Posts Tagged ‘Public Diplomacy Theory’


Regulating Foreign Influence: Some Starting Points

March 29, 2019

Public diplomacies are things ‘we’ do that affect other people.  Almost all discussions whether in academic or policy contexts are understood in these terms; other people show up in terms of ‘audiences’, ‘publics’ and ‘effects’.  Even the idea that public diplomacies should be understood in terms of ‘relations’ or ‘dialogue’ start from ‘us’ as the actor.  This opens the question of what this looks like from the ‘other’ side.

One manifestation of the flip side is ‘foreign influence’.  Or more precisely illegitimate foreign influence. The interesting thing is that discussions about foreign influence are far more heated that debates about public diplomacy, cultural relations or the state of our soft power.  It’s worth underlining how much political energy gets poured into these issues – think about questions over Russian or Chinese influence, the Turkish diaspora in Germany, the Israeli lobby in the US, or the ongoing Qatar-UAE struggle.  In a world where the range of countries who can set out to build influence is expanding these questions are likely to become more significant.

One of the reasons why these issues become so contentious is that we lack a tradition of really thinking about these questions in an abstract way; we can’t just slot cases into well worked out frameworks.  Western political thought tends to separate the domestic and the international at both analytical and normative levels thinking about these transnational issues is quite fragmentary.  This also means that our discussions tend to mix up different normative frameworks and a starting point is to recognize that there are different set of ideas at work.

I was really stimulated to think about this by a report that came out last week from the ‘Venice Commission’ the European Commission for Democracy through Law of the Council of Europe.  Their report was concerned with the extent to which states can limit the extent to which NGOs can access foreign funding.  The fundamental human rights declarations give states fairly extensive powers to regulate organizations and in the context of restrictions on NGOs in Hungary or Egypt the Venice experts were concerned with how minimize the scope of restrictions.  In reading it though I was thinking what if we were talking about getting funding for diaspora organizations from authoritarian governments would they be quite as keen on restricting state powers?

I would argue that we can see four different ways of thinking about the legitimacy or otherwise of foreign influence

The starting point is a liberal perspective.  People have rights to freedom of speech, thought, association, travel, religion etc.  Therefore any restriction is bad.  Given that these are the sticks that liberal states use to batter other kinds of states with it’s not surprising that any of the other perspectives look suspect.  From a liberal position you can argue the foreign influence question doesn’t exist.  It only exists because people insist on sorting people into foreign and non-foreign.  I suspect very few people actually embrace this position but part of the difficulty is that they don’t really think through how they deviate from it.  I can see three positions.

Polity protection:  The polity is a distinct political community that regulates its own affairs.  Therefore it needs to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens and to ensure that its institutions function in the interests of the community.  In practical terms this means restrictions on the funding of politics and on the ownership and operation of media companies.  This perspective does not require democracy but it seems that democracy requires some degree of protection.

Cultural/Identity: The second position is a set of ideas around identity and culture.  That is foreign actors threaten our culture and must be excluded/regulated.  In the current climate this is likely to be read in terms of Victor Orban or Steve Bannon but it is also has to be recognized that it is the same idea that underpins discourses of cultural imperialism, the UN Convention on Cultural Diversity and decades of European and Canadian cultural and media policy.  Foreign influence is what threatens ‘our’ culture.  Of course this leads to other arguments about what our culture is and who defines its.

Westphalian Reciprocity: This is less about any particular content but about the right to regulate through the exercise of sovereignty and treaties.  This starts from the presumption of equality and hence reciprocity.  In theory at least foreign influence activities can be managed by insisting on reciprocity.  This is may look unacceptably restrictive from a liberal perspective but normatively is quite straightforward.

These three positions tend to get mixed up in thinking about modern states but actually rest on different normative foundations and suggest different prescriptions.  Yet there is another complicating factor; in practice debates about ‘foreign influence’ happen when people are unhappy about it, positive influence isn’t framed in these terms, instead we get more “what we can learn from them”.  Any systematic development of a position based on protection of the polity, culture or on Westphalian reciprocity will be rather restrictive from a liberal perspective.  Judgements on ‘foreign influence’ tend to contain evaluations of who is a friend which will often rest on issues of cultural or ideological proximity.

Having said that liberal states have no alternative but to begin to think through these questions.  There are lessons to be learned from the practices of European neutrals in the era of the World Wars but I’ll take this up in a later post.


