West Germany and the Global Anti-Communist Network, 1956-65:

In recent years quite a lot has been written about American backing for ‘state-private networks’   (eg Saunders 1999, Scott-Smith and Krabbendam 2003, Laville and Wilford, 2006, Wilford 2008) during the Cold War so I was intrigued to come across a new working paper from the Cold War International History Project on the West German supported Comité International d’Information et d’Action Sociale (CIAS). This was network of mostly European organizations that came into being in 1956 as an effort to adapt the earlier Paix et Liberté network to the post Stalin evolution of the Cold War. The German Volksbund für Frieden und Freiheit (VFF) was one of the strongest components of the CIAS, in part because it had support from multiple parts of the West German government. The key source for this paper by Torben Gülstorff are the reports from the CIAS to the Auswärtige Amt.

During the decade covered in the paper the CIAS was one of three major anti-Communist networks, the other two being Asian People’s Anti-Communist League (APACL) and the Confederatión Interamericana de la Defensa del Continente (CIADC).*  One of the things that I found most interesting about the paper was the comparison of the three organizations albeit from the perspective of the VFF. The OPACL revolved around an axis between Taipei and Seoul (although this created a tension between the relatively pro-Japanese Republic of China and the anti-Japanese Republic of Korea), and had a policy line that called for the eradication of Communism in Asia as such it was closely aligned with governments. The CIADC was more moderate ideologically but enjoyed little government support. The VFF/CIAS line was intended to keep an opening to the left and was concerned to warn against the lures of Communism (and keep tabs on Communist sympathisers) but did not embrace the kind of ‘eradicationist’ line taken by the APACL. One of the roles that the VFF filled within the CIAS seems to have been to keep more hard line elements under control. A particular issue for the VFF was the degree of anti-Americanism that existed within anti-Communist networks, here Gülstorff points to the lasting legacy of Nazi anti-Bolshevism. These three organizations merged in 1965 to form the World Anti Communist League (WACL) which reflected the ascendancy of the hard line OPACL despite the resistance of the VFF.

From the point of the view of the West German government one of the roles of the VFF/CIAS link was to keep the struggle against East Germany on the agenda of the world anti Communist movement.

The creation of the WACL in 1965 seems to have been a success for the OPACL radicals.

There’s a lot material in the paper and also a lot of loose ends but it helps to broaden the agenda in thinking about Cold War networks beyond the CIA.

*The absence of the USA is an interesting question.Gülstorff points to the fragmentation of anti-Communism within the US and suggests that J.Edgar Hoover might have hand in producing this state of affairs.

Laville H and Wilford H, eds (2006) The US government, citizen groups and the Cold War : the state-private network. London: Routledge.

Saunders FS (1999) Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta.

Scott-Smith G and Krabbendam H, eds (2003) The Cultural Cold War in Western Europe, 1945-1960. London ; Portland, OR: Frank Cass.

Wilford H (2008) The mighty Wurlitzer : how the CIA played America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

The EU Communication Gap? It’s a Feature Not a Bug

One of the staples of discussion about the EU is the democratic deficit.  Why are people who live in the EU indifferent if not hostile to organization? One of the most popular explanations is that there is a ‘communication gap’.  This question has spawned a continuing stream of research (much of it funded by the EU) looking at the reporting of the EU and the extent to which there is a European public sphere or the extent to which national public spheres are becoming Europeanized etc.  Like a lot of political communications research there are new studies but the whole area never seems to move forward.

I’ve been reading a provocative new book by Francisco Seoane Perez, Political Communication in Europe: The Cultural and Structural Limits of the European Public Sphere (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013) that argues that the so called ‘communication gap’ isn’t a bug but a consequence of what the EU is.  The process of construction of the EU has managed to combine neofunctionalist networks, diplomacy and corporatism (governance) all of which privilege the position of insiders and the expense of those outside, ie the mass of the citizens. The result is a situation where the EU is neither domesticated (seen in terms of an identification between rulers and ruled) and or politicised in the sense of producing clearly defined antagonism over the kinds of stakes that will mobilize participation.  There’s a good chunk of political theory here, the categories of domesticisation and politicisation are drawn from Carl Schmitt via Chantal Mouffe, but a big part of the weight of the text comes from the empirical underpinning.

