Saturday, February 13, 2010

Handbook of Public Diplomacy

For those of you interested in exploring Public Diplomacy, I highly recommend the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (2010).*

Here's a quick synopsis of some of the chapters I've read -- food for thought.

Chapter 6 - Exchange Programs and Public Diplomacy
Giles Scott-Smith

Scott-Smith rather cynically argues that politics pervade all public and citizen diplomacy initiatives. “…Even the most politically neutral of exchanges, such as those between high schools," he writes, "have either political intent behind their creation or are promoted for the purpose of developing cross-border relations that can subsequently lead to political outcomes, such as a reduction in conflict."

While it is true that such exchanges may have a politically beneficial consequence, I hesitate to describe their 'intent' as inherently political. While the term 'diplomacy' necessarily suggests the relationship between nation-states or, perhaps, at the individual level, national identities, there seems to be a tendency within public diplomacy discussion to conflate the interests of the American citizen/individual with the American foreign policy agenda. I would argue that the cross-cultural exchange and learning efforts initiated by non-governmental educational and cultural groups are primarily motivated by an interest in the edification of their members
and the people with whom they will exchange their ideas, customs, practices, interests.

Chapter 10 - Mapping out a Spectrum of Public Diplomacy Initiatives: Information and Relational Communication Frameworks

R. S. Zaharna

Zaharna identifies public diplomacy as a communication phenomenon, as well as a political one. The chapter clarifies two trends in public diplomacy that speak to the difference I tried to distinguish above in my response to Scott-Smith. Zaharna writes that what emerges in the range of public diplomacy initiatives are “two underlying perspectives of communication. One perspective (the Information Framework) tends to view communication as a linear process of transferring information often with the goal of persuasion or control. The other perspective (the Relational Framework) sees communication as a social process of building relationships and fostering harmony." While Scott-Smith would put all educational exchanges into the first category, I would argue (and Zaharna would probably agree) that many of them fall into the second.

That being said, it's important for those of us in this field not to be naive about the 'frames' and 'lenses' through which our information is filtered. Much of what we might take for unbiased communication comes through channels designed and maintained as tools for the dissemination of government-sponsored information. The British Broadcasting Corporation is a prime example. So many Americans I know insist that the BBC is the best source of information about world events, without recognizing its political bias.

By the same token, the Peace Corps model exhibits all of Zaharna's characteristics of the Relational Framework, and yet it is undoubtedly a government-initiated public diplomacy effort--one that follows Scott-Smith's advice:

“Whatever the goals they are intended to achieve, exchanges are best kept independent from any sense of direct political interference and obligation in order to maintain the integrity of the participants and the credibility of the programmes themselves. Whereas propaganda refers to the deliberate manipulation of information to achieve a desired result, exchanges are (ideally) the most two-way form of public diplomacy, opening up spaces for dialogue and the interchange of alternative viewpoints.”

*I've got Emerson's copy, so you can't check it out until I'm done reading it!

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