Public Diplomacy and the 2008 Election

The Chess Board 1 by tree12, Creative Commons The Chess Board 1
Photo by tree12 (CC).

Public Diplomacy's Beginnings

Classical diplomacy was understood and conducted as affairs between one government and another.

Under this conventional definition of diplomacy there is marginal room for participation of the general public. Domestic constituencies are tangentially engaged, and, hence, are difficult targets for foreign governments.

Modern diplomacy and public diplomacy have their birth with the foundation of the modern, geographically-based, secular state system after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The state rather than the church became both the actor and the target, the participants in the great game were mostly a narrow, ennobled elite, and public diplomacy was an occasional appeal over-the-head or behind-the-back of rulers.


The next phase in the evolution of public diplomacy dates to the late 1700s. With both the gradual expansion of state bureaucracies and the dramatic extension of the franchise after the American and French revolutions, public diplomacy began to find its modern role. Larger bureaucracies, separation of powers, and divergent legislative constituencies all provided potential new targets and opportunities for states to intrude on the domestic affairs of rivals and friends. Through the 1800s, public diplomacy continued to slowly expand with the evolution of newspapers, the extension of the franchise, the use of propaganda, and the slow development of communications technology.

The third major phase in the growth of public diplomacy corresponds to two factors. First was the development of strongly ideological regimes with a strong message to sell. Second was the creation of new technologies to spread the message: movies, radio, and TV. Propaganda initiatives such as those used by Hitler's Germany demonstrated the changing character of public diplomacy and the ability of a state to reach through borders, talking directly to the public of another country.

The fourth phase overlaps chronologically with the third and continues today. This formed the intellectual roots of modern public diplomacy, and is associated with two authors. The first is Robert Dahl, who wrote A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956) and Who Governs? (1961). These books developed and popularized the concept of pluralism, which, defined at its most simplistic, "is the theory that a multitude of groups, not the people as a whole, govern…" This amplified the potential for effective public diplomacy and provided obvious targets for the intrusion of foreign governments into the domestic politics of democracies.

Then in the 1990s Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power". This influential idea placed public diplomacy into the same tool-bin as the hard power concepts of wealth, weapons, and people. Public diplomacy, soft power, was now a tool of international relations, able to compete within the dominant realist paradigm in international politics.

Pluralism gave public diplomacy legitimate and conceptually powerful targets in other democracies. Soft power meant that practitioners could use public diplomacy as a legitimate tool, the exercise of real power, not simply a fuzzy cultural or communications gambit.

Public Diplomacy: From the 20th to the 21st Century

The term "public diplomacy" is relatively new, usually dated to the 1960s. Over the years, scholars and practitioners provided various definitions regarding its scope, but all pointed to two essential elements of public diplomacy as understood through the late 20th century:

1) An organization (normally a state) uses communication methods (preferably two-way) to address the citizenry of another state or a global audience, and
2) The goal is to produce policies in the target that favor the initiator.

Today, three transformational factors are causing a major alteration in the basic approach underlying public diplomacy.

The first post-1991 transformation regards communications technology. The wide availability of media sources creates a potentially more informed and engaged public. Furthermore, user-created content proliferation, such as Wikipedia and YouTube, has democratized the production of media. Communication is moving from a one-way distribution structure or a two-way communication pattern to an iterative, reactive, interactive network structure, which creates, shares, and refines information. The purpose, however, remains "policy change."

Second, the global growth of civil society mobilizes previously fragmented individuals into organizations, making governments more responsive to publics. As divergent publics gain more voice and influence, there is more reason for governments to listen. This is connected with public diplomacy in many ways. Enlarged civil society means the creation, expansion, and empowerment of non-governmental groups (Dahl's pluralism on steroids). The domestic arena and the global arena are very different places than they were in 1991. The expansion of NGOs may have an impact in constructing limits to policy and a dramatic expansion in the number of potential targets for foreign states to engage.

Finally, the proliferation of democracy and free markets creates a global phenomenon, helping individuals to obtain the necessary political and economic freedoms to become involved in government. Now, there are simply more potential targets for public diplomacy. Groups and individuals can now more readily participate in decision making. Local populations now have a role in both global campaigns and international issues.

By the end of the 20th century, the major techniques of public diplomacy were identified as: Listening, Advocacy, Exchange Diplomacy, Cultural Diplomacy, and Broadcasting. Today, public diplomacy has crossed a new threshold, as technology, civil society, and democracy further expand the ability of publics to engage in diplomacy.

A Limits Approach to the "New Public Diplomacy"

These three transformative factors are causing public diplomacy to morph. One aspect is the recognition that there can be actors (NGOs, IGOs, MNCs) other than states who engage in or are the target of public diplomacy. Another aspect is the emphasis on horizontal networks in contrast to the hierarchical state based model. A final aspect is that, while the traditional "quest for policy influence" remains, a new goal takes equal precedence: "limiting other states' options" by appealing to their domestic constituencies.

Successful public diplomacy now can be defined and measured by the impact that it has on setting these limits to policy. An actor should also try to shape the limits that exist in other states and in the global community. This is not the narrower aim of impacting another actor's policy, but a broad goal of limiting available choices.

