What is public diplomacy, and how effective can it be? While it has a long history, the study of public diplomacy is only becoming more salient in an age of globalisation and increasing digital communication posing both new challenges and opportunities for governments. Doug Becker speaks with Daniel Aguirre Azócar and Nicholas Cull about public diplomacy, its foundations, and effectiveness.

Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California. He is an expert in public diplomacy and is the author of Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age.

Daniel Aguirre Azócar is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Universidad del Desarrollo in Santiago, Chile. He is an expert in foreign policy and public diplomacy in Latin America.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Doug Becker: Let’s start with Nicholas. Your new book lays out the foundations for public diplomacy. What exactly is public diplomacy?

Nicholas J. Cull: Well, the core concept of public diplomacy is that it is the way in which international actors advance their foreign policy not by engaging one another, but by engaging with a foreign public. It really is the communication component of foreign policy. But the obvious counter-question to that is: how is that different from propaganda? And that is really what my book is about, the way in which it is possible to imagine a way of bringing publics into foreign policy that is not about just smacking them over the head with information until they see the world your way.

DB: Is it fair to say public diplomacy is really about dialogue rather than just delivering a message?

NC: Absolutely. Public diplomacy begins with listening and it advances through dialogue, and to do public diplomacy properly you have to be open to being changed by whoever you are interacting with. This is the big difference between public diplomacy and propaganda. A propagandist is never open to being changed by the person that they are addressing, whereas in public diplomacy there has to be not just a possibility but maybe even a probability and that is why we think of public diplomacy as being based on relationships. As soon as you start talking about relationships then necessarily it is going to be based on dialogue and not just one person doing all the talking.

DB: I know the definitions of public diplomacy will sometimes differ in different countries and different regions. Is that your understanding, Daniel?

Daniel Azócar: For the most part the general understanding of public diplomacy has to do with engagement, the idea of engaging with foreign publics and not necessarily just being of a nature of sending out one-way messaging or pushing out information in a way to try to convince others but not necessarily engaging in any type of relationship-building for mutual understanding. That is what we are trying to talk about in Latin America, the region where I work, in which primarily what is seen as interchangeable with the notion of diplomacy is something much more similar to ‘nation branding’ or ‘place branding’. And that in and of itself is not necessarily as problematic as we would have thought of in the past, but it does make it more focused on the commercial side or the business side of reaching out to foreign publics. So in Latin America at least, and even in parts of the developing world, there seems to be more of a focus on that part of public diplomacy which is closer to nation or place branding.

NC: To be honest, that is partly why I wrote the book, to try and rescue the concept of public diplomacy from just being about persuading people about stuff and to try and move it towards a more dialogue-focused practice. I see the idea of just using public diplomacy as a form of public relations if you like, if you are just using it to try and persuade somebody that you are the greatest, this is limited. So I see it not so much as a tool to persuade people that you are the greatest, but as a mechanism by which you and whoever you are communicating with can be mutually greater. It is a difference there, but I agree with what Daniel is saying about how it is seen in Latin America and that is absolutely what I am trying to do with the book is find ways of moving beyond that narrower conception, especially around nation branding and to say ‘Well, lets work out something more complex but for the mutual benefit’.

DB: So this concept of public diplomacy seems to focus on cooperation and on the relationship between the two states. There are two issues here: how much of public diplomacy is about building cooperation? Or is public diplomacy competitive?

DA: I would see it more as a cooperative approach towards others. It is highly normative in that sense, if you want to look at it that way from an international relations standpoint, it looks to build profound relationships of cooperation that can lead to pursuing global issues such as climate change or human rights issues. I think that is really the high point and the differentiator of public diplomacy in terms of other types of international engagement, this appeal towards cooperation, this aim towards cooperation in the long run which is what is used in the terminology as mutual understanding.

DB: Nick, I am struck by the organisation of your book. You’ve got five foundational elements of public diplomacy: listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, and international broadcasting. You seem to prioritise listening as maybe the most important step in public diplomacy. Why is listening more important than advocacy for example?

NC: I think that listening should be essential to any effective communication and it has astonished me while I have been talking to people about this in government over the last fifteen years, that people need to write that down when I say, ‘If you are planning to communicate, listen first’. You would think people don’t have mothers. Of course, they are completely aware that you need to listen before you communicate, but the problem is that with government communication there is a kind of self-confidence and an inflexibility of what is to be communicated that limits openness to listening.

