CIAO DATE: 10/02

Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy

September/October 2002

Diplomacy by Other Means
Mark Leonard*


If Western governments really want to persuade reluctant allies in the Muslim world that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam, they need to change their style. Forget the airdrops of anti-Osama leaflets and windup radios tuned to the BBC and Voice of America. Try using Britney Spears, Amnesty International, and a little truth, empathy, and understanding.


During the Cold War, the United States created a robust array of cultural and intellectual instruments to spread American values behind the Iron Curtain and plead the U.S. case to nonaligned nations. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States gradually dismantled many of these propaganda and information tools, emasculating the United States Information Agency and paring the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe down to almost residual proportions. Other countries followed suit, such as when the British initially slashed the budget of the BBC World Service and the Germans scaled back their efforts at cultural promotion by closing down branches of their Goethe-Instituts all over the world.

Ironically, the end of the Cold War has made public diplomacy—the task of communicating with overseas publics—more important than ever. The spread of democracy to a majority of countries, increased access to news and information, and the rise of global nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and protest movements have put ever greater constraints on national governments. The disparate public reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath has made that point all too clear. As Western governments strive to convince reluctant allies in the Muslim world that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam, the “battle for hearts and minds” has risen once again to the top of policymakers’ in boxes.

The last decade is rife with examples of popular perceptions, rather than governments, setting the pace for international diplomacy. In Kosovo, a powerful military coalition risked defeat not in the field but in the media battleground for public support as governments in Greece and Italy struggled to cope with volatile popular opinion. In Rwanda, ethnic conflict was mobilized through inflammatory radio broadcasts to civilians rather than by military command chains. Recent antiglobalization demonstrations have revealed a new diplomatic environment where state and nonstate actors compete for the public’s attention. After the mad cow disease crisis in Britain, the French government violated European Union law and continued to ban British beef, largely in response to public fears about safety. And the global competition for investment, trade, tourists, entrepreneurs, and highly skilled workers extends the influence of foreign publics beyond the political to the economic.

The common thread throughout these disparate examples is public perception: The way in which foreign publics interpret British, U.S., or other countries’ values, motivations, and qualities can create an enabling or a disabling environment. Propaganda will not persuade populations in reluctant countries to support war, but perceptions of Western motivations as imperial or self-interested can damage the chances of success. The BBC will not block out calls to arms from tribal radio stations, but it can act as a counterweight if people trust its dispassionate overview of ethnic tensions. Promotional advertisements for British beef might have a limited impact on consumers’ fears, but efforts to show the quality of British science and the integrity of its veterinarians could help mollify French suspicions. And campaigns to change the perceptions of countries like Ireland, Spain, and New Zealand created a premium for products and services and helped attract investment and tourists.

All transactions and points of contact—whether promoting policies, selling products, or attracting investment—will feed off the general image of a country and reflect back onto it, in both positive and negative directions. For example, Norway’s reputation for work in international mediation will help persuade the different factions in Sri Lanka that Norway is an honest broker, which will in turn add to Norway’s reputation for peace. Equally, when the United States tries to exempt its peacekeepers from prosecution by the International Criminal Court, such action reinforces the U.S. reputation for double standards and unilateralism.

Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has argued that the power of influence can complement more traditional forms of power based on economic or military clout. Such “soft power,” he notes, can rest on the appeal of “one’s ideas or the ability to set the agenda in ways that shape the preferences of others.” But governments have yet to remold their own diplomatic structures to adapt to this changed environment. Instead, most diplomatic institutions have done little more than bolt on a few new units or recruit a couple of extra staff from NGOs—changes that are essentially cosmetic. Instead, diplomats must transform themselves from reporters and lobbyists who react to issues into shapers of public debates around the world.


To Sell the Truth

The term “public diplomacy” is often a euphemism for propaganda. But the proliferation of information in open societies (and, increasingly, in closed ones as well) makes it more difficult for governments to control information. Attempts to distort the truth will eventually be exposed and therefore will create even greater skepticism of governments. Moreover, because most ideas that people absorb about a country are beyond the control of national governments—books, CDs, films, television programs, or brands and consumer products with national connotations—governments can only have an impact at the margins by seeking to clear paths for the most positive messages to reach mass audiences while working directly to influence the opinions of niche audiences.

