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The Negative Unintended Consequence in Public Diplomacy

by Nicholas J. Cull

Recently, a colleague asked if I knew of any examples of public diplomacy sparking negative unintended consequences. I replied that I certainly did and moreover that I had from time to time considered the implications those consequences for public diplomacy theory. I jotted down these thoughts for my friend but feel that the question deserves a wider airing; hence this two-part post.  The question of unintended consequence is sufficiently central to the whole subject of communication that it has its own corner of folklore.  Just as advocates of soft power can recall Aesop’s fable of the victory of the sun over the north wind in a contest to remove a traveler’s coat, so those concerned with unintended consequences can look to another fable from the same source: ‘the boy who cried wolf.’ In our own time as in Aesop’s day the negative unintended consequence still has sharp teeth.

Before starting a journey into public diplomacy’s equivalent of bad karma it is worth remembering that unintended consequences are not necessarily negative.  There are plenty of examples of benign unintended consequences: many nations have found their public diplomacy benefiting from the tail-wind of an unrelated activity.  Washington supported the export of Hollywood films in the 1920s for financial and not ideological benefit, though the ideological benefit was no less real than when that became a policy objective.  Valuable cross-cultural connections have arisen unbidden from military deployments with troops gaining cosmopolitan insight from foreign exposure and local population learning from the strangers in its midst.  South Koreans and Germans regularly attest to the unintended appeal of American Forces Broadcasting.

Ironically, positive unintended consequences of public diplomacy are quite hard to find in the literature probably because as soon as a positive consequence is identified internally it is pressed into service as a justification for a program and becomes part of the intended impact.  One example of a benign unintended consequence which perhaps a civil servant would blush to claim is the way in which the EU’s Erasmus exchange program has not only spread knowledge and mutual experience between participants it has led to many cases of inter-marriage thereby begun creating new people who literally embody the principal of intra-European exchange.  But it is the negative unintended consequences, which must concern us.


The most dramatic examples of negative unintended consequences in public diplomacy seem to be in the area of advocacy, most especially when a public diplomacy actor introduces a lie, partial truth or exaggerated truth into the mix.  The unpredictability of the unintended consequence is an argument for keeping propagandistic approaches out of public diplomacy.  A communicator is nothing without credibility. The first negative unintended consequence, which sprang to my mind, came directly from British propaganda towards the U.S. during the period of U.S. neutrality in the Great War.  Seeking to accelerate the drift of America’s sympathy the British began circulating exaggerated stories of German atrocities including a claim that Germans were converting corpses into industrial products, putting a new spin on the classic cannibalism libel.  Britain even circulated a picture of a ‘corpse conversion factory’ at Vimy Ridge to bolster the story.  The immediate consequence was a swing in American anti-German feeling but the negative unintended consequence was that once the fraud was revealed in the 1920s, Americans tricked and angry.  In the 1930s the story of British distortion was an essential element in the thinking of neutral America.  It stoked anti-British feeling at the very moment in which Britain needed to secure American support against the challenge of Hitler.  Britain was forced to develop a radically different approach to US public opinion to respond.  Tragically the real price was paid by the Jews of Europe.  News of mass killings of Jews in Eastern Europe was available from late 1941 onwards from sources including the Polish government in exile and American Jewish networks.  That news was received with skepticism.  The media revealed their doubt by placing the reports of mass killing of Jews in secondary locations in newspapers and avoiding editorial statements on the subject.  Politicians were similarly circumspect.  The wolf bit.  


