Hegel and the Plurality of Public Diplomacies

July 26, 2018

I kind of realized that these two posts can be boiled down into a much simpler form by stealing from Hegel (not many things that this applies to I suspect).

In a nutshell Hegel’s theory of the state (chucking the dialectic of out the window ) is this.  There is civil society: there are lots people pursuing their private interests.  This is good and produces the dynamism of the modern world.  The problem is that many of these purposes produce conflicts and negative results.  This means the job of the state is to produce unity from this diversity.  Fortunately the modern state is run by functionaries who form a ‘universal class’ rising above the particular interests of different groups in society and by doing so promote the advance of Reason.

Hegel’s theory was aimed at those (ie the liberal tradition) who did not see any fundamental conflicts within civil society and for whom the state was at best a minimally necessary supplier of police and courts.  Marx took the view that the dominance of a the economic conflict in society was such that job of the state was to help out the capitalist class.  After the revolution though the central conflict would disappear and with it the need for a political state.

Max Weber was rather more pessimistic about the universal class seeing them as acting on a basis of rules and narrow calculations of relations between means and ends rather than any grasp of a higher Reason, not to mention their propensity to defend their own interests.  More broadly the analysis in my earlier posts suggests that Hegel rather overestimated the capacity of the state to actually unify things, its more that the state comes to reflect some of the tensions within civil society.

What is interesting is that the historical and empirical record of public diplomacies fits extremely well with the concept of a tension between a plural civil society/unifying state.   On one hand civil society actors constantly try to enrol the support of the state for their projects while states struggle to impose some sort of strategy or order on civil society (and also themselves), hence the search for the holy grail of the modern state; coordination.

Some of the different ways in thinking about public diplomacies/cultural relations/soft power come from looking at the field from a top down (state) or a bottom up (civil society) perspective.

  1. Although they appear very different concepts of political warfare and nation branding can both be seen as  efforts to produce a single point from which a whole range of public diplomacies can be organized into a common programme.  In practice the more stringent the unification the harder it is to produce it and the less time it can endure.
  2. ‘Soft power’ is applied as a catch all term to some of the more desirable bits of civil society even though they they are frequently incoherent or even contradictory.  A soft power strategy needs a capacity to choose.  Efforts to estimate soft power are basically about counting all manner of shiny things and saying that having shiny things is good.
  3. In policy terms the real challenge is to recognize there is a tension here and to find ways to produce sustainable coherence or managed diversity.  In research terms the issue is to understand variations across countries and across time.


On Hegel I looked at:

Avineri, Shlomo. Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Hassner, Pierre. “Georg W.F Hegel.” In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, translated by Allan Bloom, Third., 732–60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity : Twelve Lectures. Cambridge: Polity in association with Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood and Hugh Barr Nisbet Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011.


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