In US public diplomacy it often feels that Congress wants people to go out and say ‘The answer is America, now what is the question?’ And that is no way to build a relationship, that is no way to promote a healthy international situation. Sure, you need to know who you are but you also need to know who you are in relation to other people and have a sense of who those other people are. I found in my research there are lots of examples of countries trying to communicate, or communicating something that is important to themselves, without realising for example that what they are saying is of no interest to other countries and that they are really wasting their time. You would be amazed how often there are very idiosyncratic cultural diplomatic things done overseas that really are of no interest to foreign audiences. So little things like that which are illustrative of failure to listen, right the way up to the really big things where nation-states create entire advocacy campaigns to answer questions that nobody is asking.

The best example of that would be a campaign that the last Bush Administration did immediately after 9/11 called Shared Values. The Shared Values campaign was designed to persuade Muslim audiences that there were lots of happy Muslims living in the US. The problem was that wasn’t where international Islamic distrust of the US was coming from – that was more likely to be based on a fairly well-informed judgement of American foreign policy, its support for Saudi Arabia, support for Israel, and a presence in the Middle East with troops – not on any idea that it was horrible to be a Muslim in Michigan. People weren’t interested in that question and many people were well aware that it was quite nice to live in the US and that the US at some level was religiously tolerant. So it didn’t make any sense to spend money answering a question that nobody was asking. If they listened first they wouldn’t have gone all the way up what turned out to be a blind alley.

DB: Daniel, your thoughts on listening?

DA: What should be looked at and considered when you are thinking about campaigns on the operational level, in terms of defining baseline goals, objectives, [is] basically evaluating if what you are doing is actually having an impact. And that is something that seems obvious, but apparently in many of these campaigns there is this idea or notion that listening will come by inertia or is something that doesn’t have to be incorporated into some type of strategy. So listening has much to do with a starting point, midway point, and towards the end evaluating everything you have done and whether it had an impact. When you think about this more concretely when it comes to nation-states, thinking about what others are thinking about in terms of salient, important topics, nation-states have to really be scanning the environment to figure out the important issues and listening is key to that, it is key to building these relationships and making profound relationships to really pursue these important global issues such as climate change.

DB: I know that one of the foundational theoretical arguments about public diplomacy is Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power. The way international relations theorists define soft power typically is the power being attractive, making your policies, your country more attractive. Is that your understanding of soft power? And how much should we view public diplomacy through that lens of projecting a softer, cooperative power?

NC: Well, I think there are two things there. I do believe that there is an emerging cooperative form of power where your willingness to be part of a collective solution to a problem will be part of how your country is evaluated by international audiences, and that countries that fail to cooperate and fail to be part of collective solutions will be negatively impacted by that. In more detail, I see public diplomacy as being a way in which soft power can be harnessed or enhanced. It is not the same thing as soft power because soft power is a quality that exists in the mind of an audience and you can tell that audience new things to encourage them to be admiring, you can remind them of things you have done in the past to sustain their admiration, but you can’t really create admiration where none is deserving. And to me the bottom line around issues of soft power and reputation is that if you want a good reputation, then you should do good things and relevant good things. The countries that have the best reputations are the countries that have done the best stuff most widely in the world for the longest period of time. An emerging country that wants a good reputation should start thinking about doing good stuff and it is interesting to me to see how there are now successful strategies for newer, smaller countries that are developing stronger reputations by being important in relevant fields. Singapore is a good example of that.

DB: Daniel, your thoughts on soft power?

DA: Soft power is a key part to consider when it comes to implementing public diplomacy. It is something that has to do with each country’s assets – political, cultural – that they project in certain ways to the world. I do have to say, there has been lately some level of criticism towards soft power and people are starting to look towards new forms of projecting the international images such as strategic narratives which are similar but reflect more upon longer histories of countries and their role in the international system. Soft power is relevant of course, however, to what extent can we measure soft power? To what extent can soft power be constructed? It is really difficult to ascertain if that is true. What is being seen is that countries are trying to lead certain issue-areas. Smaller countries are being able to transform their role or portray a newer role in the international system that follows more along the lines of this bigger narrative that has to do with this approach that I am talking about which is the strategic narrative.