The starting point of the study is a comparison between two regions: Yorkshire and Galicia.  By normal measures Yorkshire is a bastion of Euroscepticism while Galicia is seen as being very pro-EU.  Given that these two regions vary in terms of political and media system that fact that people in the two regions seem to talk about the EU in similar ways suggests that the core of the problem may be something about the EU itself.  The author applies Philip Howard’s network ethnography: follow the connnections that constitute your object of interest and then watch what the people you find at the nodes are doing.  In over 100 interviews and observations the study follows what the different actors; farmers, trawlermen, their representative, executives of regional development agencies, the consultants who put funding bids together, diplomats, Members of the European Parliament actually do.  It’s a fascinating read that says the EU is sui generis, it’s not a nation-state in the making, in fact it only holds together because of the processes of exclusion at work that allow those on the inside to forge agreements and allocate resources.

I think that there’s broader lesson here for people interested in political communications issues: sometimes the problem is with the politics not the communications and the only way that this can be addressed is by looking beyond better communications.

Full disclosure: the book started life as a PhD thesis in the Institute of Communications Studies at Leeds and I did have a minor and temporary role in supervision but it’s not just me who thinks this is an really interesting study as it has been awarded the 2013 THESEUS Award for Promising Research on European Integration.

From Latour to British Foreign Policy: Part V – It’s All About the Networks

Sorry about the delay but to finish off this series of posts I want to offer some suggestions about changing the way that we think about British foreign policy.  At the moment the combination of a Blairite vision and a fragile states doctrine leaves us with quite serious gaps in the way we think about foreign policy.  Although William Hague signalled some intention to place greater weight on bilateral relationships and on commercial diplomacy I don’t think that the basic framework of foreign policy thinking has changed.

I think that the Blairite ideas are both hubristic and disempowering.  They are hubristic in their confidence that if only we (the west) led by Britain try harder we can build a single world in which we solve the problems (those that the UK has identified) in the appropriate way (British solutions).  From the point of view of a British foreign policy these ideas are disempowering in that they specify a set of problems that are objectively given (by Science or Ethical imperatives) and that can only be solved by a global coalition.   Britain is constituted as an agent of global modernization, a modernization that it has no choice but to carry out.

The Blairite rhetoric is seductive because it appeals to a humanitarian instinct, while at the same time it seems sophisticated because of its emphasis on connectedness, for instance in the way it makes connections between say climate change, failed states and refugee flows and insists on interdependence.

From a realist point of view this is essentially the same ‘harmony of interests’ that Carr critiques in in The Twenty Years Crisis.  It could be argued that we now have had seventy plus years of increasing interdependence, globalization and so on so even if Carr was right then he isn’t now.   Here we need to reach into the network realist tool box.  Networks don’t automatically produce homogeneity.  Position in a network produces differences in perspectives and differences in interests, hence different versions of the world, different agenda, different solutions and differential capabilities.  Even in a connected world risks, interests and capabilities are distributed differently and that brings us back to politics – and the Latourian task of composing the world. 

Three network realist points.

Firstly, we (Britain or the west) can’t solve all the problems in the world because we don’t know how, we don’t have the resources, we can’t agree what the problems are or what the solutions are.  Hence British foreign policy needs to make ‘tough choices’* about what needs to be done and can be done in the world.  I think that key thing is recognizing the necessity to make choices and to justify the basis for those choices.   Talking in terms of ‘values’ and ‘rules based order’ isn’t enough we need to be able to answer the questions about which values in which places and which rules are the ones that really matter.  Thus we need to fill the gap between vision and doctrine with real policies and strategies.

Secondly, network thinking offers some useful intellectual tools for making sense of the world that can form the basis for acting in it.  Network concepts deal in variation not categories or essences.  Rather than being confronted with binary choices networks offer different ways of thinking about degrees and forms of connection.  Following Latour we also see that ‘big things’ are actually collections of ‘small things’ which may offer ways of exerting influence.  British foreign policy debates almost always devolve into in/out (of the EU) or Atlantic/Europe or Europe/wider world.  The Blairite vision offered one way of resolving these issues (the choice is made – there is no choice to make) network thinking offers a different way of breaking down the issues.