Locating Public Diplomacy in International Relations

April 14, 2015

The thing that started me working on the public diplomacies project was the observation that people were very keen to make suggestions about how public diplomacy could be improved but were very vague about the basis for these suggestions. As I’ve argued on several occasions discussions of public diplomacy tend start with the question ‘how can we make it better?’ But to answer this question we need to answer two other questions; what do people do (and why do they do it)? And why does whatever they do succeed or fail?

As the project has proceeded I’ve realized that there’s another question that needs to be addressed: how does the engagement of foreign publics fit into the broader picture of International Relations both as a field of study and as a field of practice? The difficulty with dealing with this question is that in order to fit in public diplomacy you need to some serious re-engineering of how we think about IR.

In a paper at ISA earlier this year Networked Realism? History, Theory and Transnational State Action I had crack at this. The first part of the paper reviews the background of the work that I’ve been doing on the history of public diplomacy/cultural relations and all the other sorts of foreign public engagement. I then go on and make three claims (all of which have been made on this blog at some time or another).

Firstly, IR tends to work with an opposition between a territorially defined state and a transnational civil society with an assumption in some quarters that the latter will overcome the former. History suggests that that this opposition is wrong. Civil society has been a major carrier of ‘the national’ not just in terms of expectations of mutual support from state actors, ngos, business, disapora etc but in the export of national models. Consistently from the late 19th c. non-state actors have initiated, pushed for, and participated in public diplomacy and cultural relations activities.

Secondly, history also tells us that states are relatively incoherent networks (which sometimes manage a degree of coordination), that need to draw resources from, and interact with other actors. Their ability to do this successfully explains quite a lot about the ability of states to act internationally.

Thirdly, parts of these networks extend well beyond the territorial boundaries of the state and as do civil society networks. Rather than discuss power (or soft power) as a single attribute of a state it needs to be broken down spatially and across issues to become a set of questions about influence in defined situations.

A lot of IR writing tends to use nation-state as a synonym for ‘state’ but my argument is that the ‘nation’ bit needs much more attention – less because of extreme expressions of nationalism – but because of the pervasiveness of routine national identification of compatriots and others. This ‘nation centrism’ gives a picture of world politics where states rest on a more robust foundation of national identifying civil societies, and where international competition is pervasive albeit less associated with military competition than in state-centric versions of realism.


Introducing the Influence Chain

April 22, 2014

It’s one of the maxims of academic writing that you should stick to one new idea per paper. In writing my paper for ISA this year I shoved three ideas in each of which deserved a paper in its own right.   The overall question was if we’re thinking in comparative terms about PD what should we be comparing in order to build better theory.

In the paper I offer three ideas. Firstly, we should think about national public diplomacy systems*. That is the set of organizations and stakeholders that are responsible for the conduct of foreign public engagement. These systems are path dependent in that they emerge in response to quite specific problems, become institutionalized and the response to changes in the internal and external environment is constrained by the existing organization and ways of doing things. National systems develop specific repertoires of activities so faced with a new problem they reach into their toolbag and pull out a familiar tool. In posts this week I want to write about the second and third of the ideas that I put forward the influence chain and the operational space.

What’s an influence chain? Following Bruno Latour’s exhortation to follow the actors it’s the set of connections that leads us from intent to effect.   Here’s a very simple example: a government wants to influence another government using PD so in a very classical model there’s supposed to be a chain of influence that runs from left to right.

Ideal Type 4

But what you frequently get is something like this…

Fail 2

..the chain isn’t complete or it doesn’t go where you want it to go: for instance an implementing organization just does what it always does regardless of the situation. This isn’t surprising as that organization is probably going to be evaluated in how much it does, not what the effect actually is.

Some future work is to develop a typology of influence chains based both on the type of actors involved and the type of influence mechanism.  From the point of view of comparative research the USIS at its most informational or the Goethe Institut at its most cultural are both building influence chains they are just composed of different types of links and work (or don’t work) in different ways.

