Archive for the ‘Public Diplomacy’ Category


Ask Max Weber: What’s Wrong With British Foreign Policy

May 20, 2015

Britain’s lack of appetite for international affairs attracted some negative commentary during the election campaign, even the Iranians weight in calling for a more active foreign policy. Given that there’s a widespread belief in Iran that the British are as malevolent as the Americans this was a pretty big deal. The three main parties all had pretty much the same foreign policy in their manifestos so it wasn’t going to become a big issue.

So what’s going on? One explanation is that it’s to do with popular war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan. Public opinion won’t wear an active foreign policy. Given that Chatham House’s regular survey continues to show 60% support for a significant international role I’m not convinced. In fact Max Weber offers an alternative explanation; it’s the elites that are the problem.

Weber’s argument goes like this.* Support for active foreign policies come from elite groups who gain material (arms contracts?) or other benefits (status, promotions) from success in the international sphere. The success generates prestige that serves as one mechanism to legitimize the elite. In this scheme nationalism is the tendency of the ruled to identify with the rulers – and the more successful they appear to be the more popular they are.

So how is British foreign policy going? Well we invaded Iraq and then having told everyone we knew what we’re doing discovered that we didn’t. The army decided to have another go and got us involved in Helmand, and made it clear that we still didn’t know what we were doing. David Cameron’s Libya mission has gone south and on Syria I’m not convinced that he was really trying that hard. The political, military and foreign policy elites have all been thoroughly deflated on foreign policy. The politicians don’t know anything about foreign affairs and are more interested in clinging to office. I get the impression that senior military, FCO, and intelligence people are anxious to pass the buck – which explains their enthusiasm for the NSC. And the Iraq fallout isn’t over yet because we’ve still got the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War to come it covers the period up to 2009 which means that there are people still in senior positions who are implicated in events – so don’t expect brilliant new initiatives coming up from below to enthuse the political leadership any time soon.   New thinking is going to have to come from outside the government.

*Randall Collins discusses this in chapter 6 of Weberian Sociological Theory (Cambridge: CUP, 1986), this draws on the argument in Chapter 9 of Weber’s Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California, 1968).


Public Diplomacy and The Question of Governance

April 16, 2015

Discussions of public diplomacy have frequently broken the activity down into three elements; information, education and culture and international broadcasting.

But…if we look around at what public diplomacy/cultural relations organizations actually do there’s a sizeable chunk of work that would be better labelled as concerned with governance. Bruce Gregory (2008) has made the connection between public diplomacy and the literature on international governance but we can also add the mode of organization within the state. For example a project that is concerned with capacity building for civil society organizations involved with conflict resolution or election monitoring or women’s rights. This is an area that overlaps with work done by development agencies or on their behalf.

This potentially an thought that can be developed along at least three related lines:

For the critically inclined this can be read as the export of a particular mode of neoliberal governance (Foucault 2007, 2008, Neumann and Sending 2010).

This would imply that as a practice of statecraft public diplomacies are about creating foreign publics not just ‘engaging’ them. However it could be argued that this has always been the case – even back in the 1890s creating a committee of the Alliance Française was creating a public [what a public is links to Walter Lippmann, John Dewey and Bruno Latour (Marres 2005)] Or another starting point would be the linked appearance of the Cold War and the question of development where statecraft becomes particularly involved with the internal organization of states.

This then casts light on the ever elusive search for dialogue.   At least since the early 1960s the era of dialogue in foreign public engagement has been proclaimed but never quite arrives (explaining why it is constantly being proclaimed. If a country sees itself as exporting the future there’s an implied hierarchy. Dialogue happens between equals so this tension between the explicit rhetoric of dialogue and the implicit hierarchy generates some interesting tensions.


Foucault M (2007) Security, territory, population. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault M (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Senellart M (ed). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gregory B (2008) Public Diplomacy and Governance: Challenges for Scholars and Practitioners, in Cooper AF, Hocking B and Maley W (eds) Global Governance and Diplomacy: Worlds Apart, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 241–56.

Marres N (2005) Issues Spark a Public into Being: A Key But Often Forgotten Point of the Lippmann-Dewey Debate, in Latour B and Weibel P (eds) Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 208–17.

