Archive for the ‘International Relations’ Category


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.


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.


Why I’m a Network Realist

April 16, 2013

In my last post I made referred to the realist/idealist issue that surfacing at the ISA this year and my crack that I consider myself a network realist.  So what does that mean?

My basic understanding of the world is that it’s a bunch of networks but in some respects the tenets of classical realism (Machiavelli, Carr, Morgenthau) still provide a pretty good guide at the level of thinking about world politics in general and public diplomacy in particular.

Here’s five aspects of the realist worldview that I think are useful.

  1. We live in a recalcitrant world.  Be realistic about your ability to change or maintain things.   Of course the classical realists didn’t think about networks but social networks provide stability as well as change.
  2. Interests.  Everybody has them.  The most saintly looking NGO still has interests and the prevalence of interests is one of the reasons for 1.  Following the constructivists at some level all interests are constructed and hence it’s theoretically possible to change them.  The difficulty is that what is possible in theory may be impossible in practice see 1.
  3. People try to dress up their interests as universal, often without realizing that they are doing it. This includes us.
  4. Realism emphasizes the continuity of international politics and given the constant bombardment of claims that everything has changed this needs to be reiterated.  In terms of network theorizing this means a preference for Michael Mann or Bruno Latour over Manuel Castells.  The point is not that nothing has changed but a scepticism about claims of radical historical discontinuities.  As Latour puts it somewhere the difference between us and the ancients is that we have bigger networks, that is we’re dealing with incremental development not a new era.
  5. It’s not just about ideas, information, discourse, cognitions, perceptions, values.  Resources matter.  Michael Mann’s sociology of power is sometimes described as ‘organizational materialism’, that is power is created by, and exerted through organization.  Organization is where ideas, meaning, money, people technology get mixed up together.  Ideas don’t do things on their own.

Two things that I wouldn’t take from realism

  1. Axiomatic state centrism.  In IR state centrism is often taken as the defining characteristic of realism but early Niebuhr was concerned with domestic politics or what about Schattschneider’s The Semisovereign People?  I’ll take up the question of state centrism in another post.
  2. Power as the master concept.   Power matters but I don’t think that power analysis gets you very far.

What does mean for public diplomacy? Think in the medium and long term, the short term is how  you manage to get to the longer term.  Think about creating networks built on mutual satisfaction of interests (note that these may be different interests not ‘shared’) and the recognition of difference.  Be sceptical about quick fixes, recognize that what other people see is not what you see.  Recognize that resources constrain what you can do so it may be better to do nothing than to try to act with insufficient resources. Learn from history.


Why Doesn’t International Relations Pay More Attention to Public Diplomacy?

March 21, 2013

As some of you know I’m working on a book at the moment.  The strapline might be something like  ‘what would a theory of public diplomacy look like if we started with the history of the practice?’

This sounds pretty neat but almost immediately you run into to the problem of what you mean by public diplomacy given that a) the term didn’t appear until the 1960s, b) outside the US countries have different terms and concepts for what looks like PD and c) there are lots of arguments over what the term means.  My strategy is to start with  the minimalist definition of ‘engagement with foreign publics for foreign policy purposes’.   From this point of view building a national pavilion at a late 19th century exhibition,  French cultural projection in the 1920s, Japan offering scholarships to Chinese students in the 1930s, Soviet Active measures in the 1980s or 21st century statecraft, whatever the differences in approaches, objective, methods and outcomes, are all part of the same field of activities.

What has struck me in doing this work is how much ‘public diplomacy’ has been going on world politics over a period dating back to the latter part of the 19th century.  I would argue that it has been one most common forms of foreign policy action over the past century for small countries as well as the big players.  Given this it’s surprising how little attention it has received in the literature of International Relations.

How do we explain this? I could probably come up with more ideas but here’s four.

I think part of the problem is extraordinary fragmentation of the ‘PD’ literature and the absence of attempts at synthesis. Almost all of the studies that I’ve used in working on the historical part of my book deal with one country, in one period and probably one aspect of external engagement – for instance they look at radio or cultural relations or diaspora relations.  It’s rare for an author to refer to the experience of other countries and when they do it’s often obvious that it rests on a pretty limited knowledge base (references to the British Council often trap the unwary).  There’s a vicious circle here if we had a better frameworks for comparison it would be easier to put different cases into perspective but because of the fragmentation of the literature (and the fact that just because there’s no literature about a country it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do foreign engagement) it’s difficult to build up the knowledge to develop a useful framework.

