Archive for the ‘Public Diplomacy Theory’ Category

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Analyzing Public Diplomacies: Four Dimensions

January 26, 2017

In thinking about how countries engage foreign publics I normally talk about public diplomacies in the plural.  I do this to signal that American public diplomacy is not the only way that countries conceptualize and carry out this work and that very often countries have engage multiple foreign publics for different purposes using different networks.

However in doing comparative historical work it has also become clear that discussion of public diplomacies often get stuck at the level of ideas and definitions.  This really isn’t enough to properly make sense of public diplomacies you need to understand what gets done and with what effect and that concepts don’t get you very far.

This means that I would argue for separating out four analytical dimensions:

  1. ideas and concepts
  2. activities and programmes
  3. organization and organizational fields,
  4. networks

Let’s briefly look at this in turn.

Concepts: There are lots of different aspects to this but I’m particularly interested in how do countries answer the why question? Why are we running these activities?  This can be broken down into two sub issues: a big question which often touches on questions of identity (to make our country known to the world, to spread the revolution) and a more precise question about how public diplomacies fit into statecraft more generally.   While some countries have quite clearly defined answers to these questions other don’t.  For instance in looking at the UK you can (literally) go through nearly 30 years from the late 1960s with minimal discussion of what the whole overseas information activity was for.  On the other hand if you look at contemporary Germany there are all kinds of policy documents as well as strong tradition of public discussion.

Activities: What do countries do?  Can you track activities over time, where they happen, where the resources go?  If you can do this there’s a good chance that discrepancies between concepts and practice will emerge.  Germany is a good example again because much of the conceptual activity is around areas like peace building  but the money goes into schools.  Also discussion at the level of ideas tends to mask the geopolitics behind lots of this activity.

Organizations: A lot of discussion tends to focus on organizations because they are visible (and they produce archives) but you can have activities without having a distinct organization and changes in organization may not change the activity very much.  Mapping the organizational universe that an organization that you are interested in inhabits is important because it helps you to recognize cross national differences.  This is directly relevant to the issue of whether to the US needs a new USIA

Networks: This dimension asks about how activities are supposed to have an effect.  Who do they act with or on.  How do activities, organizations and concepts align?  The networks you have aren’t necessarily the ones that you need but changing them is slow and painful.

I’ve found it useful to separate out these dimensions because they are often quite weakly connected. Changes in concepts or organizations may have quite limited effects on programmes and networks.  This is important because often research starts from theory or from top level policy documents.

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The Russian Firehose of Falsehood

September 1, 2016

I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of publications on Russian propaganda/soft power/deception etc but I’d recommend the newish RAND paper by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews on The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model.

They characterise this by four features

1. High volume across multiple channels

2 Fast, continuous and repetitive

3. It doesn’t seem to be concerned with ‘truth’ and

4. Neither is it interested in consistency.

They also connect each of these four elements with discussions in the psychological literature  It’s the third and fourth of these that draw particular attention since they go against what might be thought of as the conventional wisdom on propaganda contests (and in political communications) that consistency and credibility are important.

Their conclusions and recommendations are also important – particularly in the context of discussions of ‘post-truth politics’.  They are sceptical that efforts at rebuttal can work against the volume and speed of the Russian attack as they put it “don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth” – emphasis in original.  While some degree of rebuttal is required they place more weight on forewarning people about the existence of the Russian information effort.  Here what I called the propaganda panic probably serves a role in flagging the presence of the effort.  They also emphasize the importance of focusing on blocking the achievement of the objectives of Russian activities, for instance if the Russian objective is to undermine NATO solidarity focus on supporting the factors that consolidate this rather than on rebutting falsehoods.  There are other types of asymmetric responses that can be used such as full enforcement of broadcasting rules.

Although Paul and Mathews look for explanations of the lack of concern over truth and consistency in the psychological literature an alternative explanation might come from the changing media environment.  In the era of the Second World War or The Cold War information is in relatively speaking in short supply so a piece of news gets raked over and its credibility assessed, the result is the kind of personalized propaganda duel discussed here where recognized individuals get drawn into personalized tests of credibility ‘X said that y would happen.  It didn’t. Why should you believe anything else they say?’  Where there’s a continuous stream of information individual statements don’t get subject to the same average level of attention – for most people they just get replaced by another tweet – after all as McLuhan argued media is an environment.

It’s also worth noting that in a Second World War style duel(you also probably find this in exchanges between Arab radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s)  the protagonists confronted each other directly with the intention of damaging each other.  This is something that under normal circumstances diplomats are reluctant to do or that modern international broadcasters do.

