Archive for the ‘International Relations’ Category


Reframing the State/Non State Issue in Public Diplomacy Research

March 13, 2019

There’s a new article in International Studies Perspectives by by Kadir Jun Ayhan on delineating the boundaries of public diplomacy and a blog post summarizing his argument.  In  teaching students want definitions and so Ayhan draws on his teaching experience to distill a definition of public diplomacy from those offered by several well known discussions of the topic.  A particular issue that bothered Ayhan’s students is the extent to which non-state actors can be said to do public diplomacy  and in his definition he comes firmly (and I think correctly) down on the statist side of the issue.

In reading Ayhan’s post I was struck by the importance attached to the state/non-state issue in the literature.  From working on the history of public diplomacies I think that the importance attached to it is misplaced.  It comes from   the history of International Relations Theory.   All the varieties of state-centric International Relations Theory represent the translation of a legal concept of the state into social theory where states are the actors in international politics. Hence an actor that it is not a state or cannot be treated as an organization with states as members is a non-state actor.   In the development of IR theory this has tended to morph into an antagonism between state and non-state; that the growth of the non-state comes at the expense of the state.  This produces the permanent conflict between varieties of Liberal and Realist theory and arguments over the erosion or persistence of the state.

What this line of development misses is that the modern state as it emerged from the 19th century is a complex of ‘state’ and ‘society’.  In this state and social actors are ‘nationalized’ and drawn into a complex and variable web of relations.  This tends to more obvious from outside than inside a country.  Inside we discuss the legal status of different entities from outside we frequently classify a government, a company, a charity, a foundation by its nationality.  In historical terms this can mean that countries that began to think in terms of national influence fairly early (eg France or Germany) were able to detect the advance of British or American influence long before either country had any formal programme of public diplomacy.  But while the work of American missionaries in the Ottoman Empire or Rhodes Scholarships in the United States were not ‘public diplomacies’ they did have elements which were based on promotion of national influence (eg ‘Americanism’) and they did enjoy degrees of support from official actors, for instance consular support for missionaries.

The history of public diplomacies is full of actors that are associated with but not formally part of states; German mittlerorganizations,  cultural relations organizations, news agencies, charities, civil society groups, friendship societies, broadcasters, private companies and that partly on their own interests, partly on their conception of the national good, and partly on behalf of the state.  However, even acting with or on behalf of the state is frequently a more ambiguous thing, does it involve resources, guidance, approval, consultation?  The important point is that state/non-state is much more complex that it appears at first look and often any distinction loses of some of its importance because of shared nationality.   A ‘non-state’ actor may not be able to do public diplomacy on its own behalf but this doesn’t mean that it’s not a part of someone’s public diplomacy.



Three Modes of Foreign Public Engagement:Westphalian, Imperial, Ideological

March 11, 2019

On twitter (@rcmb)  I often share links about public diplomacy or cultural relations activities between pairs of countries that don’t get much attention in the Anglosphere (or the Eurosphäre to coin a term).  But what you get in reading about  relations between Indonesia and Cambodia, Belarus and Korea or Iran and Hungary is a sense of very conscious performance of sovereign equality.  Countries want to build better relations to boost trade, tourism and show off their cultures.

What’s the big deal?  Isn’t everybody about dialogue these days?  But from looking at the countries that have been big practitioners of public diplomacies over extended periods this is quite unusual relations imply something much more hierarchical.  Although from a diplomatic point of view the language of equality and mutuality is important from an analytical point of view it is only part of the social relations at work. Public diplomacies have been heavily involved in projects of empire building and of ideological export.  If PDs were only about the ‘relations between our two countries’ the whole history wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