Public diplomacy should be about building relationships, starting from understanding other countries’ needs, cultures, and peoples and then looking for areas to make common cause. As the relationships deepen, public diplomacy can achieve a hierarchy of objectives: increasing familiarity (making people think about your country and updating their images of it); increasing appreciation (creating positive perceptions of your country and getting others to see issues from your perspective); engaging people (encouraging people to see your country as an attractive destination for tourism and study and encouraging them to buy its products and subscribe to its values); and influencing people’s behavior (getting companies to invest, encouraging public support for your country’s positions, and convincing politicians to turn to it as an ally).

To achieve these goals, governments must craft a public diplomacy that operates in three dimensions. The first is communication on day-to-day issues—in other words, aligning traditional diplomacy with the news cycle. The globalization of news coverage complicates this task. Diplomats have no control over the way the media present their countries, since those reports are typically filed by foreign correspondents. Some of the stories that have the biggest impact abroad are not traditional foreign policy stories that embassies are equipped to deal with but are domestic stories, such as the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain, the success of right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen in the recent French presidential elections, or the desecration of Jewish graves in Italy. Diplomats will talk to the press about “foreign” news stories, but they will refer enquiries about “domestic” stories to the relevant government departments, which are not equipped to understand the international repercussions of their actions. Moreover, during the throes of a domestic crisis, foreign correspondents will invariably get second-class service since government officials will be primarily concerned about press coverage at home.

The second dimension of public diplomacy is strategic communication. Governments are adept at conveying their stances on particular issues (whether tariffs on steel or peacemaking in the Middle East), but officials are much less effective at managing overall perceptions of their country. One reason for this failure is that different institutions have been responsible for dealing with politics, trade, tourism, investment, and cultural relations. But on many issues, the totality of messages will determine how people abroad relate to a nation.

Strategic communication is like a political campaign: developing a set of comprehensive messages and planning a series of symbolic events and photo opportunities to reinforce them. Chris Powell, chairman of the British advertising company bmp ddb, argues that since people are exposed to thousands of messages every day, the themes must not be overly complex: “A contrast between diplomacy and advertising is that in advertising an enormous amount of work goes into the preparation—boiling ideas down into very, very simple concepts, and then repeating that message over and over again until we are all thoroughly bored with it. When you are so bored with it that you feel like giving up, the listener may just have begun to register the message.”

The third dimension of public diplomacy is the most long term: developing lasting relationships with key individuals through scholarships, exchanges, training, seminars, conferences, and access to media channels. This approach differs from the usual diplomatic practice of nurturing contacts through lunches, cocktail parties, and receptions. These relationships are not built between diplomats and people abroad—they are between peers (politicians, special advisors, business people, cultural entrepreneurs, and academics). This approach differs from messages designed to sell because it involves a genuine exchange that leads to a “warts and all” picture of the country.


Hearing It Like It Is

Many of the communication initiatives that Western governments developed after the terrorist attacks last autumn fall into what can best be described as a “conveyor belt” model for transmitting information. Recent debates about public diplomacy—particularly in the United States, but in other countries as well—suggest that many policymakers feel the key problem is a lack of information, as if to say, “If only other people had access to the same degree of information we have, and the same degree of insight, then they would agree with us.”

But post–September 11 public diplomacy has not failed to deliver information. Rather, it has failed to deliver information convincingly. The tone of many messages is declamatory, without any apparent intent to engage in dialogue or listen. For instance, immediately after September 11, 2001, the U.S. government resorted to crude psychological operations such as dropping leaflet bombs (showing a member of the Taliban beating a group of women and bearing the message: “Is this the future you want for your children and your women?”) or dropping fixed-frequency windup radios tuned to U.S. military broadcasts.

If Western governments are to move beyond propaganda, they must meet four challenges: understanding the target audience, confronting hostility toward Western culture, engaging people emotionally, and proving their own relevance to the public concerned.

Knowing your audience is the top priority for any effective communication. But diplomats are often more interested in winning arguments than in persuading skeptical publics. Governments struggle to internalize and prepare for potential threats that do not conform to their underlying strategic assumptions. This mind-set explains why the Iranian revolution in 1979 was such a massive shock to Western diplomats. The signs were there—rising social unrest, the growing influence of Islamic political activists—but the bureaucratic mandarins couldn’t accept them.