Neumann IB and Sending OJ (2010) Governing the Global Polity: Practice, Mentality, Rationality. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


Counter-Propaganda: Do I Detect a Propaganda Panic™?

December 16, 2014

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and ISIS propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and Isis propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™. This is not to say that there aren’t things to be concerned about but it also seems to be me that the current excitement is a bit overblown which in turn suggests some observations about how we think about these things.

The propaganda panic can be seen as a variation on the good old media moral panic

The classic propaganda panic starts with an event that comes as a surprise to a group of political leaders (and to the journalists that commentate on them). Such an unexpected event needs an explanation and ‘propaganda’ provides an answer.   The attraction of ‘propaganda’ is that it appears to stand somewhere outside the normal responsibilities of politics or diplomacy and helps to insulate those in charge from an accusation that they weren’t paying attention or that their policies have failed. The explanation can then be offered that it is the inadequacy of our propaganda/public diplomacy/ information efforts. The additional twist is that the people who have been responsible for the ‘inadequate’ response have been saying all along that their work is totally underfunded and so instead of coming out swinging at their critics gratefully pocket the increased appropriations.

This isn’t entirely cynical on the part of the people involved because underpinning the attribution of effect to ‘propaganda’ is the classic misperception of seeing an opponent as more capable, unified and coherent than they actually are, and to see oneself as more benign that you actually appear to other actors (eg Jervis 1976, part III).  Hence once a group of leaders have undergone a surprise and started to pay attention to a situation they attribute the negative aspects of the situation to the carefully laid plans of the opponent that are generating opposition.

In the contemporary case I would add a tendency of the current security community to abstract threats from their specific situations. I’ve been struck by the number of blog posts about how one the ISIS/Putin situations marks the rise of a new unconventional-hybrid-asymmetric-Mad Max – conflict threat or something like that. Essentially this is converting a situation or a pair of situations with quite specific characteristics into a category. Rather than looking for responses that are tailored to these situations and question becomes how to come up with the optimum weapons and organizations to defeat the category of threat.

The crux of responding effectively is to put the problems back in their real political, historical and media context. The problem with the propaganda panic is that encourages thinking in terms of myths.

Next up I’ll take up some of the specific challenges of counter propaganda in the digital space.

Jervis R (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


House of Lords Report on UK Soft Power

April 4, 2014

The House of Lords Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence produced its report Persuasion and Power in Modern World last week.

For readers of this blog there’s not much that’s very surprising about it.  A very short summary would go like this.

Britain is in a world increasingly characterised by hyperconnectivity and ‘the rise of the rest’ and this makes soft and smart power more important. The UK has lots of soft power assets but the government tends to neglect them and shows no ability to coordinate anything. We need stronger mechanisms for defining a national strategic narrative and pointing the great many players in the right direction.

You can get a pretty good sense of what’s in the report (138 pages of text) by looking at the summary on pages 5-7 or even better the conclusions and recommendations on pages 8-21. The report is quite neutral in its tone but many of the conclusions and recommendations are actually fairly critical of the government. They also echo the views of other Parliamentary Committees in the absence of strategy and coordination, the suspicion of the new arrangements for the BBC World Service, the negative impact of visa policies and so on.

Given that I often get the impression that hardly anyone is actually interested in British foreign policy it’s great to see the volume of evidence that the Committee attracted. Hats off the Committee for doing this and to Ben O’Loughlin for his work as the academic advisor.

Incidentally my evidence is here.



News-Work and Public Diplomacy

November 20, 2013

Another package from Amazon; another fascinating dissection of the place of culture in the foreign relations of country y.  Don’t get me wrong I like reading about cultural relations and cultural diplomacy as much as the next person but I’m thinking that we need to think more about the importance of working with foreign media organizations. Newswork remains fundamental to the practice of public diplomacy but I think that it gets neglected in both the academic and policy literature.   Part of this is the perception that the question of news supply has become much less important because of the internet but news is shaped by the routines of journalists and news consumers and the online version of newspaper may well be looking in the same places for news as its print version did years ago.

Why does news matter for PD?  News influences foreign publics but news also influences foreign elites.  News is one of the basic components of policy making.  So if an actor can influence the news diet of foreign publics there should be some benefit from it.

So what I want to do in this post is to lay out the components of a public diplomacy newswork agenda.