In thinking about the history of public diplomacies I tend to take the foundation of the Alliance Française in 1883 as reference point.  The Alliance was intended to allow the consolidation of French rule in Tunisia.  It was modelled on missionary organizations that were already being instrumentalized by the French state as a mode of ‘peaceful penetration’ within the Ottoman Empire.  But because the French public preferred to support the export of Catholicism to the French language the Alliance developed along different lines and became more an accoutrement of the Francophile bourgeoisie in other parts of the world.  Nevertheless the history of public diplomacies is closely tied to imperial projects, projects that are based on an assumption of hierarchy that one side of a relationship is not just different from the other but better in the sense of more worthy, more advanced, stronger.   It’s also worth noting that some of core ideas of egalitarian cultural diplomacy have been traced back to German activities during the First World War.  For instance where it was thought that, for instance the Dutch would be more accepting of German arguments if the Germans showed that they were interested in Dutch culture (eg Van Den Berg 2007; Trommler 2014).  It was actually the retreat of formal empire that made public diplomacies more important.   The public diplomacies of the Cold War and the Post Cold War have had a very large component of ‘exporting our system’.  Indeed this imperial/hierarchical paradigm is probably the default position for most of the public diplomacies across the past 150 years.

However, I think that there is a third dimension: it’s about public diplomacies as the export of ideology.  It is the ideology that usually justifies imperial behaviour – it is our possession of the truth that places us in a superior position.  And it is our possession of a universal truth that justifies our lack of respect for your national sovereignty.

This gives the possibility of arranging cases in a triangular space defined by three axes between hierarchy and equality, Westphalian stateness and universal ideology and between empire and ideology.

The cases that I referred to at the beginning of the post would be near the top of the triangle.  Germany before 1914 (imperial and national) would be near the bottom left corner but this really isn’t a very good position for dealing with other people.   France has probably been pretty much in the middle of the triangle. Post 1989 the UK has probably moved towards the ideological pole.  Since the end of the Cultural Revolution China has moved from the bottom right up and towards the left boundary and while talking Westphalia is probably nearer the bottom.

Thinking in these terms allows us to position public diplomacies in relation to two ideas that have attracted growing interest in academic International Relations in recent years, status and empire.


Imperial Westphalia Triangle Diagram



Trommler, Frank (2014). Kulturmacht ohne Kompass: Deutsche auswärtige Kulturbeziehungen im 20. Jahrhundert. Köln: Böhlau-Verlag Gmbh.

Van den Berg, Hubert (2007). “‘The Autonomous Arts as Black Propaganda. On a Secretive Chapter in German “Foreign Cultural Politics” in The Netherlands and Other Neighbouring Countries during the First World War.’” In The Autonomy of Literature at the Fins de Siècles (1900 and 2000): A Critical Assessment, edited by G.J. Dorleijn and R. Grüttemeier, 71–119. Leuven: Peeters, 2007.




What City Diplomacy Tells Us About Statecraft in General

March 6, 2019

At the USC Center for Public Diplomacy Jay Wang and Sohaela Amiri have a short paper summarizing a workshop  they convened with representatives of 17 American cities  to look at the state of city diplomacy.

In reading the paper though I was struck by what it tells us about statecraft in general.*  Most of cities’ international efforts are taken up by functional activities; economic promotion, special events, dealing with foreign consulates, sister-city relations, collaborative networks.  Resources are limited and relations and their management are fragmented across different parts of city government.  Given this one of their recommendations is for a ‘policy driven’ approach that breaks down silos and generates a more integration across policy areas.

There’s an irony here that is states have exactly the same problems.  Modern statecraft involves multiple foreign relationships of different types conducted by different organizations.  The challenge is then to integrate them.  Integration is partly a matter of coordination (ie an administrative or organizational issue) but it’s also a matter of politics: how can different interests and values be brought together?

Treating statecraft as a set of functional issues is a way of managing this plurality of interests, actors, and values.  The problem is when they begin to interfere with each other and compete for resources.  On what basis can the brought into balance?

Wang and Amiri make the point that it the context of polarized national politics in the US there is space for cities to act internationally.  This is probably true but this is something that applies to the current situation not to city statecraft in general.  A city within a country represents a different scope of politics with a different distribution of actors so that a city’s politics are polarized while those of the country are not.  The key tension that applies to modern statecraft is that between the plurality of interests and relations and getting them to work together.  Of course that’s a problem that’s been around for a while and isn’t going away anytime soon.

