Collaboration: the Strategic Core of Public Diplomacy

August 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

From the anguished expressions of stock market traders to those of parents holding malnourished infants, the emotional images accompanying the news portrays a world that appears to be simultaneously coming together and falling apart. That this trend of wicked problems is likely to intensify is why collaboration is likely to become the defining strategic core of public diplomacy. I mentioned in an earlier post that “Collaboration in public diplomacy may well become the strategic equivalent of negotiation in traditional diplomacy.”   Let me be bolder in that suggestion and explain why.

To date, efforts to define public diplomacy have been largely in terms of “what it does,” as in verbs: inform, influence, understand, and engage. Our level of conceptualizing public diplomacy is at the functional level: Actor-Action-Goal.

In recent years, a relational perspective has expanded the list to include listening, dialogue, relationship-building, networking, alliances, and partnership. While the perspective may have changed somewhat from advocacy to relations, the understanding of public diplomacy is still at the functional level of tactics and tools. Relationship-building, listening, dialogue as well as engagement, for example, are tactics to connect people. Partnerships, alliances and networks are the platforms for those connections.  While it is true that network diplomacy represents a quantum change from hierarchical structure found in most Foreign Ministries to the more agile and efficient network structure, the change is still at the functional or tactical level. However, as Manuel Castells once quipped, “Networks are neutral. They can kiss or kill, nothing personal.”

To move public diplomacy to the next level means moving beyond the how (advocacy or relations focus) or what (content or policies) to the strategic why.

What is the strategic purpose of public diplomacy?

The standard answer: public diplomacy is a tool for a nation to gather public support for its foreign policies. From the advocacy perspective, public diplomacy is used to promote the interests and values of a nation, explain its policies and enhance its image. Relational approaches serve as vehicles for enhancing mutual understanding. Both advocacy and relational perspective can enhance a nation’s soft power.  However, this view of public diplomacy as a tool is limiting in that it is tied to an individual national perspective. Soft power, as it is currently conceived, is inherently an individual attribute, and thus comparative and competitive, reflecting a power over others. Who has more soft power wins.

Unfortunately, as this week illustrates, in a world of global wickedly complex problems that have real consequences and public emotional repercussions that can exacerbate that reality, the traditional response to why public diplomacy is no longer satisfactory.

The “wickedness” of wicked problems stems from their inter-dependent nature; solving one problem has the potential to create another problem. Wickedly complex problems appear to engulf soft power winners and losers with equal vengeance: nothing personal. Independent thinking and efforts to solve inter-dependent problems are proving insufficient.

To envision the type of public diplomacy needed to tackle wickedly complex problems will require expanding the vision of public diplomacy from viewing public diplomacy as a national tool to looking at its global purpose.

The answer to the “why” of public diplomacy echoes that of traditional diplomacy. The larger strategic purpose of diplomacy is the management of the relations between political entities in the global arena. Diplomatic scholar Raymond Cohen described diplomacy as the “engine room” of international affairs.

In traditional diplomacy, diplomats serve as representatives of their nations, working with other diplomats to address issues of concern, including most critically, war and peace. Public diplomacy serves these same strategic goals.  It is in this strategic purpose that one can see the parallel of managing relations in the private sphere (negotiations) in traditional diplomacy and managing relations in the public sphere (collaboration) in public diplomacy.

Up until fairly recently, it was possible to manage the affairs (problems) among nations and speak of problems as national problems that could be managed singularly by nations. Private negotiations conducted between diplomats was sufficient for addressing problems and managing relations among states. Negotiations conducted between diplomats represent an interpersonal context. The interlocutors are known and identifiable. They share knowledge of diplomatic protocol.

Traditional diplomacy also tends to speak primarily in terms of promoting and security national interests and national goals. Hence it is possible to have negotiation strategies range for zero-sum (winner take all) to win-win that accommodates the goals of the other party. Competitive negotiation strategies seek to secure the best deal for one’s side.

As the economic situation illustrates, today the problems spill across national borders and are often global in scope. The nature of the problems are such that a government cannot tackle them alone but often must work or collaborate not only with other governments, but with business and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Lucien Hudson in his recent report for the British Foreign Commonwealth Office, “The Enabling State,” speaks of the need for collaboration to solve tame and wickedly complex problems. In an interconnected environment, a nation cannot ensure its security in isolation from others. Instead of solely national issues and interests, collaboration tends to speak in terms of global problems and global security.

Collaboration entails getting others to work together to achieve a shared goal. Because collaboration requires cooperative effort, commitment and trust, getting others to participate and sustain their efforts requires a win-win approach. The zero-sum option applies to defeating the problem; not each other.

At present, collaboration as an area of study is still perhaps in its infancy in public diplomacy. “Collaborative public diplomacy,” suggested by Ali Fisher, is relatively uncharted research territory. When research and knowledge about collaboration reaches the level of where negotiations is in traditional diplomacy, public diplomacy may be better able to tackle some of the wickedly complex problems that confronted global relations this week.


Lucien Hudson, The Enabling State, Foreign Commonwealth Office, 2009.

Ali Fisher, Mapping the Playbook: To Facilitate a more Collaborative Public Diplomacy, USC Center for Public Diplomacy Blog, January 13, 2011.

Public Diplomacy “seeks to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences.” The Planning Group for Integration of USIA into the Dept. of State (June 20, 1997).
Public diplomacy is “an international actor’s attempt to advance the ends of policy by engaging with foreign publics.” G. Cowan and N. J. Cull, “Public Diplomacy in a Changing World,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, no. 1 (2008): 6-8.

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