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Public Diplomacy

by on April 7, 2013

Public diplomacy involves communication between governments and their foreign publics. It has become much more widely used with the current spread of globalisation and the vast developments in technology and communication. It is becoming more difficult for governments to control the flow of information as there are a growing number of information sources via the internet. People no longer have to rely on the television or radio, which are almost always influenced by governments, for information. This means that politicians and opinion makers should be careful about what they say or do because if they somehow screw up, it will travel throughout the world within a few hours via numerous sources. As Alastair Campbell said, “Our media will only ever give a narrow context, go further abroad and it gets even narrower” (Public diplomacy) Basically, all must go right when addressing to the public; any mishaps and it will be those mistakes which are publicized throughout the world.

Public diplomacy is primarily about reputation. If a country or government has a bad reputation around the world, it will be viewed with suspicion by foreign publics and governments, and therefore lose its ability to use ‘soft power’ to get what it wants. This may force that government to use ‘hard power’ in order to achieve its national interest. However, this will further damage their reputation. This is where public diplomacy must be used to improve the reputation of a country, through ‘holding conferences, seminars, newspaper interviews and articles, and by allowing political officers to actively seek to influence their network of contacts’ (The New Diplomacy) This good reputation can be achieved through showing to the world that one’s country is morally good. It can involve actors from all spheres of life in a country from the individual to NGO’s to transnational corporations, governments and educators. But also, this good reputation can be achieved through the use of propaganda, by showing false images of one’s country. This however can be counterproductive as when a government is found using propaganda to control the masses, it is seen to be untrustworthy. The phrase Public diplomacy is often used ‘as a euphemism for propaganda’. According to Mark Leonard “Public diplomacy is about building relationships: understanding the needs of other countries, cultures and peoples; communicating our points of view; correcting misperceptions; looking for areas where we can find common cause (Public diplomacy by Mark Leonard.)

The United States has been constantly found lying about its aims and actions within countries. For example in Iraq they claimed they wanted to bring about real change within the country from better education and health to cleaner water and sanitation. However, none of this has been achieved and in many cases worse than before.  The lies about Saddam’s WMD’s to use as a pretext for the invasion, probably the same WMD’s that he had received from the Americans during the Iran War. They claimed a far lower civilian casualty count than was actually the case. And videos like the one released by wikileaks of U.S. soldiers in a helicopter machine-gunning many civilians below. (,_5_Apr_2010). These have all resulted in a public disaster for the U.S.. Their image all over the world became that of savage imperialists, especially from the viewpoint of the middle east. U.S. credibility as a trustworthy nation was up in flames. Anti American riots went on all over the world, once again especially in the middle east. America’s soft power was in serious decline. Their use of hard power backfired as it was generally seen as an unjust invasion and with the wrong intentions. As one official in the White house put it, “we haven’t made any attempts to communicate with ordinary arabs unless we are bombing them or imposing sanctions on them; I wouldn’t like us if I were them”. (Public Diplomacy) It is clear to the whole world now that the invasion wasn’t about bringing human rights to Iraq but about Oil and money. Also the billions of dollars of Iraqi money from frozen U.S. accounts was supposed to go towards developing Iraq. Many billions are still unaccounted for and much of that accounted for went on overpriced contracts. (

Public diplomacy is more relevant to democratic states as those governments are more responsible to their citizens. However, all governments will want to portray a good image of their country, in order to attract companies and tourists. The resident embassy is a major tool for promoting one’s country. Holding events and attending events are a good way of getting publicity and if the representatives portray themselves well, it creates a good image of the country. “How the staff dresses, the hours they keep, and the events they host all give visitors a feel for the culture”. Harvard professor Stephen Walt “argued that the ‘fortress America’ approach to embassy design presents a public face that is an odd combination of power and paranoia”(www.washdiplomat). This shows to the world that they are the superpower and will want to stay in that position. It also shows that the country has many threats to its security; otherwise they wouldn’t need such protected embassies. How a country portrays itself and how outsiders perceive it, will generally shape its diplomatic activities. For example, Norway with a reputation for peace keeping and mediation has been at the forefront of peace negotiations such at the Oslo peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Whereas if a country is seen to be warmongering and self-interested such as the U.S., it can do a lot of damage to their reputation, as the U.S. is finding it harder and harder to get what it wants.


Ronald Reagan’s plea to the Soviet leader in 1987 ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” This use of public diplomacy was part of his strategy plan to open up closed societies within the Soviet bloc, along with economic warfare and political warfare campaigns and a military build-up. This was all to put pressure on the Soviet Union. When they couldn’t keep up with the U.S. economy and then putting pressure on their economy more by trying to keep up militarily, this was putting a major strain on the entire Soviet Bloc. And with Ronald Reagan demanding Mikhail Gorbachev to pull down the Berlin Wall, reaching the ears of most citizens within the Soviet Bloc, it repeated the cries of so many within the region. The U.S. would throw all its diplomatic power to finally overwhelm the Soviet Union. This demand gave further impetus to the people’s push for freedom from communism within the occupied countries. It also made it less likely that Gorbachev would send in the army to prevent the wall being knocked when it eventually was by citizens on both sides of the wall. If he had, he would have shown to the world the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union and Communism, especially with Reagan shining light on the issue. This speech crossed the whole world, showing the growing power that public diplomacy offers in this globalised world. As America had portrayed itself as such an open state and the champion of freedom, it encouraged those under communism to want the same freedoms as the people of the west. In this speech he kept repeating the word ‘freedom’, which was the main point he wanted to get out to the public. To get the message across it needs to be clear, simple and logical and right now that message was freedom.(Public diplomacy reader)

public diploacy

Multilateral meetings can be good for public diplomacy, especially summits, which include the heads of states. These summits attract a lot of media attention. When these summits are efficient, it gives a good image of the countries involved. But also bilateral meetings can be just as effective. The recent visit to Israel  by Barack Obama, he spoke of the need for Palestinian autonomy and to stop the building of settlements, during a speech to Israeli university students. This was received well by the attendees and it may prove useful in an Israel which is increasingly turning to the right. This was smart by Obama as he went beyond the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to get the message across to the Israeli people. In this way Obama hopes to achieve a change of thought within the country, something Netanyahu has not been obliged to do.( 21/03.2013)


  1. Public Diplomacy Reader by J. Michael Waller; institute of World Politics Press 2007
  2. Public diplomacy by Mark Leonard; The foreign policy Centre 2002
  3. The New Diplomacy by Shaun Riordan; Polity Press 2004
  6. 21/03.2013

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One Comment
  1. christianatham permalink

    I agree with you that public diplomacy is about reputation. States will always feel the need to adapt public diplomacy to portray a certain imagine to either their citizens or another state. With the increase use of electronic media like face book and twitter, it is much easier for a government to influence the public option.
    It is true that no Weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the invasion. However, the US was able to influence the UN and other states through propaganda that Sadam Hussein was an eminent danger to the Middle East region and the world as a whole. They announced to the world that he had weapons of mass destruction. This is an example of public diplomacy being used in a negative manner.
    The Obama administration is now making public diplomacy a priority in the formation and implementation of US foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy is propaganda to build Americans imagine to world as a friendly state. It is reported that the US approval ratings have significantly increased throughout the first year of President Barack Obama’s administration, with figures of 75% in France and 69% in the United Kingdom.

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