Thirdly, the Blairite rhetoric of interdependence is deterministic.  In contrast networks are sites where agency operates and where influence can occur.   We can make relationships stronger or weaker, we can make new relationships and end old ones, we can try to influence other relationships or exploit their absence.

Yes, we live in a world of networks but that fact does not abolish politics or the possibility of choice.  Political talk thrives on binary oppositions and necessity because it has to create the community and motivate action but it also functions to define possibilities, the problem is that the Blairite concepts continue to define, and limit, how we think about British foreign policy.  In a situation where the position of the US is under question, the EU is likely to undergo rapid change, other power centres are emerging which, democratic or not, certainly see the world differently from the North Atlantic axis, apart from the Blairite global agenda we need some creative thinking.

I’ll come back to the question of British foreign policy in future posts but that’s quite enough for the moment.

*Tony Blair liked to talk about ‘tough choices’ but he didn’t actually mean make a choice in the sense of choosing between alternative courses of action it was more like ‘I’ve made the choice and its tough if you don’t like it’

Digital Diplomacy: Forget the Hype and Just Get on With It

I’ve been meaning to write about digital diplomacy for a while.  Two weeks ago Ben Scott (formerly one of Hilary Clinton’s crew at State) and I , were in Tallinn to talk  to Estonian ambassadors and this forced me to think about the issue.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a sceptic about the whole thing but perhaps less so than I realized.

The argument for digital diplomacy typically advances in two parts.  1. The world is being revolutionized by digital technology.  2. Diplomats should use social media.  What I’m sceptical about is actually 1 but I’m totally on board with 2.

The problem with the revolution argument is that it really depends on the loss of perspective that I commented on here.  The reason that diplomats should use social media is exactly the same reason why I don’t think that there’s a revolution:  diplomacy has always been a matter of networks.  Diplomats are expected to build networks in order to find out what’s going on and create influence.  Ben made the valuable point that one of the great contributions of social media, particularly Twitter is as a tool for listening, by identifying important voices in country it offers a rapid way to get a broader understanding of what’s going on from there they can think about intervening in debates.  As a mode of gathering information and insight  It’s exactly the same thing, as  that staple of diplomatic routine, reading the papers

There is a bit of a digital diplomacy backlash going on at the moment (examples here and here) but the problem is not with the practice but with the overblown claims derived from the radical technology literature which tend to abstract the impact of digital media from any social, cultural or political context.

The point is not that social media changes nothing but it is better seen as part of the evolution of diplomatic practice. In a way the potential of Twitter is that it allows a diplomat to more rapidly explore the networks of their host society than it would be possible to do using other methods.  Jules Jusserand was the French Ambassador in Washington from 1902 to 1925 if you don’t have 23 years to build your networks maybe twitter is a useful accelerant to the process.

Public Diplomacy and Actor Network Theory

I think that Bruno Latour is one of the most interesting figures in contemporary social science.  I first came across him about 15 years ago when I was involved in the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s Virtual Society Programme.  There were lots of anthropologists involved who kept talking about something called ‘actor-network theory‘ or ANT.  In the pub one night I innocently asked someone what ANT was the response:  ‘that’s Bruno Latour; he thinks that things are people too’.  I didn’t follow this up until a few years later where I was teaching a course that engaged with the social impact of communications technology and this stimulated me to get into  the science and technology studies (STS) literature which is where Latour comes from.  Although Latour is known for his radical positions it’s important to keep in mind that he’s an anthropologist who believes that researcher should look and listen to what people actually do.  This probably the core of his ideas that there’s a huge gap between what people in the contemporary world do and what we think we do.  I’ve also found Latour to be quite literal in his approach to the world, he has little truck with abstract impersonal ideas like society or globalization.

A few years ago I did write a conference paper exploring the application of ANT to IR but got a bit stuck with how to take it forward.   In working on public diplomacy I’ve been drawn back to ANT as a way of thinking about the nature of PD and world politics more generally so I’m starting an occasional series of posts exploring the application of ANT in PD and IR.  I this post I want to argue that actor-networks are actually a pretty good way of thinking about what public diplomats try and do.