Secondly,  this difficulty of building up a picture of what’s been going on is coupled to a loss of historical perspective.  Partly this is because scholars like to focus on what’s new (this isn’t just true of IR – I’ve often heard communications scholars make the same point) but it’s also to do with the way that theoretical shorthand cuts debates off from the real world.  A couple of weeks ago I was a bit sarcastic about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s comment that when she was growing up the US didn’t worry about what happened inside other states.  What was unfortunate about this was  that she was growing up during the Cold War and the US did seem extremely interested in what happened inside other countries.  Where her comment cames from is the common shorthand that Realists see states as solid objects that bump into each other ie as billiard balls.  When this metaphor came into widespread use (in the 1970s?) it was in opposition to pluralist school that who embraced ‘the cobweb’ that is world politics should be theorized as networks of transactions.  What frequently happens today is that billiard ball metaphor becomes historicised.  States used to be billiard balls but they aren’t now.  There are two problems here.  Firstly, a lack of precision over when those billiard ball states actually existed (which is how Slaughter got caught out) and secondly,  they never really existed,  This may not matter if you know that you are dealing with a theoretical simplification but it does if you get the simplification mixed up with history.   If you think that PD is a new phenomenon then you’ve got no need to consider whether it mattered in the past or not.

Thirdly, public diplomacy cuts across some of the typical theoretical positions in IR.  It’s state sponsored transnational action.  Typically IR scholarship tends to oppose the transnational to the state.  There tends to be an assumption that transnational actors (civil society, advocacy networks etc) weaken, undermine, penetrate the state, rather than sometimes at least being enablers of state action. States are also assumed to deal in material power (guns and money) not ideas and communications.  The Gramscians have made the connection between material and ideational sources of power but because they focus on hegemony that they’ve focus too much on the US and not on the fact that everyone else has been doing this too.

Finally, Iver Neumann recently made an interesting comment that one of the problems with IR is that it’s too focussed on outcomes and not enough on how the world is constituted.  Building on this I suspect that for most IR scholars it’s not obvious how PD affects outcomes and as such it’s not interesting.   I think that this is a mistaken view but I’ll take this up in a later post.



Is Soft Power Fungible?

March 6, 2013

If you steep yourself in the theoretical debates about power in International Relations (my advice is not to do this) you will come across the question of fungibility (eg Baldwin 1979).  In crude terms is power like money?  If I’ve got money I can buy a loaf of bread  or a book using the same resource.  Can a ‘powerful’ actor achieve its goals across different issue areas using the same resources?  The very fact of raising the question suggests a suspicion that the answer is no.

Interestingly enough in his pre soft power days Joe Nye also points in this direction in Power and Interdependence (1977).  The basic thrust of that book was that you should recognize that power resources differ across issue areas.  Switzerland may have clout in the banking field (because of its banks)  but not in the regime for oceans (landlocked).   While it may be possible to leverage different power resources through clever diplomacy, by linking different issue areas together, the overall thrust is that power is non-fungible.  It would then follow that a state can be judged to be ‘powerful’ if it could draw on resources across multiple issue areas or a spectacular array of resources in a few.

But if conventional power resources aren’t fungible what about soft power? This struck me In reading Nakano Yoshiko’s contribution to the Soft Power Superpowers collection.  Nakano’s essay looks at the reception of Japanese popular culture in China. Her finding is that Chinese consumers are gaining a more complex and nuanced picture of Japan and seeing aspects of its culture as worthy of imitation but do not connect this with  their political image and attitude towards the country.  It can be added that the political attitudes have consequence for other relationships as in the effect of the  dispute over the Pinnacle Islands* on sales of Japanese cars in China.