Carrying out successful diplomacy is difficult if you do not have ears for things you do not want to hear. Both the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the U.S. State Department fell into this trap when they produced leaflets about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Although the leaflets contained shocking pictures that worked on an emotional level, the text was very forensic, explaining why the September 11 attacks were undoubtedly carried out by Osama bin Laden. These sorts of messages become enmeshed in a battleground of “your information versus my information.”

As the former advertising executives Adam Lury (of HHCL and Partners) and Simon Gibson (of Saatchi & Saatchi) put it: “The answer is not more information, but a different form of engagement.” That sentiment led U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers to advise U.S. public affairs officers, “Our goal is not what you say, but the response that you desire.” Public diplomacy is not simply delivering a message to an audience; it is about getting a result. And to get a result, you need to acknowledge that the listener’s views matter as much as the message. You must therefore be ready to explore the legitimacy of some basic beliefs—from human and gender rights to health and safety—in different societies and to discuss how they will work in practice, rather than repeating them by rote.

The second step toward effective communication involves countering the widespread anger at what is perceived to be a one-way flow of culture from the West. The belief that local customs, histories, and identities are being swallowed by the unstoppable advance of Gap, Starbucks, and Tom Cruise presents diplomats with an inherently hostile audience.

The right message and positioning on a topic can prevent weak arguments from falling on deaf ears. Consider, for example, the recent repositioning of French public diplomacy, which used to be based on pushing French cultural exceptionalism and promoting the French language. With the creation of a new public diplomacy department, the French developed a novel approach: Instead of promoting French exceptionalism, the French government sought common cause with other countries on the receiving end of U.S. cultural dominance and positioned themselves as the champion of those nations. In a similar maneuver, when it became apparent that French could not compete with English as a global language, France sought to promote multilingualism; if French will not be the first foreign language learned around the world, then at least more than one foreign language will be learned.

Western governments would do well to emphasize pluralism as a central part of their identities and to illustrate the impact that foreign cultures have on their countries. One successful example is a British program called Visiting Arts. By bringing artists and performers from other cultures to the United Kingdom, the government presents a very positive image of a receptive British culture, which plays well in the proud originating country and helps to dispel concerns about cultural hegemony or British domination of the developing world. Contrast this approach with that of the U.S. State Department, which plans to air short videos on Arab television channels profiling the lives of “ordinary” Muslim-Americans, including teachers, basketball players, and firefighters. The intended message is that the United States is an open society, tolerant and accepting of all religions, but the videos might prove counterproductive since they portray Muslims as being assimilated into U.S. culture.

The third challenge to public diplomacy is to move beyond intellectual forms of communication. Recent advertisements for the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter credit card assert that 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal. It is difficult to trust that exact figure, but it is clear that many other factors—experiences, emotions, images—influence people’s responses to messages. The challenge is to move from supplying information to capturing the imagination.

The British ambassador to the United States, Sir Christopher Meyer, explained the importance of symbolism in Washington, D.C., after September 11: “The British stock has never been higher in the U.S. It is a combination of words and symbols…. First, [Prime Minister Tony] Blair saying ‘it is an attack on us all.’ Then on September 13th the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. And third, when the president made his address to Congress, there was Blair up in the gallery showing his support. The combination of these events produced a surge of affection for the U.K. What we are really saying to Americans is that we are the only people in the entire cosmos whom you can really count on when the going gets tough.”

The fourth challenge to transcending propagandist messages is proving your relevance. While that might not typically be a problem for the United States, other countries often fall short. One way of demonstrating relevance is to concentrate on “niche diplomacy.” Norway is a good example of a country that has a voice and a presence on the international stage out of proportion to its modest position and assets. It has achieved this presence through a ruthless prioritization of its target audiences and its concentration on a single message: Norway as a force for peace. This reputation gives Norway greater visibility than its size warrants and rebuts accusations of isolationism. Main activities in this field include Norway’s large foreign-aid budget (second-most among industrialized countries as a percentage of gross national product) and its conflict resolution efforts in the Middle East (the Oslo accords), Sri Lanka, and Colombia. Norway also operates a rapid-reaction force (the Norwegian Resource Bank for Democracy and Human Rights) to assist in election monitoring and conflict prevention in about 20 countries annually. The Nobel Peace Prize, originating in Oslo, is a happy historical fact that also raises Norway’s profile.


