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The (Soft) Power of Preaching What We Practice

Antonio Lambino's picture

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from an old friend in the diplomatic community.   He asked for my “thoughts on a public communications approach to countering terrorism and radicalism” since, he continued, this has been identified as a "gap in the global counter terrorism" arena.  My mind immediately went to an area of applied and scholarly interest that the international affairs community calls “public diplomacy.”  While conceptually contested, there seems to be broad enough agreement on the types of initiatives it encompasses, such as international broadcasting (BBC World Service, Radio Free Europe/Liberty, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, to name a few), scholarships (Fulbright, British Chevening, etc.), international study tours, and other types of academic, cultural, and political exchanges.

Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye argues in a Washington Post op-ed that at the heart of these initiatives is the desire of governments to enhance their “soft power”, defined as “the ability to use attraction and persuasion to get what you want without force or payment.”  Nye's definition suggests that the soft power that undergirds public diplomacy is not limited to enhancing security and defense; it is also relevant to international development.  This type of thinking is particularly critical in projects that seek to influence attitudes, opinions, and behaviors of multiple stakeholders in developing countries.  In this broader sense, cross-national influence is not limited to coercing people, nor is it about manipulating incentives.  It’s largely about appealing to hearts and minds through persuasion, which is only credible when what one says is consistent with what one does.

A recently published volume entitled Soft Power in China: Public Diplomacy Through Communication, edited by Prof. Jian Wang of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, delves into a few key Chinese public diplomacy initiatives.  Included in the book are chapters on CCTV, the country’s international broadcaster; corporate social responsibility in Africa; the Beijing Olympics; and American students’ views on China.  In a seminar in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, Wang underscored the “learning-by-doing approach” evident in China’s international charm offensive.  The state is strengthening its government spokesperson system, hosting mega events such as the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and setting up Confucius Institutes all over the world.  I defer to the country experts to comment on these activities.  What I was hoping to highlight is a more general point, as many countries, even those that have been engaged in public diplomacy for decades, continue to experiment and adapt to changing environments.  The point is this: state-driven activities are but a part of the public diplomacy equation. 

Here are two additional factors to consider.  First, according to Nye, “much of a country’s soft power is generated by its civil society”.  Think of the seductive power possessed by non-state actors, such as your favorite foreign athlete, visual artist, musician, actor, architect, nonprofit organization, academic luminary, etc.  Add to this mix your favorite vacation destinations, types of cuisine (from fine dining to fastfood), fashion, and sports.  Second, in a piece that casts public diplomacy as cultural relations, Peter Aspden of the Financial Times argues that "perceptions are influenced by equal and open interaction: that it is the quality of the communication, and the attitude to the Other that this quality signifies, which really change perceptions" (p. 21, emphasis in original).  Simply put, respectuful two-way communication makes a difference.

One’s feelings toward foreign countries, their people, and their leaders are influenced by the above-mentioned, and other, considerations.  It is, therefore, in the interest of those who seek to attract and persuade foreign publics to strengthen relevant domestic groups so that they can, on their own, engage foreign counterparts and contribute to international outreach efforts.  This makes intuitive sense.  When it comes to soft power, people don’t develop positive attitudes, opinions, and beliefs toward foreign governments or organizations per se; I believe personal connections, culture, and traditions matter a lot more.  Whatever is preached and the manner in which it is professed -- whether by development agencies, governments, or non-state actors – is a lot more persuasive when it is consistent with what is practiced.

Image credit: Macmillan publishers

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