Relational Approaches in Public Diplomacy — a return to the past?

September 4, 2011 § 3 Comments

I have been reflecting on the growing trend toward relational approaches within public diplomacy. Over the past decade, scholars, practitioners and leading diplomats have forcefully argued the need to move beyond one-way messaging strategies to developing relational strategies that engage. The call has been especially strong for U.S. public diplomacy.

Other observers, however, counter that relations have always been a core ingredient of public diplomacy, including in U.S. public diplomacy. They point to examples of long-standing successful educational exchanges and cultural programs.
In looking at the debate, the calls for more relationship building may seem more like a return to the importance of relations rather than discovering a new element of public diplomacy. Prior to the advent of the mass media that allowed governments to broadcast their messages directly to others in the international arena, interpersonal relations were the primary means for relaying messages.

As many diplomats are quick to point out, building and managing relationships are fundamental traditional diplomacy, not just public diplomacy. Diplomatic scholar Paul Sharp highlighted the representational function diplomats played in managing relations. Negotiations, the core of traditional diplomacy, rests on relational elements such as the ability to listen, identify other’s interests and concerns, search for mutual interests, and develop confidence building measures to help foster trust and strengthen relations.

Long before the rise of classical diplomacy in Europe, flourishing trade and diplomatic networks linked kingdoms across Asia, Africa, and Mesoamerica. Vietnamese diplomat van Dihn pointed to the institution of marriage as an early example of diplomatic representatives acting as boundary spanners to build relations between families.

Sending and accepting gifts, still popular in contemporary diplomacy, is among the oldest documented practices used to cultivate diplomatic relations. The tales of the famed Chinese admiral Zheng He in the early 1400s are filled with gifts exchanged during his voyages. Among the most notable was the emperor’s giraffe, a gift delivered personally by ambassadors from the east African port city of Malindi. Accepting gifts entailed a degree of relational recognition. Exchanging gifts fulfills relational expectations of reciprocity and mutuality.

In contemporary public diplomacy, the most frequently cited relationship-building strategies are educational exchanges and cultural programs. These programs, conducted by foreign ministries or quasi-independent cultural institutes, often have the expressed goal of cultivating relations and building mutual understanding. Although trained as a broadcast journalist, the former head of the U.S. Information Agency Edward R. Murrow called “the last three feet” between persons as the most crucial. In assessment reports, exchange programs have been repeatedly cited among the most effective public diplomacy tools.

If relations have always been an enduring and important feature of both traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy, why does their resurgence seem new? This question is significant because it sheds light on the foundation of the public diplomacy as a field of study and provides direction for future research.

In future postings, I hope to explore why the relational approaches may have been overlooked in the past.

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