How does this happen?  Here there are three sites that we need to think about.

Firstly, there’s the infrastructure of news – the role of news agencies in supplying ‘wholesale’ news.  If I’m running a newspaper where does my foreign news come from? I either steal it from other media or I subscribe to news agencies.  Language and cost are issues here.  If I can only subscribe to one news agency which one do I subscribe to?  Well news agencies, particularly those from different countries offer different news, you can be pretty sure that they’ll have more news about one country and less about others and the stories that they carry will be framed in different ways – not necessarily for any manipulative reasons but because agencies frame news in particular ways.  Hence one strategy that has recurred at various times is subsidizing your own country’s new agency or creating other organizations that provide news stories to foreign media at reduced rates or even for nothing.  By switching a news organization’s foreign news source from one country to another you increase the availability of information about one country and decrease news about another.  For plenty of examples of this see the history of the various news agencies, this is basically what’s going on with Xinhua’s penetration of Africa.

Secondly, there’s the role of the overseas post.  The press job there is to cultivate the local media, make sure that you can deal with their requests for information but also get them to carry your country’s news.  But…the post level depends on a good supply of material from home.  Good in the sense of plentiful, up to date and relevant to where the post is.  There are lots of cases of posts from all kinds of countries complaining about the crap that the ministry sends them: not enough, too late, boring, wrong language, not relevant.  MFA’s needed to run their own mini-news agencies to provide news that overseas posts could try to pass onto local media – the US version of this was the Washington File but other countries operated something similar.

Thirdly, the ministry needs to keep the posts supplied with material that they  can use, alert them to things that are happening and provide lines that they can use, feed the foreign correspondents who cover their country and try and steer the domestic media.  The latter is particularly importance because very often the foreign correspondents take their cue from the home media.  Particularly when countries are in some type of conflict situation (hence paying attention to each other) you get dynamics where the media in one country report criticisms in the other’s media triggering spiral of media antagonism.

How much of this has changed across time?  The further we go back in time the more the operation of the system was shaped by the scarcity of news.  If you can’t just go on the internet and look something up where are your sources of information? In the abstract we can argue that there is more information around but news is shaped by routines – if you’re a journalist where do you look for news.

We also have to factor in variation between sending and receiving countries.  In some countries at particular points of time it was quite normal to pay for news to appear in particular outlets in others this was a complete non-starter.  Some countries are seen as more newsworthy than others.

Some of this stuff has been chewed over in different parts of the International Communications literature – for instance the historical domination of news in the global south by American, British or French sources – but not really at the level of agency, how have official news policies shaped the news and to what extent do they continue to do so?  And for the practitioners out there how can we do it better?




Nadia von Maltzahn on Syrian-Iranian Cultural Diplomacy

September 23, 2013

Nadia von Maltzahn’s, The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East is one of the more unexpected contributions to the literature of public diplomacy on several grounds.  Firstly, there are few bilateral studies of public engagement, secondly, while there are many studies of public engagement by authoritarian regimes I can’t think of another one where the target is another authoritarian regime and thirdly, it’s about Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes.    Fourthly, this is a bilateral study where the author knows both the languages involved and has been able to get a degree of cooperation from people involved.

The study traces the development of cultural relations activities between the two countries since the independence of Syria after the Second World War up until the outbreak of the current conflict in 2011.  Although Iran and Syria concluded a friendship treaty in the 1950s and a cultural agreement in the 1970s relations between the two were a low priority.  After the Iranian revolution geopolitical interests – including antagonism to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Israel and the US brought the two countries together creating a relationship that has endured despite differences over Lebanon and Syria’s participation in the US led coalition that liberated Kuwait in 1991.  At its heart this is a relationship driven by politics and cultural relations work is there to support the diplomatic relationship.

As von Maltzahn shows there’s been a distinct imbalance in the relationship it’s Iran who’s been much more committed to cultural work.  Iran has a distinctive language and culture as well as its revolutionary tradition.  On the other hand Syria prides itself on its commitment to Arab unity which makes a claim of cultural distinctiveness problematic, how it distinguishes itself is through its hardline rejectionist stance.  The result is that Iran has spent heavily on a cultural centre in Damascus plus regional activities.  The instruments at work are familiar; language courses, magazines, lectures, support for the teaching of Persian in Syrian universities, film festivals, scholarships and so on.  The Iranian Cultural Centre in Damascus opened its doors in 1983, Syria did not reciprocate until 2005 and on a much smaller scale.  While Iran sees foreign public engagement as a routine part of its statecraft the Syrian Centre in Tehran is more of a one off – ironically, because of the state of relations between Iran and the rest of the Arab world, it had the potential to become a more significant part of the Iranian cultural scene than the Syrians perhaps realised.

