Does Public Diplomacy Matter?

Introduction

We hear about ‘public diplomacy’ virtually on a daily basis as if it has been around forever but as a matter of fact, this precise term is only circa 50 years old, having been coined in 1965 by Edmund Gullion. In what follows, I will make an attempt at clarifying the meaning of this notorious notion and at understanding it significance in contemporary international affairs.

My proposition is to set a distinction between two forms of public diplomacy, only the first of which will then be analysed under the meaning/content, and relevance aspects. The first type I label as ‘top-down public diplomacy’, which contrasts with the second type, ‘bottom-up public diplomacy’.

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Source: Maxime Benzi @ Flickr

Before going into more detail, I want to make a general assessment of the topic. The whole business of diplomacy can be considered as representation and communication. Public diplomacy goes even further into influencing the ‘public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies.’ By ‘top-down’ I am referring to a relation of communication or influence that has a national government (state) as the transmitter and the general public (non-state) as receiver. ‘Bottom-up’ I conceive to be exactly the opposite, a relationship that reflects the communicative and influential input of the public for achieving a certain political output from a government. This can be done either directly, public – foreign government, or indirectly: public – foreign public – foreign government.

Top-down public diplomacy

This typology of public diplomacy refers to all the actions that a government takes to communicate to foreign publics and influence their thinking and behaviour. Also, the spread of a good image of the country worldwide is a task of public diplomacy. What sort of actions do governments undertake in this sense?

A first one could be the direct address by high officials. Representative is George W. Bush’s speech on the war on terror. He thanks ‘on behalf of the American people…the world for its outpouring of support’. His recipients are not foreign government officials, but the general foreign public made up of ‘South Korean children gathering to pray outside our embassy in Seoul’, others who pray in the ‘mosque in Cairo’, and those who kept ‘moments of silence and days of mourning in Australia and Africa and Latin America’. Bush addresses through this speech the Taliban openly, asking for the release of foreign nationals and the delivery of Bin Laden. He also speaks ‘directly to Muslims throughout the world’, claiming to respect their faith. Even though President Bush is only talking to his immediate audience, the Joint Session of the 107th Congress, he is in fact aware that the whole world is watching. He is holding a one-way ‘diplomatic meeting’ with the foreign public via media broadcasting.

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Source: Beverly & Pack @ Flickr

One more instrument of public diplomacy is the spread of governmentally-funded NGOS and foundations around the globe with the aim to endorse the image of the country of origin, its values, and to facilitate the execution of foreign policy by preparing foreign audiences into being more receptive. One illustrative example is the Romanian Cultural Institute, which has the mission to promote ‘national culture and civilization in Romania and abroad’, therefore acting as a ‘crucial complementary instrument’ for achieving ‘Romania’s strategic objectives’. Its work is structured around a number of ‘programs, project, and activities’ which mainly focus on identity issues like language, traditions, and artistic and intellectual creations. This case fits more with the prestige of a country function of public diplomacy. States like Romania and Bulgaria who have been admitted lastly into the EU, could benefit from this kind of tool to approach an EU public that has been since critical of the last wave of enlargement ever since it started.

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What about the relevance of public diplomacy ? I would argue positively. Both from the theoretical perspective and from the practical side. Regarding the conceptual relevance, this notion of public diplomacy manages to explain a behaviour that would in its absence be harder to grasp. Why would President Bush address people who are not present in the room while holding his speech? Was it merely rhetoric for influencing the members of the Congress and for getting into the graces of the American people? It is more. I would argue it is part of a larger diplomatic effort meant to build up that coalition of 49 countries willing to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The participation to the war in Iraq can be justified by a feeling of empathy to the American sufferings of 9/11 and by a fear of terrorism, both instilled in the foreign audience initially by Bush’s public diplomacy.

