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Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age

Reviewed by Edward Corse.

Nick Cull’s introduction to Public Diplomacy is a great primer for practitioners of the art of influencing the people of other countries. This book builds on the overview of public diplomacy which the author created for the Foreign Office a decade ago, expanding its single chapter to eight and updating the argument for the digital age.  The volume brings together Cull’s expertise from his background as a historian and his more contemporary understanding of how governments today operate in this sphere in the digital age.

Cull calls this ‘public diplomacy’, a widely recognised term for this type of activity. However, its usage is in itself a matter of debate which Cull tackles head on. He starts with an interesting discussion about the term and alternatives which could be, and are, used by other scholars and practitioners. He dismisses the idea that public diplomacy is the same as propaganda. Cull writes ‘[p]ropaganda is about dictating your message to an audience and persuading them you are right. Public diplomacy is about listening to the other side and working to develop a relationship of mutual understanding’ (p. 1). Cull considers alternatives that are used by various authorities including ‘strategic communication’, ‘cultural exchange’ and ‘influence diplomacy’. All of these he suggests contain ‘baggage’ of some sort – with public diplomacy being the ‘least worst term’ (p. 2).

Certainly from my own study of the work of the British Council in the Second World War, I can agree that the practitioners of public diplomacy have often felt uncomfortable with their work being seen as ‘propaganda’ and have distanced themselves from the term. However, even Cull recognises that the two are joined: ‘As the river rolls to the sea, so public diplomacy always tumbles downhill towards propaganda’ (p. 8). Whilst Cull persuasively argues that public diplomacy is distinct from propaganda, and indeed soft power (which he states can be leveraged by public diplomacy) he deliberately does not define what public diplomacy is in a pithy sentence. Indeed searching for such a short definition would miss out on the benefit of following Cull’s thinking around the whole concept of public diplomacy through reading the entirety of his book – it is not easily definable.

Cull divides his book into five main parts, echoing the five components that he has identified as being essential for public diplomacy: listening, advocacy, culture, exchange and education, and international broadcasting. He then extends his thinking to two major elements to emerge from what he calls ‘the new public diplomacy’: nation branding and partnership. These elements of new public diplomacy, he argues, have emerged in the digital age as a result of the erosion of barriers and boundaries. The internet has created a need for Governments to (re-)define what type of place they represent through creating brands for nations, and work more in partnership with non-state actors.

Within the listening and advocacy chapters, Cull gives us a poignant reminder that we need to be aware of cognitive bias. To be successful, Cull suggests public diplomacy practitioners should not just listen to those who they agree with, but at the same time they should exploit the biases of those they are trying to convince. Clearly what is critical to both of these is the practitioners’ understanding of the audience they are trying to persuade and the ways that the audience consumes information. Cull expertly explains a number of cognitive biases – one of the most interesting, in my view, is the power of the ‘eavesdropping bias’. This essentially means consumers of information being more trusting of information if they discover it by themselves, rather than having it provided to them. This is both a peril for the public diplomat who listens to secret intelligence more than material in open sources regardless of credibility, and gold dust for advocacy (Cull cites the ‘discovery’ of the Zimmermann telegram in 1917 and the consequent effect on US attitudes toward the First World War).

The chapter on culture considers various approaches to cultural diplomacy tracking its history from the establishment of the Alliance Française by high profile French citizens such as Jules Verne, Louis Pasteur and Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1883 to aid the promotion of the French language and culture; to the work of multinational organisations such as UNESCO. He draws extensively upon the work of the British Council as a prime deliverer of cultural diplomacy around the world, including through language teaching and organising cultural tours and exhibitions.

The chapter of exchange and education considers a number of aspects of interchange – of students, leaders, professionals and so on, from the work of private organisations such as that of Carnegie and Rockefeller, to that of the European Union through the ERASMUS scheme. These organisations have facilitated study and exchange opportunities in a variety of institutions and consequently enabled the exchange of ideas. Cull also raises issues around exchanges potentially facilitating the ‘brain drain’ from some portions of the world, and hence not really a mutual exchange of ideas; and a risk that genuine exchange becomes more about access to labour.

The last main foundational chapter relates to international broadcasting and the role of organisations and stations such as Voice of America, the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Radio France International, as well as clandestine stations such as Gustav Siegfried Eins. Cull argues that whilst most of these organisations may aim to be objective, ‘news is inevitably colored by its point of origin’ (p. 108). This is undoubtedly true, and it comes back to the points above around bias – that every one of us tends to become comfortable with the format, style and approach of a particular broadcaster: having others available, Cull persuasively argues, serves to challenge that view of the world with the views of somewhere else.

Cull gives a great anecdote of what happens when news is not able to travel across frontiers effectively: Dresden. Due to its geographical location in a valley, Dresden could not be reached by western radio broadcasts during the Cold War, and it consequently became known as the Tal der Ahnungslosen (the valley of the clueless). There is a risk, he fears, of everywhere becoming a ‘little Dresden’ if we fail to listen to the views of others. There are dangers, of course, in listening to stations from overseas such as Gustav Siegfried Eins and its equivalent modern ‘fake news’ outlets. These have been able to exploit vulnerabilities. Yet fake news can be shown up for what it is. He applauds the ‘StopFake’ website which fact-checked sources of information relating to the Crimean crisis of 2014, and he argues that similar responses may well be needed in future for specific events.

Cull concludes by giving seven lessons of public diplomacy, which may help solve issues that are too great for any one country to resolve on its own. These lessons are firstly that public diplomacy begins with listening; secondly public diplomacy must be connected to policy and not be done in isolation from actual deeds; thirdly public diplomacy is not a performance for domestic consumption despite the temptation by some leaders to use it for that purpose; next, effective public diplomacy requires credibility; but that sometimes the most credible voice is not your own; and public diplomacy is not always ‘about you’ but could cover a range of global issues; lastly, public diplomacy is everyone’s business – every individual, in effect, is a public diplomat when they are abroad, shaping perceptions of their homeland. Cull’s ability to synthesise his understanding and knowledge of a wide range of historical case studies into seven lessons like this is impressive; and there are clear links to my own research around recognising the importance of credibility and reliance upon one’s reputation being promoted by others.

He lastly outlines four needs being present in international difficulties: the first is a need to build reputational security; secondly a need to contest disinformation that is particularly pervasive in the modern world; thirdly, a need to counter victim narratives to help diffuse extremism; and lastly, a need to articulate a vision of the future which is a positive alternative to negative messaging. Public diplomacy, he argues, can help meet these needs.

We have entered a new decade that already appears to be full of dangers in how one nation relates to another; as well as containing major global challenges that we need to tackle collectively, such as climate change. Cull’s book provides a salutary reminder that exchange and communication between Governments and other peoples are more important than ever in shaping the future – and public diplomacy, if used effectively, can help mobilise public opinion for the good.

Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age, by Nicholas J. Cull, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019; 272pp.; £17.99).

Edward Corse is an Honorary Research Fellow of the Centre for the History of War, Media and Society at the University of Kent and the author of A Battle for Neutral Europe: British cultural propaganda in the Second World War (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Image Credit: Transistor City by Koen Jacobs/Flickr, License: CC BY-ND 2.0.

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