Monday, May 3, 2010

Public Diplomacy. So What?

Now, as I came home from my last class, submitted my last final paper, and am only beginning to realize that I'm half-way through my MA degree, it's worth taking another look back at the past year. It's been interesting, exciting, engaging, and oh, so challenging! But it's also been a lot of fun, and especially as I started getting more into my concentration field - public diplomacy and strategic communication - I realized that its discovery was more than just an organic process for me.

Just a year ago I was not even aware that the field, as such, existed at all. Double-majoring in International Relations and Journalism as an undergraduate at AUBG, and taking classes such as international affairs and the media, or political communication, had made it clear to me that I was immensely interested in these issues. But I didn't have a name for them, neither could I explain properly what was that I wanted to do. Was it "soft power"? Was it "propaganda" and/or "PR"? Was it international political communication? Nation branding?

As I was applying to graduate school, I focused on programs that involved international or global communication (even if remotely), and I was very fortunate to have ended up at SIS. I had the flexibility to look around, think it through (once again), talk to awesome professors, meet some great people, discover a field with a counter-intuitive name, and finally, I was able to formulate my passion in words: public diplomacy.

Now, every time I tell someone about my field of study, the first thing I get (after the weird looks, of course), is: "Oh, propaganda?" What ensues from it, then, is a long discussion - but, of course! - on the "fundamental differences between propaganda and public diplomacy", and an unfortunate focus on the former. That is all because of what countries (in the real world) tend to make of it, unfortunately. That's the part people notice, or the easy label they choose order to make sense of it. Yet, I cannot but agree that what PD essentially comes down to is influence, and it doesn't matter if one prefers to see it as something benign or evil, since everything is relative, anyway (especially when it comes to perspectives and ideas).

Why is PD important? So what?

An important thing I had to learn as a journalism student - apart from asking questions, of course - was explaining relevance. After all the What, Where, When, Why, How, etc.. there would always be the "So What?" part. PD is certainly not different in that sense.

It seems that in International Relations (and public diplomacy, especially) it's easy to get bogged down in idealistic theories, come up with unrealistic models, and beautiful ideas on how things "should work". But then, simple realism, on its own, cannot explain seemingly irrational behavior, either. In a world where people are becoming mobile as never before (even if just on the Internet), where economic interdependence can bring down entire country blocks, and where the information flow is simply overwhelming, getting a chance to "shape the narrative" can, indeed, be crucial. It's interesting that new technologies have made what was traditionally a battle over history into a battle over the present. And apparently, with increasing globalization, a greater number of states and actors realize that they need to join the global "PD cacophony".

Here is another unfortunate fact about public diplomacy, the "Thomas theorem catch": a genuine belief that "situations defined as real become real in their consequences." (Alternatively, the "Lenin catch": "a lie told often enough becomes the truth." Pick one!) What many still seem to be missing in terms of public diplomacy is that the biggest issues it faces is the lack of credibility and attention (and not the lack of information or perspectives). After all, actions speak louder than words, and no matter the icing, it's easy to see the bad cake when it is cut. With the 24-hour news cycle and increasing scrutiny, the mere act of defining does not translate into reality anymore. 

Public diplomacy, if carried out and/or coordinated properly, can indeed provide the space where dialogue takes place not just between governments, but also between people (and yes, I still to cling to the idea that all problems stem, at their root, from miscommunication of one sort or another). A good public diplomacy requires an "in awareness" approach (to quote Zaharna) that is culturally sensitive and cognizant. It also needs to accept the idea of mutuality and the absolute need for a reciprocal "communication flow"; otherwise, it might, indeed, border propaganda. Understanding each other in the international sphere, promoting openness, cooperation, and a truly reciprocal engagement can only benefit all of the sides involved, and help to genuinely accept that everything is relative. Perspective matters more than the image, and it is only through cooperation that these two can effectively converge (of course, the alternative is direct control through coercion, but I'm assuming we live in a benign world).

Am I drifting away from reality, again? After all, nothing is what it seems. And yet, that matters.

[Thanks to Paul Rockower for the "Un-involved" image!]



  1. Like your posting! It was very interesting to read since I am moving to the next page myself..Now I have to make my own decisions about what to do and where to go after I earn my BA [although I have one school year left]..and yes...I need your professional advice as well!)) Keep it up, Yelena)

  2. :) Looking forward to the conversation! (don't know about the extent of "professionalism", but will do my best! :P)

  3. "UN-involvement" is very superb.:-)
    Congrats finishing your first MA year!!!
    Keep up the good work going...

  4. Thank you, thank you...! :) I KNEW you would love that pic!

  5. Very interesting posting.
    Makes much more sense than verbose explanations of what PD is.
    Actually, I must admit I became more sympathetic to PD in general. I would grant now, albeit grudgingly, that it is not necessarily propaganda.
    I loved the Thomas theorem part. It would have been better, though, if you mentioned that he was a sociologist. I mean that idea was formulated and expressed time and again through centuries by various social thinkers taking the final shape in that "theorem."
    I beg to differ as regards Lenin. He was not Goebbels and had nothing to do with Big Lies or something.
    He was artful and skillful politician, great practitioner (although poor philosopher).
    Lies were not his style.
    I tend to agree with Herbert Wells who called Lenin "the Dreamer in the Kremlin."
    He did terrible things. Who didn't? Trotsky was the first to set up concentration camps following the British pioneer model tested in the Boer war... Stalin's collectivization campaign was merely materialization of Trotsky's plan, etc., etc. ...
    It's easy to get bogged down in history...
    My point is Lenin was much more complex and complicated (even though, probably, much more sinister) a figure than often presented...

  6. Hahaha :) Well, having your daughter studying PD you couldn't help but see it in a different light, too, right? :))

  7. P.S. - As regards Lenin, I never meant to "denigrate" him. It was just a quote I from him (apparently) that seems to be very ironic and telling, AND also appropriate in this case, so I just used it. No insult or injury intended!! :)