The Cultural Underbelly of Public Diplomacy

July 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

Culture as an underlying force that shapes global public diplomacy remains curiously unexplored. Yet, every aspect of an entity’s public diplomacy, from the values and ideals buried in its political goals to how it tries to communicate with publics is touched by culture. Intercultural scholars have cautioned that to overlook culture’s influence is to remain vulnerable to its power. Conversely, with the benefit of cultural knowledge, one can more effectively harness that power.

At present, scholars may only be scratching the surface of culture’s presence in public diplomacy. In the major public diplomacy readers, discussions of culture are contained primarily under the heading of cultural diplomacy. Here culture is not only visible, but it is viewed as a positive force in fostering mutual understanding. Jan Melissen does hint to the importance of culture for public diplomats who serve as boundary spanners across traditional divides. Interestingly, one piece that does focus on the influence of culture down plays its significance.

The attention paid to culture in public diplomacy lags well behind the exploration found in public diplomacy’s sister fields in both communication and international relations (IR) studies. Since the early 1990s, scholars have been exploring culture’s role in political theory, conflict resolution, security studies, and traditional diplomacy.

The example of traditional diplomacy is revealing. Originally, diplomatic scholars maintained that principles of negotiations were “universal.” Raymond Cohen’s landmark study, which was soon followed by others, found that culture does matter. He demonstrated, what seasoned diplomats instinctively knew, namely that Arab, Japanese and U.S. diplomats do not “negotiate” the same way or necessarily from the same premise. The distinctive styles were traceable to the differing cultural and intellectual heritages. The benefit of exploring culture ultimately led to diplomats being better able to “negotiate” across different contexts.

Similarly, in communication subfields, scholars are excavating cultural features buried in public relations, marketing and advertising practices and scholarship. It is not only a matter of what sells – a double-chocolate doughnut in Denver or the dried pork and seaweed doughnut in Shanghai – Dunkin’ Donuts discovered it matters how they are sold. For health communicators, knowledge of cultural nuances can literally mean the difference between programs that falter and those that save lives. Public diplomacy, as a form of international communication, spans not only across national but also cultural borders. It is exposed to similar challenges in communicating with culturally diverse publics.

The reasons why culture is often overlooked makes the need to explore it even more compelling.

In international studies, culture was seen as an “irrational” element that, like religion, did not fit nicely in rational models. In 1993, Samuel Huntington ’s influential piece the “Clash of Civilizations” sounded alarm bells about the inevitable consequences of cultural differences. Research in culture mushroomed. That new research revealed that conflicts are more likely to stem from economic factors, particularly competition over scarce resources, rather than purely cultural differences. And, rather than being the source of conflict, cultural contact led to cross-fertilization of ideas and rejuvenation of civilizations. The polemic lens may highlight the battles of the Crusaders, yet the Islamic scholarship and innovations they brought back was the wellspring of the European renaissance.

More recently, cultural knowledge, including the other irrational component of religion, is being used in “faith diplomacy.” Rather than being the source of conflicts, culture has become a strategic tool for mitigating conflicts. Without an understanding of culture, scholars were vulnerable to not only overlooking its significance, but over exaggerating its power. In neither instance was culture seen as a potential tool.

Lack of cultural self-awareness is another problem.  The tendency is to view public diplomacy as “culture free,” something the audience has but not the sponsor. While officials may overlook culture’s affect on their public diplomacy initiatives, foreign publics often find the cultural overtones glaring and even inappropriate. U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab world could have avoided costly mistakes with greater cultural knowledge.

Culture’s role in public diplomacy has also has been somewhat controversial in that it challenges notions about universalism and cultural variation. The tendency to view the dominant perspective as universal is not unique to public diplomacy.

Even such assumed universals as cognitive processes are being debated. On the one hand, CPD professor Kelton Rhoads cites research that cognitive processes are widely viewed as “universal.” However, an international team of researchers led by Richard E. Nisbett claimed, “assumptions that cognitive processes are universally the same and biologically fixed may both be quite wrong.” As they explain, “even if all cultures possessed essentially the same basic cognitive processes as their tools, the tools of choice for the same problems may habitually be different.” One might add that there may be even difference not only in what tools, but how those tools are used.

That culture’s role is controversial and that controversy is coming from different vantage points may make the need to study culture all the more warranted. Not only public diplomacy scholars but even Wikipedia have brought attention to the U.S. concentration. Charges of systemic bias challenge not only US dominance, but indirectly question the universality of the US model and perspective.

The predominance of U.S. scholarship as a cultural force in public diplomacy cannot be underestimated. First, the U.S. perspective represents a mono-cultural perspective in what is undeniably a multicultural world of diverse publics and perspectives. Second, the U.S. model, with its buried assumptions, may not be the best fit for other countries that may have different political values or communication styles. Chinese Professor Yiwei Wang, for example, noted that Chinese public diplomacy had used “U.S. public diplomacy as a major model even though he believed the Chinese approach was closer to the cultural exchange/cultural diplomacy of the French than to “American-style media diplomacy.” Third, if the U.S. model is posed as the standard, approaches that reflect elements of other cultural heritages may appear lacking rather different. Prof. Wang described the Chinese culture as a “considerable obstacle to effective Chinese public diplomacy.” Finally, the dominance of one cultural perspective may overshadow the rich contributions that the intellectual heritages of other societies can offer to expand the vision of public diplomacy scholarship and practice.

These lessons about the need for cultural knowledge take on greater urgency for public diplomacy given two trends that are likely to intensify.

The first trend that will require greater cultural knowledge is the growing salience of cultural identity by publics. Public diplomacy, like other forms of communication, is inherently about identity and image in that it says something about how each party sees itself (identity) and the other (image). Public diplomacy has focused primarily on one side of the equation; that of a sponsor protecting and promoting its own image. However, a public may also have a shared sense of collective or cultural identity. Communication that is perceived as challenging or violating a public’s cultural identity can inadvertently trigger a backlash. Such incidents involving the mass media, because of its magnifying effect, can spiral out of the sponsor’s control. The 2005 Danish cartoon incident was a vivid example. For public diplomats to avoid such cases in the future will require a sophisticated awareness of the cues and strategies for navigating the dynamics of cultural identities and representation in the international arena.

A second trend that is also likely to intensify and require greater cultural knowledge is the move within public diplomacy toward collaboration in an effort to tackle complex global problems. The recent mantra of relationship-building, networking, alliances, partnership and engagement are all part of the vocabulary of collaboration. Collaboration in public diplomacy may well become the strategic equivalent of negotiation in traditional diplomacy. At the heart of collaboration is the ability to bring people of diverse backgrounds together and get them to combine their efforts to achieve a unified goal. Recent research reveals that cultural and ethnic diversity are the biggest sources of friction – and synergy – in collaborative teams. A public diplomat’s skills in invoking culture’s blessing or curse will rest on cultural knowledge.

Cohen, R., & United States Institute of Peace. (1991). Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy. Washington, D.C: United States Institute of Peace.

Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (n.d.). Culture and Systems of Through: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition. Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

Wang, Y. (2008). Public Diplomacy and the Rise of Chinese Soft Power. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616(1), 257-273. doi:10.1177/0002716207312757


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