*I’m avoiding the question of what diplomacy is and who is a diplomat.  I use the term statecraft because it’s broader and more neutral.


Some Implications of the Organizational State

April 5, 2018

A couple of weeks ago I pointed to the neglected significance of the modern state as a set of bureaucracies and policy networks for its external relations.  Here I want to point to three implications of this.

The first point is that the modern state has evolved a set of bureaucracies and policy networks that are concerned with international relationships but academics and policy makers take the legal singularity of the state as their reference point.  In every day speech and writing we shift from a language of strong intention ‘what Tehran’s strategy is…’ to a language of factions (hawks and doves) or intergovernmental struggle (eg ‘the foreign ministry is pushing for more conciliatory stance but the army is concerned about its prestige’) without drawing any broader theoretical conclusions.  Diplomats routinely manage the complexity of their own and foreign states but this does not show up in theoretical accounts even though it often forms a large part of their memoirs.  From my historical work it is clear that this multiplication is not new.  The era of the First World War saw a transformation in foreign affairs organizations.  In the 1920s some countries are seeing the need to coordinate the numerous public and private organizations.  It might be argued that the Soviet Union is sui generis but the demand for coordination is quite visible in Weimar Germany and Fascist Italy. In France there were also efforts to produce a comprehensive national statecraft which (as happens in many cases) just proves too difficult to sustain in practice.  Since then the trend of development has been to more extensive sets of international linkages.

This suggests a need for a comparative research agenda on the pluralization of foreign relations and how they have been managed, and with what effect.  Coordination is hard to achieve and it is not obvious that it is always desirable;  Stalin shows achieving a high level of coordination may simply produce coordinated stupidity or the coordination of things that are best left uncoordinated.

Secondly, the multiplication of foreign linkages is not just a matter of bureaucratic scope; the modern state is inherently pluralist.  As Isaiah Berlin would put it we don’t live in a ‘jigsaw world’ where all the pieces can ultimately be made to fit together.  If you have multiple outward facing agencies they tend to develop their own conception of how the world works, to systematically promote policy that emerge from their worldview and work towards these goals regardless other concerns.  In looking at the history of public diplomacies it pretty apparent that many states have had, and continue to have, several foreign policies pursued by different agencies.

Thirdly, there is a tension between the tendency of bureaucracy towards rationalization and the logic of politics and diplomacy.  In Richelieu’s formulation diplomacy as continuous negotiation implied a constant vigilance, flexibility and opportunism that would allow the trading off of different relationships.  The growth of the organizational state has added a rationalized bureaucratic logic to foreign relations. Communications campaigns, exchange programmes, or development projects need to unfold in an orderly way but there is a tension here between a shifting political world and the pursuit of bureaucratic rationalization and stability

One of the core implications of this perspective is that it requires us to look at the agency of the state in a different way – rather than imagining a single strategic sovereign we may be dealing with a multiple autonomous organizational logics.


The Nationalized State as an International Actor

March 22, 2018

I’ve really been wanting to get back to blogging but over the last 12 months I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to work through the question of how do public diplomacies fit in to international politics and rather than just start commenting on current events I want to sketch out some of the conclusions of this theoretical work so that I can refer back to it.   One big concern for me has to close the gap between our theoretical and policy discourses (and has been for a very long time) but as Clausewitz would tell you if the theory doesn’t fit the practice you need a new theory.  Most of the themes have been discussed here before but I think that I can now pull them together in a more coherent way.

This argument and what follows is developed at much greater length is some forthcoming work but I want to start off with the question of the state, what we mean by it and how it acts.

