Posts Tagged ‘Public Diplomacy Definition’


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.



Public Diplomacy as an Umbrella Concept

January 27, 2011

Over Christmas I was reading J.M Mitchell’s, International Cultural Relations. He focuses on the development of cultural relations work in  France, Germany, Italy and the UK going back to the origins of  these activities in the late 19th century.  For France and Germany in particular the starting point is schools for their diasporas.  Schooling served as a way of preserving the identity of expatriates but also as a way of spreading cultural influence.  From Mitchell’s account it is clear that for European countries there were very strong continuities in their practices throughout the century that he covers.

This underlines the danger of approaching the development of ‘public diplomacy’ simply through the story of American public diplomacy.  I’ve commented before on the problem for scholars of using official or quasi-official definitions to define their field of study.

The thought that occurs to me is in an academic context  we should see public diplomacy as an umbrella term that covers a range of activities concerned with the external promotion of a country and its interests (eg branding, broadcasting, cultural relations, policy advocacy, media relations etc).  The important point here are that there is not a single model for how to do this  and that countries will often pursue several different activities  at the same time.

The objection to this that PD is used in much more precise ways.  For instance there are the American definitions from Gullion onwards.  In the UK there is the British Council view that they don’t do Public Diplomacy and that this is something that the Foreign Office does.  I would respond in two ways.  Firstly,   PD is already mostly used in the broad sense.  All I am suggesting here is an explicit recognition that PD isn’t just one thing.  The second response is to find another term.  In US official discourse ‘strategic communication’ seems to be coming in to use as the overarching term.  My problem with this is that strategic communication is too general:  the term is broadly used in the private sector.  In my mind the advantage of ‘public diplomacy’ is precisely the connection to ‘diplomacy’ and the international dimensions of the practices we are interested in.  It is that fact that this communication activities are being done by official or quasi official organizations in one country to influence relations with people in other countries introduces a set of issues that mark off the field.

Mitchell, J. (1986) International Cultural Relations. London: Allen and Unwin.


The Problem of Definitions

November 24, 2010

I’ve been doing a lot of teaching recently – hence the absence of postings – and this has been confronting me with the issue of definitions ie : public diplomacy, strategic communications, soft power, information operations.  Students have to wrestle with different understandings of these terms.  From a pedagogical point of view this is good but thinking about this leads me to a broader conclusion.

A  problem for scholarship in the PD studies area is the willingness to let the field be defined by organizational definitions of what it is we are studying.  Government organizations develop definitions of things that reflect amongst other things: current policy priorities, turf wars, aspirations, defence of budgets and the latest intellectual fashions not academic rigour or clarity.  These definitions are essentially political: can all the different interests involved actually live with the compromises involved?  The result is definitions that lack intellectual coherence and yoke together different ideas.   Organizational practices  are often seriously at odds with the definitions.  From an academic point of view an organization’s definition of public diplomacy (or anything else) has to be taken as ‘this is the way that organization x defines concept y at a particular moment in time’ rather than a definitive statement of what the concept really is.  The issue for the scholar is then to explain why organization x has that definition and the implications of that definition.

From a scholarly point of view public diplomacy and related terms have to be seen as umbrella concepts that cover a range of activities that differ across time and across countries.   If we are to develop a broader understanding of what PD institutions do, what works and why it works we can’t allow what we study to be defined by definitional trade offs arrived at in interagency working groups.


From Perception to Partnership: Shifting UK Definitions of Public Diplomacy

September 21, 2010

Last week I posted the definition of public diplomacy that is currently on the FCO website it’s interesting to compare with the definitions used in two relatively recent British official reviews of PD

From the Wilton Review of March 2002

that work which aims at influencing in a positive way the perceptions of individuals and organisations overseas about the UK, and their engagement with the UK’. In consequence, impact (or outcome) is the positive difference which the work makes to those perceptions and engagement.

From the Carter Review of December 2005

work aiming to inform and engage individuals and organisations overseas, in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals.

The current definition

Public Diplomacy is a process of achieving the UK’s international strategic priorities through engaging and forming partnerships with like-minded organisations and individuals in the public arena.

The definition evolves from a broad effort to influence perceptions of the UK to a narrower focus on achieving strategic priorities.   The intended level of engagement develops from perception to partnership.

It’s worth pointing out that the British Council defines what it does as ‘cultural relations’ and wouldn’t subscribe to this definition – this is how the FCO labels its own activities.