DB: Nick?

NC: I agree with that, and I would also say that one of the ways in which soft power has gone wrong is not in the theory but in the discussion. It is seen as being a luxury of the wealthiest, most significant countries. Instead of thinking about the soft power of the really attractive and famous countries, we should think at the other end of the scale about countries that are vulnerable being known for something so that when things go wrong they aren’t overwhelmed. And a good example of a country that didn’t have soft power and that suffered is Ukraine. I think if Ukraine had been better known and had a better moral reputation it would have fared much better when it came under threat during the crisis of 2014. This is why I am starting to think not about soft power, but about reputational security, the idea that there is a quality of security that comes from having a good reputation. And the way to develop that reputation is by being seen as a good country not just by having a nice culture, being a good place to go on holiday, but also for being a moral country that keeps the standards of human rights and is part of collective solutions. So even a relatively powerless country could, by being part of a bigger cooperation, having a more widely seen cultural contribution, be appreciated over and above its hard power categories.

DB: One of the challenges when thinking of strategic narratives, of reputational security, and of memory security is the relationship between your domestic audience and your international audience. One of your lessons is: this is not for domestic consumption, this is for international consumption. And the kinds of narratives that you present to an international audience is very different than your domestic audience. How difficult is that considering that the world in the digital age is so much more connected that whatever you put out to an international audience is going to be reflected back to your domestic audience?

NC: Absolutely, this is a tremendous problem. But we have to be aware that the problem isn’t little bits of public diplomacy leaching back into the domestic market. The problem is public diplomacy being run principally to leach back into the domestic market. The reason why I am concerned about this domestic priority thing is because it is supplanting public diplomacy in some places. And the second thing is that sometimes the domestic audiences are the liability. Countries have to realise that the attitudes of their least globally connected citizens might well undermine the claim to be a global country. Now sometimes this comes up with the US and our international dislike of some kinds of Americanness – a sort of hard-line nativist, segregationist white supremacist attitude that you can find in some places in the US. But maybe it is easier to talk about the problem in Korea. In South Korea you have a very globally oriented government, but as soon as you go down to look at the South Korean public, you find that they are not actually that interested in foreigners, they don’t want to learn foreign languages, they want to get married from someone from their own province, they are not even that interested in connecting to other Koreans. The Korean presidential commission on nation branding recognised that one of their major tasks was going to prepare South Korea for a global role, and you can’t just change things at the top, you have to seek to open the entire society to international relationships. And this has happened in Europe since World War Two through twinning of cities, through civic engagement programs, school exchanges, a whole host of bottom-up exchange diplomacy. In universities we have this thing in Europe called the Erasmus program that allows students to spend semesters in other countries – those sorts of grassroots things go a long way to changing underlying attitudes. So we need to be careful going into our public diplomacy relationships that we are not undermining our claims because of the way our country is, or we are not let down by attitudes within our own population.

DB: Daniel, do you see some of these same issues in Latin America?

DA: I do. It was very interesting. The second part of what Nick was describing really brings to mind some of the lack of real international exposure at the civil society level in Latin America. It is growing, but the reality is there is a lot of anti-immigration sentiment, anti-foreigner sentiment that is recently being activated once again with different migrant population groups coming into Latin America. I am thinking about the Venezuelan crisis of course, I am thinking about some of the countries that receive some of the Haitian migrants, primarily here in Chile and in other parts. That still completely undermines this notion of trying to be a responsible global actor, taking on a leadership role on these issues. So indeed, it is difficult to be on a tightrope because you can definitely fall off if you are not really considering that what you are saying outward has to really consider the domestic public in a way that doesn’t really activate or create a backlash towards what you are saying internationally. And that is because the globalisation of Latin American society is for the most part is still very nascent and new in the last couple of decades.

DB: So far we have been talking a great deal about how certain countries, how certain populations will address international pressures or experiences. How much is public diplomacy also tied pretty directly to advocacy for government policy? Because I think of when public diplomacy first made its way into public discourse in the US, it was trying to try to sell the US policy of invading Iraq to the Arab world. How important is the selling of a policy, and how problematic can that be?