Where does this lead us?  Probably towards the realization that soft power is probably even more fragmented than conventional power resources.  Analytically we need to think about the composition of a country’s soft power resources (How much? Are the concentrated in one or a few areas? Who do can they influence?) rather than seeing soft power as a unity.  I suspect that doing this kind of analysis will have a rather deflationary effect on estimates of national soft power.  ‘Some soft power resources will allow you to have some influence on some publics some of the time’?


Baldwin, D.A. (1979) ‘Power Analysis and World Politics: New Trends versus Old Tendencies’, World Politics, 31: 161–194.

Keohane, R.O., and J.S. Nye (1977) Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Yoshiko, N. (2008) ‘Shared Memories: Japanese Pop Culture in China’, pp. 111–127 in Y. Watanabe and D.L. McConnell (eds) Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

*This is what those islands that China and Japan can’t agree about were called on 19th c. British naval charts


EH Carr and the Realist Theory of Propaganda

November 28, 2011

I ‘accidentally’ bought a pamphlet by EH Carr, Propaganda in International Politics published in 1939 without realizing that this this was actually extracted from the first (1939) edition of The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919-1939.* Generations of International Relations students have read the second (1946) edition as one of the founding texts of realist international relations theory.  I remember being told as an undergraduate the chief difference the two editions was that in 1939 Hitler was still ‘Herr Hitler’ but from a quick comparison between the pamphlet and my copy of the second edition Carr seems to have toned down how he expresses his argument even if the basic direction remains unchanged.

Carr argues for the close association between ‘power over opinion’ and military and economic power.  The impact of ideas is tied to their promotion by states  – which in turn reflects interests.  Carr is dismissive of the power of ideas that are not supported by states.  For him the failure of the League of Nations and its belief in the power of ‘international public opinion’ is the ‘best modern illustration’  of the fact that propaganda ‘is ineffective as a political force until it acquires a national home and becomes linked with military and economic power’.

It is an illusion to suppose that if Great Britain (or Germany or Soviet Russia) were disarmed or militarily weak, British (or German or Soviet) propaganda might still be effective in virtue of the inherent excellence of its content.

The almost universal belief in the merits of democracy which spread over the world in 1918 was due less to the inherent excellence of democracy or of  the propaganda on its behalf than to the victory of the Allied armies and the Allied blockade.  Had the Bolshevik regime collapsed in 1919, far fewer people would today be convinced of the merits of Marxism.  If Germany is defeated in the present war, little more will be heard of the ideological merits of National Socialism.

But this isn’t the whole story

Propaganda to be successful must appeal to some universally or generally recognized values….Every country seeks to place its policy on an ethical basis, even if this can only be done by asserting that it has a historical mission to rule over inferior races for their own good.  Whatever the policy the need to clothe it in some altruistic guise is universally felt.

No national policy is disinterested, and no country can justly identify its own welfare with the welfare of the world as a whole. But some countries in the pursuit of their ends show more consideration than others for the rights and interests of the rest of the world.  In so far as they do so, they are entitled to claim that their policy is more moral: and their international propaganda, resting on this basis is likely to prove  more effective than that of their rivals

Three  thoughts:

What struck me in reading this was the question of the extent to which ‘power over opinion’ can be thought of as being an autonomous source of influence in international politics.  Carr is concerned to attack the idea that public opinion operates independently of other sources of power but at the same time he does recognize that ‘power over opinion’ has some force distinct from military or economic power.

Seventy years later can we argue that power of opinion has become more autonomous?  The standard view is that political change and a new media environment has produced this effect.  On the other hand I think that it would be a mistake to overstate the autonomy of power over opinion from other factors.   We wouldn’t be debating ‘Chinese  soft power’ if the Chinese economy was not as large as it is. The ability of the EU or the US to effectively promote its ideas will not be helped by the reality and perception of decline.

As with most writing from International Relations on propaganda or public diplomacy Carr is actually vague on the mechanisms by which power over opinion operates.

In a later post I’ll raise the question of what public diplomacy studies can learn from realism.

*Fortunately I only paid £3 (but the original price of the pamphlet was 3 pre-decimal pennies , there were 240 old pennies to the pound so ignoring inflation I paid 240 times the original price….)

Carr, E.H. (1939) Propaganda in International Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Carr, E.H. (1946) The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan.