Is it Time to Abandon State-Centric Approaches to Public Diplomacy? Summary of ISA Roundtable 

During the 2021 International Studies Association conference (ISA), I had the opportunity to partake in a roundtable Chaired by Nick Cull and Nancy Snow. The two have just recently finished editing the 2020 Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy. Authors who contributed to the handbook, including myself, were asked to reflect on how Covid19 has influenced the conceptualization and practice of public diplomacy. The roundtable ultimately revolved around the question- is state centric public diplomacy still relevant in an age of global crises and shared challenges?  

Rhonda S Zaharna of American University lamented the fact that Covid19 has refocused attention on state-centric public diplomacy where public diplomacy is viewed through the narrow prism of national interests. According to Zaharna, Covid19 should have facilitated a human-centric approach to public diplomacy where public diplomacy is viewed through the wide lens of humanity. Zaharna argued that the world faces ‘wicked problems’ of which Covid19 is but one example. Indeed, no state can single handedly halt the spread of the pandemic or reverse the effects of climate change. By adopting a human-centric approach to public diplomacy, nations may find it easier to collaborate, share resources and address common challenges. Zaharna further asserted that metrics used to compare states’ public diplomacy activities, or rank their Soft Power resources, only cement a state-centric approach to public diplomacy and increase competitiveness, as opposed to collaborations.

Zaharna also stated that joint public diplomacy activities are essential as they recognize that cultural diversity may help address ‘wicked problems’. Different cultures see problems in different lights and can thus offer unique ways of solving ‘wicked problems’. A human-centric approach to public diplomacy would therefore celebrate diversity and recognize that plurality of views and beliefs can help overcome problems, and not cause them.

Eytan Gilboa of Bar Ilan University maintained that Covid19 saw various forms of ‘brand-jacking’ in which nations’ images were deliberately attacked thus depleting these nations’ Soft Power resources. One obvious example is the Trump administration’s attempt to label Covid19 as the Chinese virus and hint that China may have produced the virus, or at the very least concealed the danger it posed to the world. Notably, brand-jacking may have been easier during Covid19 as citizens throughout the world, under lockdown, used digital platforms to learn about other nations’ Covid19 policies. Such comparisons could be used to boost the image of a nation, or defame it. For example, during the initial stages of Covid19 many European countries hoped to emulate the Swedish model that was promoted aggressively on Swedish digital diplomacy channels as a success story. Conversely, Spain and Italy were used to promote national health policies with leaders arguing that without social distancing “we too” may face a collapsing health system and an inability to offer adequate medical care.

Douglas Becker of the University of Southern California discussed how trauma can shape nations’ public diplomacy activities and foreign policies. Trauma can be an excuse for increased competitiveness among states with each nation hoping to secure vaccines for its own citizenry. But, trauma can also bring nations together. Shared trauma can lead to shared action that takes into account the needs of many states and many individuals. The crux of Becker’s argument lies in the fact that national memories do not evolve naturally. What a state chooses to remember or forget is the result of choice and intent. Thus, nations can choose to label Covid19 as a national trauma, as is presently the case with Israel, or as a shared trauma that emphasizes the need for multilateral efforts. The EU, for instance, could choose to remember Covid19 as a shared, European trauma that demonstrates the need for shared European institutions.

Becker and others all argued that the time has come to end public diplomacy’s obsession with the state. That said, in my review of Covid19’s digital legacy, I argued that diplomats are likely to increase their focus on the state and the needs of their own citizens. This will manifest itself in the growing practice of domestic public diplomacy. During Covid19, foreign ministries (MFAs) throughout the world used social media to share consular success stories that were accompanied by images of Ambassadors escorting stranded nationals to specially chartered flights.

Moreover, Covid19 may facilitate the digitalization of consular aid in two ways. First, MFAs may use basic software to automate the provision of consular aid. Chatbots may be used to answer simple consular questions such as which countries have closed their borders or which flights can help nationals return home. This automation can help diplomats contend with global consular crises by saving MFA resources. The automation of consular services will likely expand following Covid19 given diplomats’ need to obtain remarkable results with dwindling budgets. Second, diplomats may increasingly use predictive modelling to prioritize consular efforts. For instance, computer modeling may indicate that a pandemic in Germany will likely lead to an outbreak in France and Italy. Thus, MFAS will focus their consular efforts on France and Italy while Spain and Portugal will be of secondary importance.

Domestic public diplomacy, be it through the sharing of consular success stories, or digitalizing consular efforts will narrow the prism of public diplomacy, increase competitiveness and erode existing collaborations.  

Vivian Walker, of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, also examined domestic public diplomacy through the topic of domestic political narratives. Walker asked if domestic narratives about terrorism, shared by US foreign policy makers with US citizens, were examples of domestic public diplomacy? Narratives play a crucial role during Covid19 as narratives and memory shape national identities. Policy makers may use narratives that focus on the state, or narratives that focus on the world. The former promotes competitiveness and national interests, the latter promotes multilateralism.

Other scholars, including Robert Banks of the University of Southern California, spoke of the need for data, especially with regard to public diplomacy resources such as exchange programs and cultural activities.  There is a need to evaluate if, and how exchange programs migrated online and whether digital cultural activities offered substantive benefits. Such an analysis can help boost the resilience of public diplomacy institutions and programs so that they are better equipped to operate under Covid-like conditions. This is an important observation given Hana Ardent’s assertion that ‘everything that has a precedent will repeat itself’. Meaning that lockdowns, curfews and social distancing may be used in the future to contend with a myriad of crises and not just pandemics. Public diplomacy institutions must thus be able to thrive under Covid-like conditions.

There was also a discussion on Russia’s growing use of nostalgia to market the Sputnik V vaccine. On social media channels the vaccine is inherently tied to the Soviet space program and the achievements of Yuri Gagarin whose birthday coincided with the launch of the Russian vaccine. Becker argued that Russia uses nostalgia to signal its resurgence as a global power. I argued that Russia uses nostalgia to re-associate itself with positive past achievements. Russian scientific minds enabled Gagarin to defy the earth’s gravity and Russian scientific minds created the Sputnik vaccine. Russia’s digital nostalgia is similar to the Queen’s Gambit, it reimagines the Cold War as a cultural and scientific battle that ultimately benefited all of mankind, a battle of wits and genius. The images of Gagarin are not used to remember the Cold War’s nuclear threats, but the War’s cultural elements.

Lastly, Nick Cull reflected on how the concept of Soft Power altered during the pandemic. Cull used his term ‘reputational security’ to reimagine how Soft Power works in a world of national interests and growing competition among states. According to Cull, reputational security suggests that a nation’s reputation is an important component of national security. If people don’t know what a nation does, or what it stands for, they will not be bothered if that nation is annexed or conquered by another state. Reputational security helps ensure the safety of nations amid a competitive global arena dominated by state-centric approaches to public diplomacy.    

The roundtable ended when the Chair, Nancy Snow of Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, asked participant’s is they were as optimistic about the future of public diplomacy, as she is.  Snow argued that the Covid19 pandemic was still raging on and that the trajectory of public diplomacy activities may still take different forms. In other words, it is difficult to conduct a post-mortem when the patient is still alive.

Though some in the panel were optimistic, as a member of the Hebrew faith I erred on the side of caution and pessimism.  

To view a recording of this fascinating panel, click this link.

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