NC: There is a reason why there is a chapter in the book on advocacy, but there is also a reason why there is only one chapter. Advocacy is an important component of public diplomacy but the problem is that for some observers, it is the only part of public diplomacy that they think is worthwhile. There is a general attitude, especially among Congress I think, that public diplomacy is for persuading people. I think the advocacy component is the element of public diplomacy that is most similar to propaganda. But my feeling is that, for reasons of credibility and for breadth of knowledge, to be credible, to be effective in advocacy, it is better done cooperatively than in a one-man show. The strange thing about public diplomacy when you study it is that while the legislatures expect something that is based on advocacy, the practitioners themselves understand the value of this two-way business, that it is more about promoting mutual understanding. However, those same practitioners when they are talking to Congress or to the legislature, they will express what they want to do in terms of advocacy and persuasion as if what they are talking about is propaganda. So the same people will have two ways of talking about their work, they will have an inside understanding and then an outside understanding. And this makes it quite difficult to study public diplomacy because the same people will have two different ways of talking. I feel practitioners have learned not to be honest about the level to which they wish to learn from foreigners because certainly in the US and other large countries, people don’t get elected from saying we need to learn from foreigners.

DB: I know that is a significant challenge for US foreign policy, and I know in Latin America one of the key challenges that US diplomats now face is American policy with regards to Venezuela, in particular with US history and desires for regime change or toppling leaders. How difficult has this been for the US in Latin America? Do you have any advice for the Americans from a Latin American perspective?

DA: Of course, the history of interventions in Latin America is still very fresh in the minds of Latin American society, opinion leaders, governmental leaders, party leaders, etcetera. The reality of actually trying to advocate regime change in places like Venezuela has meant that the US has had to try and take a step back. If a US official like Mike Pompeo visits Latin America and says there is an issue with Venezuela, the reality is that there is also a seeking out of partnerships with some other leaders in the region. However, there is always this looming presence or this suspicion that the US is behind certain coalitions of Latin American leaders trying to push forward a democratic transition in that country. I’m thinking of a group called the Lima Group which is comprised of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay that has basically been trying for the last few months to push forward this regime change in Venezuela, and it hasn’t been successful because of this looming idea in public opinion that the US has some type of interest in that group or influence in that group. So it is still quite troubling even for Latin American leaders who want to push that because they are automatically linked to US interests or are considered allies who are just furthering the US agenda.

DB: Nick, is the challenge in Latin America trying to craft a public diplomacy campaign that would make the US more attractive in Latin America? Or is the challenge the policy the US has chosen in Venezuela?

NC: I think the challenge is for the US to actually be more attractive to Latin America, be more sensitive, to be less of a bully, and to acknowledge that it has a really difficult history in the region. I think the United States needs a lot more exchange with Latin America, that it has kind of gone from a European orientation to a Pacific orientation without really taking its Latin orientation seriously. This is a big mistake. We are now heading into the first presidential election in the US where there are more Hispanic Americans than there are African Americans, but you do not see an adjustment in the domestic political scene. I mean try looking at the Spanish language websites of American political candidates right now, a lot of them have been put through Google Translate and have these hilarious mistakes where idioms in English have been translated literally into Spanish and are completely hilarious. I think this speaks to the Latin American problem of the US, which is a century old at least and has to be addressed. The migration crisis is just the latest form of this difficulty.

DB: Daniel, you have focused your work quite a bit on the role of the digital revolution in public diplomacy. What are some of the key ways that these new technologies are changing the practice of public diplomacy?

DA: I would say that what they are doing is making ministries of foreign affairs rethink what they are doing, to really open up, to really become more transparent, to really become more collaborative. Unfortunately, there is still some lag in terms of modernising the diplomatic corps in Latin America, they are behind the curve on many of the more recent practices of diplomacy. What the digital revolution has done has put in their face [the fact] that we really need to be online and we really need to answer questions, we really need to have some level of interaction with our own public but also with the foreign publics. So that really makes them reconceptualise what the role of the diplomat is in this day and age. In that sense, while I look at digital tools, how they use Twitter, how they use Facebook or how they use WhatsApp, I am really thinking about how this has effected the everyday practices and the notion of what it means to be a diplomat in this day and age. That is really how I am looking at it. It hasn’t shifted entirely yet and that is the research I am doing which is keeping an eye out for and to see where there is actually a tipping point in this part of the world.

DB: And Nick, despite the title of your book you immediately in the introduction declare that you are not separating out these new technologies from some of the more traditional practices of public diplomacy. Is that an indication that these new digital tools are yet another tool in the toolbox that is not as transformative as perhaps some authors have suggested?

NC: I think the jury has to be out on whether they are transformative. I believe they can certainly cause trouble. We thought that technology was going to be the solution in public diplomacy terms and now we are realising there are as many problems that come out of the technology as there are solutions. As we go forward to negotiate this digital world, my point is that we shouldn’t throw out the lessons of the analogue past and there are some pretty good takeaways from earlier eras of public diplomacy that is recognised as good practice and what worked in the past will work in the present and in the future because it is based on consistent human beings. So a lot of what I am trying to do in the book is to talk about the foundations in behavioural psychology, effective messaging, all those sorts of things that work as well in a digital world as they worked in the past.

DB: Although I would imagine it will speed up messaging?

NC: For sure, but a bad message in the era of quill pens and parchment is a bad message today. Maybe what is different now is speed and ubiquity. Now we have got no choice but to put issues of public diplomacy at the centre of international relations because publics are at the centre of international relations. But what you find if you look at our field is that this is not the way people are thinking about it, they are thinking about things based on legacy influences. Something that is important in the world like public opinion and mass communication is marginal and is not getting the attention that it needs within academic circles. Policymakers are paying attention because they have to, but academics would rather keep on the same conversations they have been having for decades.

DB: How important is exchange diplomacy these days? Nick, you mentioned the Erasmus program in Europe. How important is it that more people get abroad, study abroad, and ideally have positive experiences?

NC: I don’t think exchange programs are a magic bullet. There is a sweet spot. The quick visit can open you up to foreign influences. The long visit can help you really understand foreign ways of thinking. The medium visit can set you up to really dislike foreigners and long for going back home. So I think there are real questions around planning international exchanges – you can’t just say that a semester abroad will magically make people sympathetic to foreign ways of thinking. Having said that, there does seem to be a certain broadening of the mind that comes through travel and international exposure. I am worried though how few people in the Senate have been overseas for a significant period of time and that used to not be the case, it used to be that people in the Senate had a knowledge of the world. Now the only person in the modern Senate who spent a long time overseas was John McCain who’d been in Vietnam as a prisoner of war. There is an absence of direct experience of international things that is a problem.

DB: Daniel, your thoughts on exchanges?

DA: I would agree with what Nick says, that it isn’t a magic bullet. However, it does seem to provide some more permanency in terms of forming more favourable opinions about the host country where you spent your time abroad. There have been some studies on this and in terms of the time frame of your stay, that is something that needs to further be analysed, but overall my impression is that it does provide some level of increased sensitivity at the least towards other cultures and other nations. But in saying that, there are also individuals that might do the study abroad and not necessarily come back with the best opinion of going abroad, they might also experience some crisis, they might miss home and that might just leave a negative reminder about what being abroad meant. So it depends on an individual basis but I think on the collective basis it does seem to provide some level of sensitivity among individuals who engage in exchanges.

DB: Where do you see the future of public diplomacy? Do you see these kinds of practices as becoming more or less important or being transformed in some significant way?

DA: I really think the necessity of public diplomacy is really evident. Ideally, it can try to provide solutions to some of our most pressing issues on a global scale but also to really try to keep at bay these visions of nationalistic and populist views of the world that are not necessarily aiding in terms of sustaining this international society that we want to have. In that sense, I think that the need of having public diplomacy present from now in to the future is clear to me to the extent that governments will invest and keep on funding programs and strategies.

DB: Nick, final thoughts?

NC: If you can use public diplomacy to bring opinion together around important issues, you have got a method for dealing with the worst problems that we face. But I think that what is important going forward is that not only will we see public diplomacy as a central tool of the nation-state, but that other actors will continue to step up and contribute to a much richer international dialogue and partnerships. So I am thinking we will see provinces and cities and NGOs all participating in public diplomacy, all reaching out, sharing stories, coming together around issues, and I think it is exciting and stimulating. Fundamentally, at the end of my book I was hopeful about the future based on trends in public diplomacy. I think once people commit to each other that is the beginning of real solutions to the problems we face.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.