Posts Tagged ‘Civil Society’


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 a the economic 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, not to mention their propensity to defend 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/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.


Five Quick Thoughts on the Diplomacy and Development Review

May 13, 2015

I’ve been reading Enduring Leadership in a Dynamic World, the State Department’s recent Quadrennial and Development Review. There been some interesting commentary  for instance here, here and here

Four quick thoughts

  1. A few years back people began to talk about the fusion of diplomacy and public diplomacy. If you do that though what happens to the identity of diplomacy and public diplomacy?  On the basis of this report the dialectic gives you something new. There is remarkably little diplomacy or public diplomacy (or for that matter development) in this report what you get is diplomacy as the construction of a civil society centred model of governance.
  2. If you follow the Western practice of statecraft this isn’t surprising but I think that this is something of a challenge to academic Diplomatic Studies (either in the ‘classical’ or ‘modernist’ variants) and International Relations – the routine theoretical opposition between states and civil society doesn’t work when civil society is the chosen instrument of foreign policy.
  3. Practically every page of this report has new examples of programmes, initiatives, partnerships with business, civil society, foundations, international organizations and I’m left wondering how much of this is ‘real’ in the sense of making a significant difference and about the fragmentation of management attention and resources that this implies.
  4. Joe Nye and others have argued that in the contemporary world that there is diffusion of power from the established power centres to rising powers and a diffusion of power from states to non-state actors.  The key bet in this report is that it’s the latter that will win out but the resulting civil society will be a liberal and pro-American one.   I’m not convinced that this end run around nation-states will work out as well as the QDDR seems to suggest, not least because, as I’ve argued civil societies have a substantial national component.

(Not) The Freedom House Guide to Policy Advocacy

March 2, 2015

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the place of civil society in public diplomacy and International Relations. One of the things that is interesting is the way that the use of the term gets narrowed down to mean ‘liberal, cosmopolitan, pro-Western elites’ and forgets that the religious extremists protesting outside the embassy or the guy sitting in his mother’s basement and inciting nationalist hatred on the internet are part of civil society too. The result is that civil society in the first sense is less popular and less influential than it appears when you put it in the context of civil society as a whole.  This has been a recurring problem in public diplomacy programmes over the last decade.

This was the frame of mind that I encountered a new article in The National Interest Power to the People: Taking Diplomacy to the Streets, written by Mark Lagon (the president of Freedom House) and Sarah Grebowski it demands ‘societal diplomacy’ that is a

” more nimble, realistic foreign-policy strategy requires diplomacy with civil society. At best, it will contribute constructively to political change brought about by domestic actors, serving more liberal rule and U.S. interests.”

I read it with some scepticism but then I realized that it offered a practically perfect guide to how to write a policy advocacy piece – so here’s what I learned.

1. DO make it clear that you policy is completely new and has nothing to do with any policy that has ever been tried before. This is much easier than having to explain the difference from public diplomacy, democracy support, human rights work or any other sort of contemporary diplomatic practice. This has the added advantage of ensuring that you don’t have to respond to any criticisms of these previous policies and strategies.

2. DON’T hide any of the massive advantages your new policy has

“can catalyze change at a minute fraction of the cost the United States pays to maintain its military dominance. It also aligns with U.S. values, since aiding civil society is a way for the United States to bolster universal human rights and cultivate democratic aspirations….restore America’s reputation as a force for good. Above all, it can serve a dynamic understanding of U.S. interests by anticipating and, where possible, influencing shifts in countries’ leadership…gain flexibility in responding to unpredictable outcomes…the United States can position itself on the “right side of history,”….societal diplomacy would have positive ramifications for the United States’ legitimacy as a global leader”….”the United States can chip away at the false idea that its goal is to spread democracy by force—and the well-founded suspicion that its support for democratization is self-servingly selective in practice.”

3. DO ignore or minimize any downside to your new policy (this particularly applies if you choose the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as priority targets) but don’t completely ignore them as they can be easily overcome – if the Saudi government is unhappy: “the United States should exercise leverage over the regime”

4. DO assume that the targets of your new policy won’t expel your diplomats or act in a way that can damage US interests.

5. DON’T waste space on practicalities like the kind of resources needed to execute this strate

Keep those rules in mind and policy innovation will be no problem!


The Closing Space Problem and Democracy Support

February 26, 2014

The Carnegie Endowment has put out an interesting report by Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher that looks at the phenomenon of the ‘closing space’ for international democracy and human right support.  The core argument is that more and more governments (and not just the usual authoritarian suspects) are enacting legal constraints on the operation of civil society groups and their ability to receive support from abroad in the form of money, training or other support.  They argue that this is not an isolated or temporary phenomenon and stems from recipient governments gaining a better understanding of what democracy support is and what it appears (to them at least) it can do.

The report looks at the impact of this ‘pushback’ and what donor countries have done about this and what they can do about it.  Part of the problem is that democracy support practices have developed piecemeal and that the sector is fragmented across different governments, different agencies within governments and non-governmental organizations and then across countries.  This works against coordinated responses to host governments clamping down and learning across the sector.  The authors make the point that they think that the people doing the learning are authoritarian governments – if one can force donors to back off from pro-democracy activities others will take similar actions.  Also if donors don’t take the same view on what democracy support is for and what is acceptable then there is a lack of mutual support.

One of the strengths of this paper is that it recognizes the tensions between sovereignty and democracy support efforts, it also appreciates that typical liberal strategies of depoliticisation may not always work; for instance offering help with building the capability of political parties may not help if on one side you have a well entrenched incumbent versus poorly resourced challengers.

This is obviously a policy oriented report and it points towards the need to resolve some more fundamental theoretical and conceptual issues.

Firstly, to what extent is it acceptable to restrict foreign support for NGO and similar organizations?  Given that most (all?) countries have limits on foreign political contributions or media ownership because of concerns about the impact on the political process a straight libertarian answer will lack credibility.

Secondly, is it possible for donor countries/agencies to reach a consensus on aims and means in democracy support work that would make it easier for them to work together and develop a coordinated response to the ‘closing space’ problem?