Archive for the ‘Public Diplomacy Studies’ Category


Fuzzy Sets and Public Diplomacies

March 15, 2019

One way that sciences create difficulties for themselves is when their conceptual frameworks diverge too much from the reality of what they are studying.  Concepts are always abstractions but there is a trade-off; more abstraction means greater universality but also less discrimination.  Abstract thinking is much more prone to  distinctions that are much sharper than are found ‘out there’.*

I’ve always thought that one of the problems with research on public diplomacies is a tendency to emphasize categorical; what is or is not public diplomacy, diplomacy, cultural relations or horror of horror ‘propaganda’.  Have worked through so much of the history I think happens here is that we as scholars import arguments from what we are studying.  Countries have generally want to differentiate what they do from the other side’s ‘lies’ and ‘propaganda’.  At the same time at home organizations have protected their turf by constructing conceptual distinctions between what they do (cultural relations, international broadcasting) and what other organizations do (diplomacy, propaganda, development).  When you focus on organizations, practices and programmes ie what actually gets done such neat conceptual distinctions really lose a lot of their importance.

One idea that I’ve found useful is the opposition between ‘crisp’ and ‘fuzzy’ sets (Ragin 2008).  A crisp set is one with a dichotomous membership, ie state versus non-state a potential member is either out or in.  Fuzzy sets have degrees of membership so rather than starting with a cut-off point you start with criteria that would define 100% membership,  potential members can then be scored.  The essential point is that you define the core of the set rather than its limits.   Hence to go back to the state/non-state example you would define criteria for something to count as 100% state (eg finance, legal status, responsive to guidance) and score from there.

This is similar to network analysis where you can assess degrees of membership of cohesive subgroups even within a network where everything is connected.

The focus of my history project is overt civilian, peacetime public diplomacies but in coming up against the historical record, for some countries at least, the overt, civilian and peacetime stuff doesn’t make much sense if your rigidly exclude activities that don’t quite fit.

* This is a rather old problem, I can’t remember who said it  (probably Nietzsche) but the quip that ‘the Greeks invented the concept and thought they had discovered reality’ is a useful one to keep in mind.

Ragin CC (2008) Redesigning Social Inquiry: Fuzzy Sets and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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.


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 economic (class) 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.  In this they were figures like General Ludendorff in the First World War, seeking a ‘technical’ ‘purely military’ solution and ignoring the political consequences of hist actions.  On top of this the universal class were not above mention defending 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/would be 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.


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.


Looking for Public Diplomacy Effects

March 23, 2018

The opening of James M. Dorsey’s latest on Saudi Arabia’s turn to ‘moderate Islam‘ is well worth thinking about from the perspective of public diplomacy effects

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be seeking to revert his kingdom to an unspecified form of moderate Islam but erasing the impact of 40 years of global funding of ultra-conservative, intolerant strands of the faith is unlikely to be eradicated by decree.

Not only because ultra-conservatism has taken root in numerous Muslim countries and communities, but also because it has given opportunistic politicians a framework to pursue policies that appeal to bigoted and biased sentiments in bids to strengthen their grip on power. Nowhere is that more evident than in Asia, home to several of the Islamic world’s most populous countries

One element of my theoretical rethink is the question of effects outside the framework of organizational planning.  Looking at things through an organizational lens affects how we understand effects and the role of intention.  So six points.

  1. The Crown Prince makes a decision but the effects have been generated by decisions and actions taken over a long period. Hence the current decision may have limited effect.
  2. The effects discussed here are not being generated directly by Saudi actions that have influence on information or attitudes (ie classical communication effects) but by the creation of institutions embedded in the target society.
  3. This embedding will, in some cases at least, have permitted the institutions to become independent of Saudi support.
  4.  Embedding autonomous institutions that promote your values in another country is pretty much the pinnacle of success for public diplomacy.
  5. Unfortunately all public diplomacies end in failure because at some point you change your mind about the objective and instantaneously any success becomes error.  This seems to be a pretty good example.
  6. The effects of any public diplomacy action are not just those that fit within the organizational plan – ie intended positive effects within a specified time period.  They all include unintended negative effects.