What is an actor-network?  An actor (or actant) is alway a network in the sense that it is assembled from other actants .  A football team is a set of players.  Sometimes we see the team at other times we see a collection of  players.  A car is normally a unified object but if it breaks down or crashes we see it as a collection of parts. Hence actors have a dual nature.  But is a car an actor?  In the world of ANT anything that makes a difference is an actor (or strictly speaking an actant).  The football team is not just people it is also their team strips, their boots, their training equipment while the car is also dependent on the intervention of humans to build and maintain it.  For Latour humans and technology are inseparable and always have been.  Trying to separate the human and the technological is not just a waste of time it’s a mistake that stops us understanding the world.  The network that produces the actant is not just loca;l the football team is dependent on fans and sponsors, it’s part of a league….The car is the product of a global network of production, it depends on a network of mechanics, maintenance, fuel, licensing etc.  How far you need to go in following the network depends on what it is you’re investigating.  The point is that if there is a problem with any of these connections the operation of the actant is threatened and the missing connections need to be repaired or replaced.  When everything is running smoothly the actant is ‘blackboxed’ and is taken for granted.   This leads to one of the recurring features of Latour’s thought that the social sciences start in the wrong place.  That they take for granted the existence of ‘states’, governments, public diplomacy and Latour’s particular bete noire ‘society’ rather than asking how are these actors are produced and maintained.   You can’t explain things by reference to ‘society’ unless you can show how society is produced.

Dry stone wall as actant Photo by Cristina Archetti
The duality of the actor-network 1: Dry stone wall as actant
Photo Cristina Archetti


The duality of the actor-network 2: It's a pile of stones!  Photo by Cristina Archetti
The duality of the actor-network 2: It’s a pile of stones! Photo Cristina Archetti

Dating back to Latour’s earliest work on scientists he tends to focus on the entrepreneurial work of building black boxes.  The entrepreneur has to enrol other actants in the network that is being constructed; money, equipment, other people, office space.  The difficulty each of the actants that make up the new actor network have their own interests.  Enrolling them requires a translation; bringing them together changes them and the collective.  As the entrepreneur, be it a scientist or a public diplomat, builds their network the enrollment of more actants causes shifts in what the network can do or will become.  Hence a central concern has to be with the stabilization of networks into black boxed actants and the maintenance of those actants.   From a political point of view Latour’s central problem is how things, both ‘small’ like scientific facts and ‘big’ like states, are stabilized.

So what does all of this have to do with public diplomacy?  By focusing on communication we are missing the bigger picture.  To put it very narrowly ‘getting the message out’ implies that you already have a channel through which that message can be transmitted.  The history of public diplomacy suggests that it is building that channel  that is the difficult part.   Successful public diplomacy is about drawing necessary actants into a stabilized relationship that alters the situation in way that benefits the initiator.   This suggests three possible outcomes

  1. It is impossible to construct a stabilized network that will do this.  Other actants refuse to play your game.  Your boss won’t give you the money for your project or no-one will listen to your radio station, or your local partners take your money and spend it on a new office instead of working with the public.  The two groups that you hoped will work together hate each other.
  2. You construct a stabilized network that won’t do what you thought it would do.  This is a very common one.  In the mid 1950s the most popular radio station in the Middle East was the Sharq al Adna, a very popular entertainment oriented station operating from Cyprus.  Most people knew it was controlled by the British but they listened anyway.  According to some accounts this station even made money.  It had been blackboxed.  But come the confrontation with Colonel Nasser in 1956 and the attempt to the British government to use it as a tool of strategic communication its popular Arab staff quit, as did its audience.   Sharq al Adna  was stable as an entertainment station but as soon as a new actor the, government psychological warfare operation, connected itself it destabilized the network and constituent actants split off.  More broadly public diplomacy activities build a public for their activity but the public they have doesn’t actually have the influence on attitudes or policy that they hoped.  But in many cases it is more important to make the project look like a success than for it to really be a success.  How can we continue to get funding? (money is part of the actor-network) we need to show that lots of people are coming to our events (or that they are really important people) hence the activity gets tweaked to produce the indicator that the funder wants.
  3. You build a network that is stabilized and does what was supposed to do.  Your network appears so natural that it is invisible.  For instance you carefully promote linkages between publishers in your country and your target.  It appears completely natural to go and study in your universities or to learn your language.   What you’ve done is to enrol others interests in a way that you may even be able to disengage from the network and do something else.