Hence, there are two important implications for this limits approach. First, policy goals and limits goals are potentially antagonistic. In the traditional policy approach, an administration's foreign policy cannot be shielded for long by its public diplomacy. As Melissen notes, "…The aims of public diplomacy cannot be achieved if they are believed to be inconsistent with a country's foreign policy or military actions."(Jan Melissen, ed. The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations, p.7. Palgrave: Hampshire, England, 2005)

However, a limits approach can build a reserve, a floor, a foundation for a democracy, and that reserve can moderate the policy swings of friends and adversaries and stabilize long-term objectives. For limits goals to be effective, they have to be isolated from policy goals: firewalled, de-politicized. Only then will a target's domestic audiences and members of the international community embrace these limits. If limits goals come tied to policies that must also be embraced, they will be seen simply as the first step on a slippery slope.

Second, a new institutional structure, perhaps similar to the British "Public Diplomacy Board" is required. An institutional process has to be created that lends credibility and power to the actor's attempts to shape the limits informing other countries' and international opinion. This attempt cannot be enmeshed in policy initiatives, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs/State Department continues to pursue and explain.

An alternative structure must take advantage of the cumulative effects of the pre-1991 trends and the subsequent revolutionary transformation. Historically, this reflects the often bitter debate within the USIA [U.S. Information Agency] over the appropriate role of the Voice of America.

Limits do channel policy. The recent course of the presidential elections in the U.S. demonstrates the centrality of a "domestic consensus" in effectively pursuing international objectives. Candidates find themselves limited by public expectations. No 2007 Democratic hopeful could have expected to receive the nomination and also argue in favor of the "surge." Policy options were limited in this case by the Democratic candidates' public.

Challenges for the Candidates

Hidden in the American presidential election is the promise of a renewed emphasis on public diplomacy, on limiting, channeling others' responses to the United States.

Both candidates talk warmly about re-forging bonds with allies, about renewing America's commitment to the international community, and about rebuilding America's diminished moral authority.

This is all vaguely familiar. Candidate Bush commented in 2000, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us." "We must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course." This implied a public diplomacy renewal, but the nascent approach was transformed by the tragedy of 9/11. In 2005, the new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes, undertook several "listening tours" in the Muslim world which were ineffective at "selling" American policy.

Today's candidates say we need mutual understanding and respect. Still, how will America renew a lost love affair with the rest of the world? How will administrations and Americans learn to listen? How can the moral authority of a "beacon on a hill" be rekindled?

The rhetoric is easy, but there is no easy answer, especially given the current application of public diplomacy as sales, as spin doctoring.

The need to reintroduce America to the world offers a silver lining to the unilateralism of the last eight years. The candidates need to think about HOW and, for now, they are avoiding specifics.

Three interlinked problems must be addressed if a new public diplomacy is to be effective.

1) Is there a difference between marketing America and effective public diplomacy?
2) Can you have effective public diplomacy and ineffective administration policy?
3) Can America's moral authority transcend administrations?

1) YES, there is a difference between marketing America and effective public diplomacy, but if, and only if, limits can be distinguished from policy. Administration policy must be marketed, but understanding American values can form limits on others' impulses. A quote from abroad which would indicate that difference is, "I detest the ____ administration's policy on ____, but America is a wonderful country."

2) YES, effective public diplomacy can occur in the face of bad policy. However, for it to work, the "limits" aspects of public diplomacy must be firewalled, depoliticized, and this requires institutional restructuring.

3) YES, American moral authority can transcend administrations. But it requires administrations to willingly acknowledge that the core values of America are not tied to any party or policy. It requires administrations to act for the long-term. It requires administrations to admit weaknesses.

To Act and Reflect: Leaders not just Politicians

Candidates need to agree on new institutional structures and basic value sets if they genuinely want the world to reengage America. America needs others to accept that at heart, America means what is says, even if some of today's policies seem to contradict that.  America the nation is different from any administration.


Several core American ideas are central to a new public diplomacy. A complete catalogue is not possible here, but these ideas would be the basis for extensive public diplomacy activities, for rekindling America's moral authority. These are not new nor have they been ignored in the past. But they are frisky ideas and can bite the administrative hand that feeds them while at the same time benefiting America; hence the structural and firewalling needs discussed above.

One might be diversity/pluralism: a strong emphasis on the value of divergent views, on the utility of multiple perspectives on a problem, on the creativity that comes from the junction of cultures, on America's traditional open door.

Another might be simple fairness. Every society has a concept of fair play and an understanding of what it means. America is a land where we can hope to be treated fairly and where there is usually recourse if we are not.

A third is the connection between rights and responsibilities. The universality of rights and their attached responsibilities is a trademark of America. Public diplomacy needs to not only emphasize these, but also to acknowledge the American failures, and advance remedies.

Finally there is freedom of expression. The entire concept of a 'new public diplomacy" is built on the belief that, in the market of ideas, the best eventually surface.

Just by talking about these frisky ideas and recognizing that the U.S. may be wrong, America gains credibility. One definition of leadership involves powerfully stating your policy and acting upon it, while holding open the ability to change.

The candidates need to step off the soapbox and onto the leadership podium. To both act and reflect at the same time is difficult, but this is the definition of effectively engaging the world.

Read More: U.S. Foreign Policy, United States

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