Shoot the Messenger

Effective public diplomacy relies on more than just the quality of a message. Sometimes, the problem is the messenger. Even the most well-crafted argument will fall flat if nobody trusts the source. Just as readers might be skeptical of an article appearing in a newspaper with an extreme ideological slant, so too might a target audience be leery of an information campaign sponsored by a Western government with a perceived political motive.

The traditional approach to public diplomacy activity overseas, be it cultural festivals, seminars, economic promotion, or policy advocacy, is that it should all be concluded with “a few words from the ambassador.” In some cases, it would be far more useful to keep the ambassador indoors. Sensitive messages to foreign publics are often best disseminated by people who have something in common with the target audience. For instance, the decision to arrange visits of prominent Muslims living in Britain to Islamic countries after September 11 more convincingly demonstrated British respect for Islam than did any ministerial pronouncements.

If a message will engender distrust simply because it is coming from a foreign government, then the government should hide that fact as much as possible. Increasingly, if a state is to make its voice heard and to influence events outside its direct control, it must work through organizations and networks that are separate from, independent of, and even suspicious of governments themselves. Three of the most effective mediums for this type of public diplomacy are NGOs, diasporas, and political parties.


Nongovernmental Organizations

Working with nonstate actors, such as NGOs, is central to communication with civil societies in other countries (and hence central to influencing their governments) because NGOs have three key resources not readily available to foreign governments: credibility, expertise, and appropriate networks. People are often quick to question the motivations behind the diplomatic pronouncements of a state, but NGOs such as Human Rights Watch or Oxfam have a long-standing reputation for independence—and hence a credibility—that it is not feasible for a government to create for itself. (Amnesty International’s recent condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombings, for instance, had a much more profound impact on political discourse than countless denunciations from the U.S. and Israeli governments.) The Canadian polling company Environics International surveyed 1,000 people in each of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing countries and found that 65 percent of people trust NGOs to work in the best interests of society, while only 45 percent trust national governments to do the same.

NGOs have access to networks of activists, experts, and foreign politicians—and they know how to marshal those networks to exert pressure in a given policy area. No diplomatic mission possesses (or would wish to possess) the capability to organize street demonstrations, nor are diplomats well positioned to coordinate sustained lobbying campaigns. More than 20,000 transnational NGO networks are already active on the world stage (of which 90 percent were created during the last 30 years), and many of them could make effective partners for conducting public diplomacy. Governments, however, should be clear-eyed about such relationships, because they bring their own peculiar difficulties. NGOs have a much more informal way of doing things and tend to work on a “want-to-know,” rather than a “need-to-know,” basis.

Despite this clash of cultures, collaborations between NGOs and governments have yielded several notable successes. For example, efforts to restrict the global trade in smuggled “conflict diamonds”—which funded some of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—would not have been successful without sustained government action alongside NGOs like Global Witness and Human Rights Watch and representatives from the diamond industry, particularly De Beers and the World Diamond Council.



Thanks to increased international migration during the latter half of the 20th century, there are now “living links”—relations, friends, former business partners—within virtually every country in the world. The untapped potential in the global diaspora could, with sustained involvement, yield several advantages to policymakers. First, and most obviously, diasporas can help fill the demand for language skills that has been highlighted by the events following September 11, when Pashto, Farsi, and Arabic speakers were much needed.

Furthermore, such links provide the cultural knowledge, political insight, and human intelligence necessary for a successful foreign policy. The mistakes and disasters that marked events like the Vietnam War or the Iranian Revolution, for instance, might have been avoided had there been more comprehensive and intimate knowledge of those societies available to policymakers. Daniel Ellsberg, the defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers on U.S. decision making in Vietnam, has said that no high-ranking U.S. official at the time of the war’s escalation “could have passed in office a midterm freshman exam in modern Vietnamese history. . . .”