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The Secret of Public Diplomacy

February 22, 2016

One of the most stimulating books that I’ve read in the last couple of years was Ray Pawson’s The Science of Evaluation: A Realist Manifesto which is a book about….evaluating policy interventions.

There’s a lot in there but a core idea that recurs is this:

The outcome of a policy intervention is a function of what you do and how you do it in what context.

or to put it another way

Outcome = intervention + implementation + context

There are a lot of implications of this  but here’s four

  1. An outcome is not necessarily one you expected or wanted
  2. A great idea badly implemented will produce different outcomes from the one you expected even if the context is supportive.
  3. An intervention that produced a great outcome in one context may not produce the same outcome in another situation.
  4. In the right context a poorly implemented, badly conceived intervention might still produce a desirable outcome. The problem is that the lessons drawn will be that the intervention worked.

In terms of the analysis of public diplomacies a disciplined application of these four categories is very useful.  Much discussion of public diplomacy tends to focus on the design of the intervention ie communications strategy, message, narrative without too much attention to implementation or context.   The analysis of real cases tends to show a different pattern where  interventions are often a function of the context (we must do something!) and the mode of implementation (organizational repertoire) rather than any careful design process. Much more of this at ISA!

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National Public Diplomacy…Systems, Machines, Assemblages, Fields….?

September 18, 2015

Over the last few years Brian Hocking (eg 2013) has introduced the concept of the national diplomatic system – the idea that ministries of foreign affairs exist in the context of a set of other agencies that are involved in foreign affairs. A while back I argued that it is important to analyse national systems of public diplomacy holistically. What I had in mind was the tendency, for instance, to discuss the British Council and the Alliance Française as if they were directly equivalent, rather than the latter being much more of a specialist language organization than the former.  From my perspective it makes if you look at ‘national public diplomacy systems’ as a whole you understand how different countries do things in different ways and how the parts fit together.

When I presented this at a conference Eytan Gilboa objected to the term ‘system’ because it made things sound too organized. The funny thing was I nearly didn’t use the term on precisely those grounds. I had thought about ‘network’ but given my propensity to label everything ‘network’ I’d restrained myself. I’d also thought about ‘assemblage’ which, to an English speaker at least carries a connotation of being thrown together, randomness and likely to fall apart (which actually seems a  fairly  accurate description of the situation in many countries).but. It also seemed a bit pretentious.* I toyed for a bit with ‘field’ in the Bourdieuan sense while I thought that this was good for thinking about the relationships between different organizations I was uncomfortable with the idea that a field can be an actor.  Maybe the public diplomacy ‘ensemble’ or collective’ would work?

More recently I’ve come across the idea of ‘la machine diplomatique‘, this originally comes from the work of Jean-Baptiste Duroselle (1979) on French diplomacy during the interwar period but has been taken up by other French scholars to indicate that diplomacy has multiple components (Frank 2003, Arthus 2012).

I think that the idea of the collective nature of diplomacy or public diplomacy is an important idea but it’s important to have the capacity to recognize  that the parts of whatever we call it don’t always fit together very well and the relationships between them vary with changing situations.

*Not that that had ever stopped me before.

Arthus WW (2012) La Machine diplomatique française en Haïti (1945-1958). Paris: L’Harmattan.

Duroselle J-B (1979) La decadence 1932-1939. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

Frank R (2003) La machine diplomatique culturelle française après 1945, Relations internationales, 115: 325–348.

Hocking B (2013) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Diplomacy System, in Kerr P and Wiseman G (eds) Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 123–40.

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Why Do Government Agencies Have Strategic Reviews?

August 24, 2015

There an interesting new paper in the Journal of Public Policy by Jordan Tama on why government agencies conduct major strategic reviews.   Tama uses the case of the US Quadrennial Defence Review as his starting point. Given the high degree of scepticism about the value of this document in shaping the development of US defence strategy why has the practice spread across other government departments (including, of course State with its two Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Reviews)? The answer is that the reviews are politically useful – either to Congress or the White House in influencing an agency – or to the leadership of the agency in staving off external threats. Tama also argues that the you can trace the diffusion of these reviews via networks of people who were originally associated with the Department of Defense.

The moral of the story: next time you print out a pdf of an organizations strategic review keep in mind the strategic threat that it is supposed to address may not be ‘out there’ but actually closer at hand in the legislature or treasury.

Tama J (2015) The politics of strategy: why government agencies conduct major strategic reviews, Journal of Public Policy, FirstView: 1–28.

