepts align?  The networks you have aren’t necessarily the ones that you need but changing them is slow and painful.

I’ve found it useful to separate out these dimensions because they are often quite weakly connected. Changes in concepts or organizations may have quite limited effects on programmes and networks.  This is important because often research starts from theory or from top level policy documents.

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