An important and easily overlooked aspect of diaspora diplomacy is the complexity of relations between different expatriates of the same country. A recent focus group the Foreign Policy Centre conducted with young professionals in New Delhi revealed very different attitudes toward the Indian diaspora in the United States and the United Kingdom. Many thought of their compatriots in the United Kingdom as low-skilled, low-wage, and unmotivated—an image essentially dominated by the corner shop and the import-export trade. In stark contrast, the U.S. Indian community was seen in a more positive light, as ambitious and highly skilled—an image heavily influenced by the perceived prevalence of Indians in the information-technology industry of Silicon Valley. Governments, therefore, should not just pay attention to improving the image of their countries but also to the image of resident diaspora communities.


Political Parties

A third area where nongovernment-to-government diplomacy could be very fruitful is in building relations between political parties in different countries. Problems between governments may appear to be diplomatic when, in fact, they stem from difficulties that revolve around perceived political differences. For example, one important contributing factor to the frosty relations that have sometimes prevailed between Britain and France during the last few years has been the suspicion among some members of the French left toward New Labour’s perceived neoliberal tilt.

The relations between political parties of the same broad stripe in different countries can be a vitally important dimension of those nations’ overall foreign relations. On a growing list of issues—economic reform, social rights, agriculture, drugs, terrorism, and the environment, not to mention humanitarian intervention—national interests are neither immutable nor particular to a single country. Instead, such issues can only be addressed through a deliberative political process. Increased links between political parties represent one way to deal with that historic shift.

Some countries are already fostering such relations. One example is Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung—a large, politically oriented institute affiliated with the Christian Democratic movement, which receives substantial state funding to facilitate policy debate and exchanges between countries and to maintain a physical presence in dozens of nations. German taxpayers fund similar organizations with links to the other main parties: the Social Democrats, Liberals, and Greens. This approach has many advantages. First, nurturing relations between politicians of different countries makes diplomacy easier by giving both sides a clear idea of the political positioning of the other. Second, such relationships open a channel for policy exchange that renews the intellectual capital of political parties. Third, exchanges help develop an international outlook within parties that are not in power, which can be advantageous in smoothing the transition between administrations. No More “Hard Sell”

All governments pay lip service to how the rise of global communications, the spread of democracy, the growth of NGOs, and the development of powerful multilateral organizations have shifted the nature of power within societies and altered the craft of diplomacy. But few have adequately reflected those changes in how they deploy their resources, organize their activities, or go about their core business. It is a paradox that, as interdependence has increased, the effort invested in nurturing relationships with the rest of the world has steadily declined.

The biggest challenge is to the culture and priorities of diplomatic institutions themselves. Public diplomacy can no longer be seen as an add-on to the rest of diplomacy—it must be seen as a central activity that is played out across many dimensions and with many partners. Above all, Western governments need a much broader and more creative idea of what public diplomacy is and what it can do.

Such reforms are already apparent in the United States, as public diplomacy gradually moves away from the browbeating associated with the American “hard sell.” The State Department has rebranded the Voice of America’s Arabic service as “Radio Sawa” (“Radio Together”). Gone are the hours of U.S. government–monitored talk that attracted a small audience of older decision makers. In its place is a fast-paced music station aimed at the young, who subliminally ingest news bulletins between blasts of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. The United States also plans to launch a 24-hour Arabic satellite news channel that will compete with the mighty Al Jazeera. All these efforts are backed by serious money—a proposed $750 million for promotional materials, cultural and educational exchanges, and radio and television channels in the Middle East.

But a communications strategy can’t work if it cuts against the grain of a country’s foreign policy. It will be impossible for the United States to win hearts and minds unless the targeted people get a sense that the United States really cares about them as individuals, not just because they are seen as potential terrorists. The current U.S. administration has demonstrated that it values coercion above all else. As such, public diplomacy still will be seen as the projection of power. Unilateralist policies that always put U.S. interests first will undercut sophisticated attempts to build relationships with foreign publics. For all its good intentions, U.S. public diplomacy could become mired by these contradictions—a velvet fist in an iron glove.



Note *: Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre, an independent, London-based think tank launched by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 to revitalize debate on global issues.  Back