Negative unintended consequences can become a chain reaction. Britain’s response to the challenge of winning American opinion in the Second World War may have avoided defaming the Germans but its decision to simply promote an enhanced image of its own citizens had an unexpected impact.  In one of the foundational public diplomacy operations of our time British writers and officials with the help of sympathetic American journalists including Edward R. Murrow co-created a winning frame for the dramatic news of British resistance to German bombing in 1940.  The frame focused on the remarkable resilience of the British under bombardment and claimed that their coherence and unity, which overcame entrenched class divisions, was admirable and somehow characteristic of national spirit.  It was even offered as a transformation – a renewal or resurrection – which separated Britain from those elements of its past which had grated for many Americans.  American public sympathy flowed exactly as the British hoped.  Britain had given American opinion something to love. But there were negative unintended consequences too.  By framing the defiant response of Londoners to the Blitz as a result of specifically British qualities the British effectively denied the extent to which this behavior was inherently human. Britain began bombing Germany in exactly the same way without thinking that Germans might rally round their leadership as a result.  Besides the loss of German civilian life more Britons died doing this than perished in the German bombing of London.  An important opportunity to correct the mythology supporting the power of strategic bombing was lost.  The U.S. has bombed many places since – Japan, North Vietnam, Iraq, Serbia – and always seemed surprised when citizens rally as a result.  Those citizens are indirectly part of the price for Britain’s Blitz publicity success.


The storied home of U.S. public diplomacy during the Cold War – the United States Information Agency – had its share of negative unintended consequences.  In fact one may argue that the agency died of a massive negative unintended consequence.  The agency learned the value of selling itself on Capitol Hill as a necessity of the Cold War. The only the scale of the Cold War threat had motivated Senators to authorize a massive peacetime information and exchange program back in 1948, and it made sense to periodically remind the successors to those senators that the danger hadn’t passed.  Other public diplomacy agencies elsewhere in the world found alternate raisons d’être in the years following détente – export promotion and so forth – but USIA continued to hammer away at the Cold War logic.  It justified impressive budgets throughout the 1980s.  When the Soviet Union unexpectedly collapsed the agency found that the logic of its perennial argument now bolstered the case for its downsizing and eventual unfortunate merger with the Department of State.  In Aesop’s terms the boy who did a reliable job of crying wolf to the world when there was a Soviet wolf found he had talked himself out of a job when that Soviet wolf turned vegetarian and was therefore unavailable when a lean Jihadist wolf moved into the neighborhood.

No level of public diplomacy advocacy is immune to unintended consequences – city diplomats can run into problems just as spectacularly as those of nation states.  One case is the campaign undertaken by the UK’s Leicester City Council in 1972 to deter migration to Leicester of people of Indian descent then seeking to relocate from Uganda.  The council placed advertisements in Ugandan newspapers suggesting arguing that there were too many Asians already living in Leicester but the ads had the inverse effect drawing attention to Leicester as a concentration of the British Asian community and promoting migration even as it provoked understandable bitterness in the community.   Ironically the unintended consequence of their unintended consequence is a happy one for Leicester.  The migration of Ugandan Asians brought new strength and distinctiveness to Leicester. The city has emerged as a showcase of modern British multiculturalism and a haven for the best Indian food.   The city now brands itself around its Asian-ness. So much for advocacy.  But the other elements of public diplomacy are hardly less susceptible.  


Probably the second most fertile category of negative unintended consequences seems to be problems arising from exchanges.  The classic example is that of the Egyptian education official Said Qtub whose sojourn as an exchange visitor in Colorado in 1948 failed to convince him of the virtues of the American way.  Those knowledgeable about his career before coming to the U.S. see his subsequent ant-Americanism as a continuation rather than a change of views, but it was a continuation which drew urgency from his experience and rhetorical strength from his ability to speak about the dangers of American culture at first hand.  He became the father of the revival of the Muslim Brotherhood and intellectual godfather to Al Qaeda.  Exchanges seem particularly prone to negative unintended consequences when the exchanged person is not properly taken care of or mentored or welcome among their host population.  The faculty and students of the University of Southern California did not turn Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi into a reformer or lover of American-style democracy.  Think of the problems in Australia’s relationship with India arising from the friction between visiting Indian students and Australian youth or the alienation which seems to have turned a group of Saudi engineering students in 1990s Hamburg into the core of the 9/11 hijackers of 2001.  Sometimes the unintended consequence is wholly unpredictable but serves to illuminate underlying attitudinal difficulties.  Take for example the case of the Japanese exchange student who became mentally ill while studying in the Netherlands, killed and ate his Dutch girlfriend and was sent home for trial.  The case had a negative impact on Japanese-Dutch relations more especially when a section of the Japanese public hailed him as a hero.  