Corollaries of the Infrastructural State

Modern international relations is a product of the changes in the nature of the relationship between state and society that emerged during the 19th century.  In thinking about this I started from Michael Mann’s concept of the development of the transition from a despotic to an infrastructural state.  Essentially, the modern state embeds itself into the social order and can extract more resources/capability but at the same time it becomes constrained by these relationships (Mann 1988).  There is a trade-off between embeddedness and autonomy  (Evans 1995).*

If you think about this in a broader context you can see two corollaries which are usually discussed in different literatures.   Firstly,  the state as organization becomes much larger but more functionally differentiated hence less coherent.  At the same time different components of the state organizations build their own relationships with other social actors.  The political science literature has all kinds of concepts for making  sense of this phenomenon; sub-governments, policy domains, issue communities, policy networks, the organizational state etc (McCool 1998).

The second corollary of the infrastructural state is the need to legitimize and naturalize this new order in cultural and ideological terms hence the importance of education, cultural, media infrastructures and small d democratic ideologies in producing a field within which entrepreneurs both from inside and outside the state can operate.  Although we tend to label this as a nation-state but I think that this places too much weight on the ideas of ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ and too little on processes of nationalization and of the principle of nationality.  We live in an order where everything is assumed to have a nationality and I think neglect how fundamental this is to the contemporary world.  Even people who strive to escape this are still frequently shaped by their national habitus (Kuipers 2011, 2013, Stroup 2012).

Drawing on Andrew Abbott’s work this line of analysis leads a view of the modern state as an ecology (2005, 2016).

The Nationalized State as an International Actor

If we translate this argument into international terms we largely still talk about IR as if we were dealing with an imagined rational unitary sovereign and ignore 1) the rise of diverse state bureaucracies and their policy networks and 2) the way in which everything within or attached to the nationalized state can be turned into an instrument or vulnerability within statecraft.

Pretty much all histories of statecraft that have been written over the past century document the increasing complexity of the organizations of the modern state and conflicts and irrationalities that follow from this.  Yet this is hardly ever taken as a basis for theorizing.  The best known treatment of this idea in the International Relations literature focuses on one of the most intense international crises ever but bureaucracies do their things all the time and it is the fact that they may do them over long periods that means we need to look at things other than ‘decisions’ (Allison 1971).  The agency of the modern state is bureaucracy and even relatively small states have multiple channels of international action.  This is neither new or unusual.  The First World War produced an expansion in outward facing organizations and the problem of coordination between them was becoming an issue in the 1920s (eg Düwell 1976, Garzarelli 2002)

What is the relationship between a country and its people, business, cuisine, art, science, pop culture beyond its borders?  Who or what counts as belonging to a country.  These relations are not that straightforward, claims to ownership or membership are complex and ambiguous and absolutely endemic to international politics in general and public diplomacies in particular.

The corollary of this is that this nationalized state is also something that is acted on but the effect needs to be seen in terms of its impact on this ecology.

In talking about the ‘nation-state’ as an international actor we are addressing a fluid, fragmented and rather ambiguous entity that works at coherence.  Although some of the forms have changed this is not a new set of developments.    These themes of fragmentation and ambiguity are ones that I will return to but in making sense of contemporary international politics they seem like better places to start that with a mythical Louis ‘L’etat? C’est moi’  XIV


*Even back in the 1980s Martin Shaw was discussing this as the warfare-welfare state and questioning whether nuclear weapons and the end of mass armies were eroding this bargain (Shaw 1988).

Abbott A (2005) Linked Ecologies: States and Universities as Environments for Professions, Sociological Theory, 23: 245–274.

Abbott A (2016) Processual Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Allison GT (1971) Essence of decision: explaining the Cuban missile crisis. Boston: Little Brown.

Düwell K (1976) Deutschlands auswärtige Kulturpolitik 1918-1932: Grundlinien und Dokumente. Köln: Böhlau.

Evans P (1995) Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Garzarelli B (2002) Fascismo e propaganda all’estero: Le origini della Direzione generale per la propaganda (1933-1934), Studi Storici, 43: 477–520.

Kuipers G (2011) Her Majesty’s Bicycle: On National Habitus and Sociological Comparison, Figurations: Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation, Special Supplement 34.

Kuipers G (2013) The rise and decline of national habitus: Dutch cycling culture and the shaping of national similarity, European Journal of Social Theory, 16: 17–35.