As well as looking at the cultural centres von Maltzahn includes a chapter devoted to the experiences of students from the two countries and one on Iranian religious tourism in Syria.  As with other tourists Iran’s move within predictable patterns and don’t engage much with Syrians beyond that.  Rather than increasing Syrian understanding of Iran most of the tourists are relatively poor and rural and may have a negative impact on perceptions in Syria.

From the point of view of scholars of public diplomacy this will seem like a rather exotic study but the practices of cultural relations work will seem very familiar.  Highly recommended.


American Hypernationalism and Foreign Influence: A Last Word on Putin

September 19, 2013

I’m loathe to given any more attention to Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times but I noticed Jeremi Suri’s piece at Foreign Affairs which places Putin’s intervention in a line of unsuccessful foreign attempts to influence American foreign policy debates that he traces back to the aftermath of the War of Independence through Khruschev.

For all the openness of American public debate, U.S. foreign policy has always been defined by individuals residing within its borders. American foreign policy is, above all, hypernationalist, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. ….

The ongoing debate surrounding U.S. policy in Syria shows that Kennan was correct about the importance of “short-term trends of public opinion.” Those trends have always been defined by the words of prominent Americans, not those of foreign leaders.

Stirring stuff but America’s friends figured out at least a century ago that the key to influencing American policy debates was to work through Americans themselves.  The literature on the US as target for foreign public diplomacy is pretty substantial – some examples below.  Actually untangling what these campaigns did is tricky but it may be that students of public diplomacy are too reticent about making claims for influence.  For instance US entry into the two World Wars took place in a context of where the Allied powers were working very hard to shape the information environment.*   Of course the French or the British or anyone else who want to exert influence work with networks of collaborators who genuinely believe that the policies that they are advocating are in the best interests of the US.

*It’s actually people who want to argue against the impact of these campaigns who have to argue the counterfactual – that the debate and policy decisions would have played out the same way in the absence of these influence attempts.


Dubosclard A (2001) Diplomatie culturelle et propagande françaises aux États-Unis pendant le premier vingtième siècle, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 48: 102–119.

Dubosclard A (2002) L’Alliance Francaise aux Etats-Unis, Outil de Diplomatie ou Association d’Hommes Libres?, in Dubosclard, et al A (ed) Entre Rayonnement et Reciprocite: Contributions a l’Histoire de al Diplomatie Culturelle, Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, pp. 117–37.

Dubosclard A (2007) L’action artistique de la France aux Etats-Unis : 1915-1969. Paris: CNRS.

Young RJ (2004) Marketing Marianne: French Propaganda in America, 1900-1940. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Kim R (2011) South Korean Cultural Diplomacy and Efforts to Promote the RoK’s Brand Image in the United States and Around the World, Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, 11: 124–34.

Lee S (2006) An analysis of other countries’ international public relations in the U.S., Public Relations Review, 32: 97–103.

Snyder DJ (2010) The Problem of Power in Modern Public Diplomacy: The Netherlands Information Bureau in World War II and the Early Cold War, in Osgood KA and Etheridge BC (eds) The United States and Public Diplomacy: New Directions in Cultural and International History, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, pp. 57–80.

Tully JD (2010) Ethnicity, Security, and Public Diplomacy: Irish-Americans and Ireland’s Neutrality in World War II, in Osgood KA and Etheridge BC (eds),The United States and Public Diplomacy: New Directions in Cultural and International History Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, pp. 81–102.

Anstey C (1984) The Projection of British Socialism: Foreign Office Publicity and American Opinion, 1945-50, Journal of Contemporary History, 19: 417–451.

Cull NJ (1995) Selling War the British Propaganda Campaign against American “Neutrality” in World War II. New York: OUP.

Cull NJ (1997) Overture to an Alliance: British Propaganda at the New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940, The Journal of British Studies, 36: 325–354.