Cultural diplomacy has its unintended consequences.  At the most basic level there can be the unintended consequence of an infelicitous choice of cultural ambassador abroad.  In the 1970s the British Council found out the hard way that very drunk and sexually predatory writers make poor choices for speaking tours.  A country can send too many cultural ambassadors.  In the early 1940s the president of Brazil tired of the relentless round of American cultural visitors quipping that if he met another American boy choir he planned to declare war on the US.  On a macro scale the issue of cultural imperialism which arose so spectacularly in the later 1970s may be seen as a negative unintended consequence of the cultural outreach of the previous decades: a push-back against the cumulative impact of English, French and German classes, Hollywood films and western broadcasting. International cultural transfers can have the problem of accelerating the transformation of an existing sub-group within a society, rendering it more alien than it was or even of creating an entirely new subgroup as when religious proselytizing creates a religious minority within a country, which may in turn bring instability.


As countries work to develop national brands they regularly encounter negative unintended consequences.  The downside of the U.S. brand of liberty was that world opinion reacted very negatively to the George W. Bush administration’s creative take of international law and ‘enhanced interrogation.’   There is less of an international outcry when a state whose brand includes rough dealing – such as Russia – resorts to torture.  The negative unintended consequence of Mexico’s successful tourist promotion is that the world is unaware that it has become the fourth largest producer of automobiles.  The negative unintended consequence of China’s emphasis on its unity and political coherence – think 2008 drummers all hammering out the same tune at the Beijing Olympics opening – is that international audiences are unnecessarily intimidated, China’s reality of attractive diversity is obscured and China-phobes have their paradigm reinforced, analysts may yet decide that the positive image of South Africa arising from the Mandela presidency had the negative unintended consequence of insulating international opinion from understanding how profound the country’s remaining problems still were.


I have often argued that the most benign public diplomacy activity is listening.  Can even listening have negative unintended consequences? It certainly can when one listens to the wrong people or group.  Think of the problems arising from the Bush administration’s dutiful attention to the Iraqi exile community or the difficulties the Kennedy administration and its successors found taking the pulse of South Vietnam.  Yes, even listening can create problems.

What then is the answer?  It would be absurd to counsel a practitioner to avoid unintended consequence.  They are inherent to any consequence of significance.  Certainly some unintended consequences should be anticipated and some of the examples above are the result of inexperience.  Maybe it helps to consider the foreign environment as a system in relative equilibrium and the public diplomacy as an intervention into that environment which will inevitably change the environment.  Like a person heaving a rock into a pond an effective practitioner of public diplomacy should expect ripples.   Throw a boomerang; expect it to come back.  When an intervention is so successful that it establishes a dominant frame as with the example of the widespread acceptance of the resilience of Londoners as being a special feature of British-ness the practitioner should brace for consequences.  No effect comes free.  In communication as in physics every action a reaction even if the complexity of environment makes it hard for us to tell whether it is what Isaac Newton so elegantly termed ‘an equal and opposite reaction.’  The task for scholars of public diplomacy is to build the active search for unintended consequences into the analysis of public diplomacy. I predict that the results will be interesting.  I make no prediction as to what the consequence may be.  


Author Biography

Nicholas J. Cull is Professor of Public Diplomacy and Director of the Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy at USC. His research and teaching interests are inter-disciplinary, and focus on the role of public engagement in foreign policy. He is the author of The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge, 2008) and The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001 (Palgrave, 2001). His first book was Selling War (Oxford, 1995), a study of British information work in the United States before Pearl Harbor. He has published numerous articles on the theme of public diplomacy and media history.


Nicholas J. Cull



Pub Date: 

April 2014