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Lobbyists and the Outsourcing of Public Diplomacy

March 12, 2015

At the end of January the Corporate Europe Observatory put out Spin Doctors to the Autocrats: How European PR Firms Whitewash Repressive Regimes

It’s an interesting catalogue of cases of how authoritarian regimes use lobbyists, PR companies or legal firms to exert influence in Brussels or clean up their image in Europe. The instruments employed range from op-eds, straight lobbying, junkets, editing Wikipedia, creating think tanks and ‘friends of’ groups. CEO are calling for tighter regulation of lobbyists both at EU and national levels. One interesting point is that while there are one set of rules in Brussels if you are doing lobbying they don’t apply if you’re doing nation-branding work.

This raises a broader question of when and why countries outsource public diplomacy.   Three, not mutually exclusive, hypotheses

  1. It’s about the nature of the political system. Professionalized commercial lobbying and representation appears first in the US nearly a century ago. An open but complex political system requires specialist expertise. [Francis Fukuyama recently argued for the similarity of the EU system to that in Washington DC.
  2. It’s about limits in the capacity of the state’s representation either in general or to deal with a particular project or situation.   Commercial representation offers a surge capacity with specific expertise. CEO make the point that say PR companies hired by Russia work directly to the Kremlin and not through the MFA hence providing flexibility.
  3. It’s about creating distance between the country and the activity.       An embassy that says we’re great is less credible than an apparently independent group.
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Regulating Foreign Public Diplomacy

November 4, 2014

Russian external communications have been in the news for obvious reasons. The announcement that RT are launching a special UK service has attracted comment particularly in light of the outstanding complaints against the channel over coverage of events in Ukraine. Given the previous decision of the UK TV regulator OFCOM to withdraw the license of the Iranian PD channel Press TV it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s going to be a space on the Freeview box before too long; already some people are shouting censorship.

This raises a broader issue. What is legitimate public diplomacy and what rights do states have to regulate it? Given the criticism of for instance Egypt, Russia or Hungary over restrictions on NGO funding what is a rational position on this that does not turn on whether we approve of a country or not?   It seems to me that there are two main ways that we can approach the question first, at an interstate level and then secondly, through a liberal perspective but then there a variety of state practices that would imply modifications to the liberal theory.

The interstate position would start from the assumption that states have the right to control what happens within their territory subject to international legal norms. Can we find a general right to conduct public diplomacy? Probably not although treaties with human rights components (eg Helsinki Final Act) by granting right to information are sometimes used. My reading of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations suggests a fairly narrow definition of diplomatic activity.   Cultural agreements between states can be used as a legal basis. Any agreement between states starts from an assumption of reciprocity and this provides quite a powerful lever. During the Cold War states on both sides would use formal cultural agreements to achieve their objectives. On the Communist side (and at points in the West) they could be used to limit ideological contamination. Also the West used reciprocity in exchanges to avoid a situation where they were shut out of Soviet labs while having to host floods of scientists from the East. During the 1950s the UK tried to avoid such agreements because they would create limits on the scope of interaction (Caute 2005, Richmond 2003) .

Post Cold War the application of reciprocity atrophied – but did not disappear – as FM rebroadcasting of the BBC became more common some countries demanded access to UK airwaves in return. More generally Western countries have accepted situations where their access to publics in authoritarian states is restricted but they do not impose reciprocal constraints – this would be true in relation to China, Russia and Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia.

This is where the liberal argument comes in to play. Restrictions on the activities of foreign states can be seen as restrictions on freedom of speech. In the marketplace of ideas error will be corrected. During the Cold War the strength of Western societies was such that they did not jam Communist radio stations. From this perspective the application of reciprocity ie ‘we will let country x broadcast on our terrestrial TV system if the BBC can operate on the same basis’ is seen more as a threat to censor country X than as a way to expand access. Obviously non-liberal states do not buy this

However its worth noting though that many Western states do not operate unlimited free speech policies in at least two realms. Firstly, the regulatory regime for broadcasting and similar services often imposes restrictions on foreign ownership as well as standards such as impartiality. Secondly, they have regulations regarding foreign funding of political parties and to make lobbying more transparent. The point about both of these sets of restrictions is they start with an assumption that the democracy is about a particular demos and there are differential rights and responsibilities between the members and non-members.

This is more an attempt to set out the parameters of an issue than reach a solution – I’m not sure what my position is.   I think that the starting point is to make the connection between the international perspective on the issue and the liberal and democratic arguments which tend to look at it through a domestic lens.   A more consistent position would avoid the kind of ad hoc reaction to events abroad or relying on the communications regulator to apply rules developed for commercial channels to foreign international broadcasters.

Caute D (2005) The dancer defects : the struggle for cultural supremacy during the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richmond Y (2003) Cultural exchange & the Cold War : raising the iron curtain. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.