For me the influence chain can exist in three forms. Firstly, it’s the ‘theory of change’ – possibly implicit that the decision-makers and planners have. In pure research terms actually looking at what these theories are would be a valuable exercise.  How to they vary across organizations, across the actors in the chain and across countries.  Secondly, following from this the chain can be thought of as a diagnostic tool; what’s wrong with this theory. Thirdly, it’s a way of exploring what is really happening. The ‘theory of change’ is likely starting from a fairly idealized picture of the world but when we start ‘following the actors’ we start to see what’s really happening

If we look at the connection between the first and second links in the chain as if under a microscope we notice that the two links have quite a few potential differences between them and something similar is going to happen all along the chain. In the language of actor-network theory, actors need to be enrolled (ie influenced to get on board with the project) but this leads to translation – that is the project is changed by this process. Given how difficult different bits of the same state find getting along what happens when we start to include, for instance, foreign NGOs? Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message to which I would add that in public diplomacy the medium is the organizational network.



*In responding to the paper Eytan Gilboa argued that ‘system’ was too orderly and suggested ‘establishment’. I hesitated before using ‘system’ for precisely this reason.

Here’s a copy of the paper:ISA 2014 v 6


Competition and Public Diplomacy Innovation

May 22, 2011

Public Diplomacy scholars (including me) tend to write articles that point to the changing nature of the media or diplomatic environment and then make the connection to the need for innovation in PD organization and practice.  What is being argued implicitly or explicitly is that states adapt (or should adapt) to a generalized set of changes. ..

…But  the more I read into the history of public diplomacy and across the experience of different countries the more I begin to see the importance of interstate competition in driving innovation in public diplomacy.  French innovations in cultural diplomacy were driven by their competition with Germany, the British Council emerged from competition with Italy and France.  Cold War public diplomacy is obviously driven by competition.  But this is not just a matter of great power politics in reading Evan Potter’s (2009) Branding Canada I keep seeing references to Australia as a comparator you also  get the impression that it was the perception of a declining competitive position that stimulated the Ottawa into action.

What this means is that while PD scholars (like me) express scepticism at Hilary Clinton’s ‘war of ideas’ rhetoric these kind of arguments seem to be powerful motivators of spending and innovation in PD .  This is not to say that innovation can’t be driven by other factors but we shouldn’t forget that PD is something done by states and the history of international relations tends to suggest that competition drives innovation.

This leads to a few questions.  Which countries do states regard as their competitors?  What is the arena in which this competition takes place (politics, culture, idea, trade, attracting students)? How do different types of competition shape the evolution  of public diplomacy organization and strategy? A hypothesis might be that political competition tends to generate different approaches to PD than economic or cultural competition.

Potter, E.H. (2010) Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power Through Public Diplomacy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Should Public Diplomacy Be About Values?

August 26, 2010

It’s only recently that I’ve noticed how often the idea of  ‘values’ crops up in conjunction with public diplomacy.  I’ve seen this as something that is advocated (public diplomacy should be about communicating a country’s values) and something that is practiced, for instance speeches that emphasize the common values between two countries.  I wonder to what extent this emphasis on values is really thought through and the extent to which it is a habit.

There are some good reasons for values talk.   In the abstract values are basically the same in most places so by talking about values you emphasize what we have in common and de-emphasize conflicts.  We also know that in domestic politics that voters tend to respond positively to talk about values.

On the other hand I’m still sceptical.

  1. What’s the connection between values and action?  Actions do not follow automatically from values.  Values are abstract concepts that can be interpreted in lots of different ways.  People tend to have value systems that aren’t internally consistent.
  2. It’s hard to live up to values – particularly as they are interpreted by other people; hence a slippery slope to charges of hypocrisy
  3. In domestic politics values talk serves to polarize and mobilize.  We draw a distinction between their values and ours.  International politics is full of values talk aimed at achieving precisely the same objectives.
  4. Values, in the sense of strong moral commitments, are non-negotiable.

So what’s the alternative?  Well maybe we should talk more about interests.

  1. In The Passions and the Interests Albert Hirschman argues that the concept of interest was developed in the early modern period keep a check on the passions.  Values are more benign than passions but have some of the same characteristics.
  2. If we talk about our interests we may defuse the hypocrisy charge.
  3. Interests are provide a language that we can negotiate and deal around.

I’m not entirely convinced by this:   interests can be constructed into something that is beyond negotiation and interests can conflict just as much as values both within actors and between them.  However, I am convinced that the language of values should be used with greater circumspection.


Thinking About Relationships

June 23, 2010

Ok so we are convinced that PD needs to take a relational turn.  That is we ought to stop obsessing about messages and communication and think about how we can build relationships.