On a practical level, public diplomacy is very relevant in the age of globalization and under the dominance of a liberal/democratic international order because state actors’ actions are under more scrutiny. Legitimacy is a higher priority. The amplification of global interaction together with the impact of Internet and social media leads to more interdependence, which in turn distorts the line between domestic and foreign policy. When a Christian fundamentalist burned the Qur’an in the US (2011), the Muslim world immediately reacted: this event transgressed boundaries from a domestic event into a foreign policy instance. A confined episode turned into a threat to US reputation. Respectable reputation along with legitimacy revolves around the idea of soft power, a vital ingredient for decreasing hostility and earning the confidence vote to lead internationally.

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The seat of international law: The Peace Palace (The Hague) Source: Ferdi de Gier @ Flickr

The international legal order is constructed today on the basis of the UN Charter. The United Nations is officially the main source of lawfulness and legitimacy on the world scene, argument proved by the intention of Palestine to be recognized by the UN as a member state. A current affairs instance of the role of international law is the Russian annexation of Crimea or the unification of Crimea to Russia, depending on the political position. Article 1 and Article 2 offer different decisions to whether this situation was legal or not. Namely, the right to self-determination of the Russians in Crimea against the right to territorial integrity. Political legitimacy also plays a part in this debate: was the interim government legitimate or not? Regardless of the answer, what matters is that the debate around international norms and principles sugar-coated realpolitik. Why? Because states need to be acting in accordance with what the public opinion sees as right, which in this case is prescribed in the UN Charter.

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An overlooked characteristic of public diplomacy is its domestic variation, namely the engagement of the domestic public. The context of democratization in foreign policy-making is valuable in emphasizing the role of the local population in consenting to, embracing and disseminating the principles and goals of the national leaders in an environment where, as mentioned earlier, the boundaries between what is domestic and what is international are fading. Let’s take an example. The People’s Republic of China is established under the ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’. The domestic facet of the public diplomacy in this country has the exact target of promoting the principle of ‘governing for the people’ in foreign matters as well, and it is implemented through constant interaction between the general public and the foreign ministry (conferences, online discussions, visits).

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Chinese public diplomacy: Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Source: Earth Hour @ Flickr

Conclusion

To sum up our discussion, we can positively affirm that public diplomacy is relevant in contemporary international relations due to a number of characteristics of the global arena. These are:

  • the states’ need for legitimacy both from the foreign public and domestic one;
  • the higher role of reputation and soft power;
  • the requirement to be compliant with international law which makes states justify their actions to the public;
  • high global interaction and access which leads to more scrutiny of state actions:
  • an ever more blurry line between domestic and foreign issues;
  • increasing involvement of domestic constituencies in foreign policy-making both in democracies and illiberal states;

All these features determine states to consider the international public opinion in the process of decision-making, especially in matters of external affairs. This effort to communicate more, influence more, involve more, promote more to the foreign public complementary to foreign governments is the task of a public diplomacy that is here to stay.

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List of references

(Tr.) Sultan C., April 18, 2005, Europe Union: How Fit Are Romania and Bulgaria for the EU?, at Spiegel.de, website: http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/europe-union-how-fit-are-romania-and-bulgaria-for-the-eu-a-352874.html ;

Armitage R, Nye J. (2007), CSIS COMMISSION ON SMART POWER. A smarter, more secure America, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, The CSIS Press, Washington DC;

BBC.com, 30 November 2012, Q&A: Palestinians’ upgraded UN status, website: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13701636 ;

Carlsnaes W, Risse T., Simmons B. (2002), Diplomacy, Bargaining and Negotiation, in Handbook of International Relations, pp. 212-235, SAGE Publications Ltd;

Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (2004), website: http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/Constitution/2007-11/15/content_1372963.htm ;

Kerr P., Wiseman G. (2013), Diplomacy in a globalizing world. Theories and Practices, Oxford University Press;

Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 27, 2003, at whitehouse.archives.gov, website: http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030327-10.html ;

The Fletcher School and Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University (2014), What is Public Diplomacy, website: http://fletcher.tufts.edu/Murrow/Diplomacy

Claudiu Sonda
Passionate student of IR and European politics with an interest in developing a high-level expertise in International Security and geopolitics.