Another ANT scholar, Michel Callon, talks about ‘heterogenous engineering’ at work, the entrepreneur needs to bring together a coalition of people and things to make their project work.  Who and what you have in your network tells you an awful lot about what the network will produce.   There’s a paradox that the actants who are most valuable in your network are also the hardest to control.  During the 1920s and the 1930s the USSR sought to gain the support of western intellectuals but as you would expect the bigger the name the less able they were to control them, and the more keeping them onside became an end in itself.

If you’re interested in Latour probably the best places to start are with his Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge: Harvard UP: 1987) and or Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005). Latour also has a very comprehensive web site with copies of many of his papers here.

In future posts I’ll explore issues around an Actor-Network inspired theory of International Relations; my initial list of issues includes globalization, the state, representations, the role of diplomacy, the conceptualization of politics, how to think about conflict and competition,


Why I’m a Network Realist

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.

R.S. Zaharna on Diplomacy and Relations

Over at Battles2Bridges Rhonda Zaharna is exploring the links between relational public diplomacy and the historical forms of diplomacy.  I think that this is an extremely promising avenue  of investigation.

A couple of thoughts

The links that Rhonda makes are important because it’s possible to construct two different genealogies of public diplomacy.  The first of these, the more common one in the US and the UK, tells the story of public diplomacy in terms of the development of an evolution of propaganda and psychological warfare from the World Wars to the Cold War and the War on Terror.*  A second genealogy sees the growing prominence of PD as part of the expansion of diplomacy over the last two centuries.  Seeing PD as part of the story of diplomacy helps to explain the growth of PD activities across numerous countries which don’t share the Anglo-American history.  Making the link with diplomacy it unlocks a different set of intellectual resources.

The other comment is the relational vs messaging distinction is a useful shorthand  that captures different approaches to how public diplomacy is done.  It is a distinction that maps quite closely onto the ‘informationalist’ vs ‘culturalist’ approaches that existed within the American PD establishment (see for instance Arndt 2005) or in the UK between the FCO and the British Council.  However,  it’s possible to make too much of this distinction.  It blurs the fact that effective messaging often depends on the careful cultivation of relationships – for instance between the information officers and journalists and that one of the things that relationships let you do is spread messages.   This is one of the reasons for my enthusiasm for relational sociology and network approaches.  These provide conceptual and research tools that allow us to think about what mean by relationships and their relative importance.   I think that these approaches also offer insights into newer modes of doing public diplomacy, for instance the embrace of coalition building with different types of actors as a political tool rather than a cultural strategy or the question of the extent to which social media should be been seen in terms of messaging or relations.

*Susan Carruthers (2005) has a nice take on the way that links between the practice of psychological warfare and its study have continued to shape academic studies of propaganda.

Arndt, R.T. (2005) The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. Washington  D.C.: Potomac Books.

Carruthers, S.I. (2005) ‘Propaganda, Communications and Public Opinion’, pp. 189-222 in P. Finney (ed) Palgrave Advances in International History, Basingstoke: Palgrave.






Three’s a Crowd: Dyads, Triads and Networks, Part 1.

Back from my holiday and back to the blog…

From my point of view the key insight from network sociology is that your relationships affect each other.  Country A’s relationship with Country C affects its relationship with Country B.  It’s noticeable that conceptual discussions of public diplomacy tend to assume a relationship between two countries,  but the history of PD suggests that for major powers at least,  it’s about the relationship between my country, your country and my enemy or  my country, your country and my ally.   As soon as you move away from the dyad the diplomatic and public diplomatic task becomes much harder.

I’ve been reading James Vaughan’s book about British and American propaganda in the Middle East in the 1950s so lets take some examples from there (anyone who is tempted to write about recent, current or future public diplomacy in the region needs to read this book).  Western PD efforts were about  other things than improving relations between two countries.  Attempting to mobilize resistance to  Communism was an obvious issue.  Essentially our PD is not about our relationship with you but in persuading you to see a third country as a threat.  In the middle of the decade both Britain and America were trying to build up Iraq as a regional counter to Nasser’s Egypt.  At the same time the US and UK were periodically conscious of the fact that their relationship with each other was damaging their own position in the region – for instance the British record of colonialism and US support for Israel – but sought to moderate their criticisms of each other to avoid placing an undue strain on their own relationship.