As I pointed out in an earlier post there are several different genres of relational PD in the literature eg PR, technological, dialogical, organizational but they are mostly vague about what constitutes a relationship.

From the PR literature we get the idea that relationships are supposed to be symmetrical and/or based in dialogue.  I think  that it is important to note that this is a very particular perspective on relationships;  network analysis,  social theory (and our own experience)  offer a range of alternative perspectives.

A few propositions:

Social relationships involve more than communications.  Relationships can be thought of in terms of exchanges of material and non-material resources.   Foreign publics (lets be more concrete – individuals, groups, organizations) enter into relationships with states either because they feel some affinity already (diaspora groups?) or because they think that they are going to get something out of it – resources, prestige, information, help toward a desired goal.

Some relationships are tied to a particular activity (eg people you see at work but not outside of it) or to a particular period (if you change your job how many of your former colleagues do you stay in touch with?) Some relationships are more transposable – eg close friends.   To what are the relationships constructed by PD activities self-sustaining?

Relationships compete for attention and resources.  You can only judge the importance of a relationship    relative to someone else’s set of relationships.  I think that this is one of the basic problems of diplomacy: your relationship with someone else is really good.   Unfortunately their relationship with somebody else is even better.

Relationships aren’t necessarily positive.  You may have a very strong relationship with someone based on the idea that you’d like to put them out of business.

There is a lot more to be said about the characteristics of relationships but the take away for now is that most relationships have little to do with Habermasian dialogue and a lot more to do with standard human interests.


The International Politics of Public Diplomacy

June 9, 2010
    I’ve been working on the promised follow up to the last post but getting a bit stuck so here’s part of the idea.

    Underlying the last post was the idea that we could overcome the ‘policy’  and  ‘communication’ tension by recognizing that these are both choices about relations.  This means simply recognizing that some choices about who we have friendly/hostile relations with affect other relationships including those with those ‘foreign publics’.   It may be that we make a conscious decision to trade off relations against each other.  The bigger error is not recognizing that these trade offs exist.

    The nature of the basic diplomatic relationship between two countries (plus the nature of political regime) will shape the space within which public diplomacy can operate.

    State of Diplomatic Relations Motivation for PD Activities Target Country Attitude
    1 Good Reinforce relationship Positive
    2 Good Influence policy stance Positive to Ambivalent
    3 Good to Ambivalent Influence political development Ambivalent
    4 Poor Improve relationship Ambivalent
    5 Poor Undermine regime/support opposition Hostile/Obstructive

    What I’m suggesting in this table is that the prospects for PD activities are actually going to be shaped by the political context not just the quality of the communications.

    In case one we have good relations with another country and we develop say exchange programmes.  In two we have good relations with another country but we would like to influence their position on a particular issue.  The reaction here will be shaped by regime type.  If you have an open plural political system you probably won’t be to bothered (although there are limits eg in support for particular parties) a more closed regime may be more concerned.

    The third case probably has an authoritarian/semi-authoritarian regime as a result public diplomacy engagement with civil society groups is regarded with a certain degree of suspicion.   Not least because Western PD organizations tend to have a public commitment to the development of civil society as a support to democracy.

    In the fourth case we might be looking at symbolic acts such as the exchange of sports teams that are a direct extension of the diplomatic game.

    The fifth case reflects a situation where a deteriorating diplomatic relationship or increasing domestic repression leads to increased support for PD activities that support the domestic opposition.  Cases 3 and 5 are interesting because for the host government the difference between them may not be obvious.  In both cases there are likely to be increasing restrictions on the operations of PD organizations.  It has been reported that the Egyptian government is insisting that US support can only be provided to government approved organizations.

    What this analysis suggests is that one factor influencing the possibilities for PD and the impact are diplomatic relations and regime type.  The language of public diplomacy, particularly in cultural relations organizations,  tends to portray it as non-political but from the perspective of host countries this may not be the case.  For example we can see the restrictions that the British Council operates under in Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran, Sudan and Russia.  From the point of view of a receiving government regime PD activities may actually contribute to a worsening of diplomatic relations.

    PD practitioners have good reason to portray their work as non-political. But from an analytical point of view looking at the politics of the activity in terms of the diplomatic relationship and the domestic situation adds an important dimension to our understanding of public diplomacy.