This unique collection contains reviews of recent and classical publications of interest to the public diplomacy community reviewed by public diplomacy practitioners and scholars. The opinions represented in the CPD Book Reviews are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School.
By Jolyon Welsh and Daniel Fearn, Supervising editors
Reviewed by UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office
NOV 24, 2008
The following is a response from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office to Paul Sharp’s CPD Book Review of Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World.
For a PDF of the full FCO Publication, click here
When Paul Sharp says that our publication “Engagement” asks more questions than it answers, he is right. Our aim was not to try to come up with a rigid template for public diplomacy but to sketch out a theory of engagement that gives a revived public diplomacy a much higher profile, describing a practical toolkit useful to support foreign policy objectives. Our stance is that public diplomacy is absolutely not an “add on” to traditional diplomacy; it belongs in the mainstream of international relations.
Professor Sharp does, however, ask some important questions: Is public diplomacy really different from propaganda? Is there a tension between national interest and being a good multilateralist? Are diplomats there to manage relationships or are they judgment makers and decision takers?
Let’s start with propaganda. No one can deny that propaganda has had and will continue to have its uses, most explicitly when a people is engaged in war for national survival, as was the case in World War II. But for everyday use, a better definition of public diplomacy is John Brown’s: “truthful, factual exposition and explication of a nation’s foreign policy”. Whilst propaganda forces its messages on an audience, and oversimplifies or even demonises contending positions, good public diplomacy listens, engages and tries to present a nation’s own goals and achievements transparently and with supporting evidence.
Propaganda is by definition one-way communication, designed to be inscrutable or even to trick the target audience. It implies that one party has a firm position or ideology that it wishes to impose via highly persuasive communication techniques upon another. Strategic communication, in the hands of a skilled public diplomatist, is, by contrast, a systematic approach to delivering objectives by generating more effective understanding of audiences and more effective ways of connecting with them to develop solutions that potentially shift attitudes and change behaviours on all sides. The decisive point is that this understanding can shape the policy goal itself.
The means employed in Public Diplomacy differ, therefore, from those used in propaganda. For example, when the UK Department of Health set out to re-shape its thinking through the use of strategic communication, its tools included a consultation exercise in which the views of 10,000 people were taken into account. It would be very cynical to regard this as propaganda.
Professor Sharp’s unease comes from his sense that the ends in strong public diplomacy – behaviour change – are the same. But wanting to change someone else’s behaviour isn’t restricted to either public diplomacy or propaganda. It’s there in most forms of professional communication – whether a car advertisement or a blog on the website of a campaigning NGO.
Our aim in “Engagement” was to show that public diplomacy can make foreign policy more open, more thoughtful, more rigorous, more professional and more effective. Paul Sharp seems to think that whilst it is acceptable for governments to use strat comms to get people to wear seatbelts or stop smoking, we should draw back from using such persuasive techniques in the domain of foreign policy. Why would it not be reasonable to use strategic communications, and therefore public diplomacy, to make it harder for violent extremists to increase their base of support?
Conrad Bird’s article in “Engagement” hinges around a simple idea that, when asked to consider their choices and behaviour, people ask “What’s in it for me?”. It’s harder to answer that question for foreign policy than it is for, say, wearing a seatbelt. But it can be done. Paul Sharp quotes Jim Murphy asking, in his article in “Engagement:” how we can get Afghan tribesmen to buy into a long term democratic vision for Afghanistan. Part of the answer comes from Conrad Bird’s article – of what’s in it for the tribesman. It’s the same for an issue like climate change. What’s in it for a businessman in China or in India? Can careful public diplomacy widen the appeal of a given policy or position?
Of course in all public diplomacy there’s going to be something in it for us: we want a democratic Afghanistan and we want a global deal on climate change. But the point is not to impose our answers onto people in other countries, but to explore synergies; points of mutual interest in search of a sustainable solution as opposed to one shaped by temporarily superior negotiating muscle.
This concept goes some way to answering Professor Sharp’s second question. Is there tension between national interest and being a good multilateralist?
In practice, every case will be different. No state is likely to act with reckless disregard for its own self-interest, but it is equally true that states seldom take positions without any regard at all for a broader, international set of considerations. Professor Sharp’s distinction between the national interest and “the international relations approach” is too dogmatically drawn. In an increasingly interdependent world, systems of international governance will only thrive if they help states meet their national interest as well as proving sufficiently flexible in the face of shifting geo-political power balances.
Professor Sharp’s third insight is more complex. He asks: is the public diplomat a thinker or a doer? I don’t think that we intended to suggest in Engagement that the ancient garb of diplomacy has acquired a blue collar. The meeting rooms of Geneva and the TV studios of a foreign affairs programme are a long way from the coal face. But we did want to suggest that diplomats, aid workers, even peacekeepers, have a very special value – they live alongside the people we are trying to influence. Their job is increasingly to understand on-the-ground concerns and factor them into our policy making.
This role is specifically public diplomacy, as opposed to government to government relations. One of the challenges of the publication, which was on our mind as we edited the collection, was to maintain a distinction between these two forms of diplomacy. At times, despite our best efforts, the picture of a “traditional” diplomat occasionally emerged, usually stigmatised as old fashioned and wrong headed. Paul Sharp is quite right to point out that “old as well as new games are being played for old as well as new ends”.
The good diplomat has indeed always been a convener. He or she has always held dinner parties where ideas and solutions are mulled over. Diplomats brief the local media – on or off the record; they speak at universities and hold private meetings in the offices of an NGO or the political opposition.
Our aim has not been to suggest that any of this work is fruitless or even outmoded. Simply that the rise in open access media and the growth in one form or another of direct citizen voice means that there are more people in the world who will influence whether or not we achieve our foreign policy aims. Since these same forces also enable us to use new and interesting ways to engage with them, it seems counter-productive to decline the opportunity.
The challenge in practice is to become good at the new public diplomacy. That is why, unlike Professor Sharp, I would not set my compass to Talleyrand’s injunction: “surtout, pas trop de zele”. Without a certain level of energy, and an ability to spot emotional as well as intellectual currents, public diplomacy today is unlikely to achieve its goals. A laconic smile and a stiff upper lip are not necessarily guaranteed to engage the imagination and solidarity of others half way around the world.