We often hear complaints about the lack of alignment between policy and communication but part of the difficulty with policy is that it’s trying to balance different relationships.  If PD was simply about improving relations with one other country it would be pretty straightforward.

Vaughan, J. (2005) The failure of American and British propaganda in the Arab Middle East, 1945-57 : unconquerable minds. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan.

Relations and Messages: The Case of the Information Research Department

Over the past few years public diplomacy scholarship has increasingly advocated a focus on relationship building rather than messaging.  That is the typical emphasis on ‘getting the message out’ misses the point that it’s not going to do any good if no one is listening.  Of course when you start looking at real cases the opposition between messaging and relations tends to be less clear cut.

The history of British public diplomacy contains a very nice case of this in the work of the Information Research Department.  Active between 1948 and 1977 the IRD was a semi autonomous department of the Foreign Office and a major element of the UK’s Cold War information activity.

The IRD gathered information on Soviet and communist activities produced reports and talking points and disseminated them domestically and internationally (no Smith-Mundt in the UK!) through a network of trusted contacts.  Drawing on experience from the Second World War  the IRD approach was that information work should be truthful but would be more credible if it wasn’t linked to official sources hence their mode of operation was grey propaganda – their bulletins were circulated to embassies and other offices with a cover sheet that had to be removed before it was passed to journalists, foreign officials or other contacts.  The information could be freely used but should not be attributed to the UK government.

The point is that for this strategy to work the IRD had to have access to a network of trusted contacts who could disseminate its messages – here the overt work of information officers in UK embassies provided the channel through which IRD material could be disseminated.

The IRD is one of the most controversial aspects of British information work (The introduction to Defty 2004 has a useful discussion of the historiography of the IRD).  On one hand the work is very similar to the way that political parties or PR companies operate but because it was being done by a semi-secret government department it attracted considerable suspicion as more material on its work became available.

Defty, A. (2004) Britiain, America and Anti- Communist Propaganda, 1945-53. Abingdon: Routledge.

The USSR and the Limits of Relational Public Diplomacy

I’m reading Gienow-Hecht and Donfried’s very interesting edited collection Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy. I was struck by an interesting juxtaposition of two chapters; the first by Jean-Francois Fayet on VOKS:  the Soviet All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries that operated from the early 1920s to the late 1950s,  the second by Rosa Magnusdottir  on the Soviet embrace of cultural relations in dealings with the US at  the end of the 1950s.

VOKS operated by building relationships with the intelligentsia in non-communist countries in the hope that these networks offered to develop a more positive portrayal of the Soviet Union.  In retrospect this can be seen as an application of what we would now call relational public diplomacy.  The emphasis on combining communication and organization strikes me as a signature of 20th century communism but it’s interesting to note that this was an insight that wasn’t confined to the communists,  in International Political Communication W. Phillips Davison (1965) argues that the most important impact of public diplomacy communication is in supporting friendly organizational efforts a thought that hasn’t had much prominence in recent thinking.

In a sense Magnusdottir is pointing to the limits of the VOKS model, She argues that in 1950s America the only people who were listening to the USSR were the members of the CPUSA and its associated front organizations. In network terms the pro-Soviet organizations were suffering from closure (eg Burt 2005) they were unable to effectively form new relationships to expand their reach. Part of this was due to the comprehensive ideological opposition in 1950s America but also reflected the type of stereotypical propaganda material that circulated within the network. The lesson that the more thoughtful Soviet observers drew was the need to use alternative networks with different content in order to have a real impact in the US, for instance publishing magazines with interesting content and decent translations.

The broader lesson is that network building is a powerful tool but one of its characteristic pathologies is closure. The network turns in on itself and doesn’t allow engagement beyond. This can happen for reasons of protection as in the case of the Soviets sympathisers  in 1950s  America but can also happen because people gain status as insiders and have an incentive to keep others out.

Burt, R.S. (2005) Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Davison, W.P. (1965) International Political Communication. New York: Praeger.

Fayet, J.-F. (2010) ‘VOKS: The Third Dimension of Soviet Foreign Policy’, pp. 33-49 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.

Magnusdottir, R. (2010) ‘Mission Impossible?: Selling Soviet Socialism to Americans, 1955-1958’, pp. 50-72 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.