Mann M (1988) States, War and Capitalism: Studies in Political Sociology. Oxford: Blackwell.

McCool DF (1998) The Subsystem Family of Concepts: A Critique and a Proposal, Political Research Quarterly, 51: 551–70.

Shaw M (1988) Dialectics of War: An Essay in the Social Theory of Total War and Peace. London: Pluto.

Stroup SS (2012) Borders Among Activists: International NGOS in the United States, Britain, and France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Public Diplomacies and the Pathologies of Liberal Statecraft

March 29, 2017

Judy Dempsey at Carnegie Europe has offered some suggestions about what the EU can do in response to the cycles of protest and repression in Belarus and Russia, she calls for a public diplomacy response: broadcasting, internet freedom, student exchanges and preparing for the day after Putin and Lukashenko by supporting opposition movements.

Seems reasonable but it also seems to reflect the basic patterns of Western statecraft over the past 25 years: make some tactical responses and wait for history to do its job.  The problem is that is precisely what has produced situations like Syria or Libya.  It’s like the plan of the underpants gnomes: phase 1: steal underpants  phase 3: huge profits while  phase 2 is a blank.

It also reflects an older realist critique of liberal statecraft and its displacement of politics. Reinhart Koselleck makes the point that enlightenment political thought shifted the moral and political burden of revolution onto History ie revolutionaries don’t kill people, History does.  Max Weber’s demand for an ‘ethic of responsibility’ is for politicians to deal with the consequences of their choices and not to retreat behind empty formulae or abstract categories.

In confronting the situations in Russian and Belarus the position is effectively we support regime change and we’ll take some steps that possibly push things in a regime change direction but we don’t want to take responsibility for this. What we don’t want to do is to think through possible consequences, for instance Russia deciding to ‘help’ in Belarus, or to recognize that not all values are consistent with each other and that choices need to be made about which should be prioritized.  It is this refusal to recognize, let alone fill, the space between the present and History that creates the impasse of Western statecraft.


Hard vs Soft Power as Metaphor

March 30, 2016

One lament that I heard at the International Studies Association this year was the fact that ‘mainstream’ International Relations doesn’t attach much importance to questions of narrative, metaphor and meaning, that is to ‘soft’ aspects of world politics.

Of course having been primed to think about metaphors it leapt out at me that advocates of ‘soft’ approaches are never going to get anywhere as long as they keep using the hard/soft metaphor.   Poststructuralism 101 teaches you that binary oppositions always privilege one side of the pairing (hard over soft) and that the correct response is to ‘deconstruct’ that opposition etc, etc.

Leaving aside the technical literature on soft power, even in an academic environment  ‘hard’ gets used in a casual way to mean different things:  coercive, material, the geopolitical.  This ambiguity means that the assumption of the primacy of the ‘hard’ is easily accepted.

We can’t escape from hard/soft entirely.  The embrace of hard/soft in policy circles is an interesting area for investigation (as are policy categories in general) but as a scientific concept I think hard/soft is a major obstacle to intelligent discussion and I would employ with extreme caution.

The main reason is that when you put the hard/soft distinction to one side it is pretty clear that ontologically everything is mixed up.  Social formations and situations involve meanings and structures.   Armies have morale, and mechanics and doctrine not just tanks, the effects of armed forces are more often to do with the way that they are represented than the use of force.  Public diplomacies have buildings, computers, magazines and run on money, narratives need networks to circulate them.  Markets and exports depend on images of countries and networks of relationships.  In general terms influence emerges from combination of factors economic, cultural and political relations.  Resources matter but so do ideas, narratives, images.  From my historical research it’s quite clear that public diplomacies are just as much a part of  geopolitics as navies.  Competition for influence applies to the languages that people speak, the universities they attend, the legal systems they use, and the films they watch.

Methodologically and pragmatically we can choose to focus on different aspects of that reality, for instance on narratives or tanks but this doesn’t change the fact that hard/soft is a metaphor not an account of how the world really is.

The moral of the story is that metaphors really do matter in International Relations especially if they’re the ones academics use.