Center for Strategic Communication

As the International Studies Association conference approaches, my attention is focused again on the academic understanding of public diplomacy – as there will be numerous panels on this subject. As I said years ago, there are no theories of public diplomacy. There are, however, theories that help scholars and practitioners makes sense of the “field” of public diplomacy – those things that public diplomats do and the ideas we use to understanding those things.

It’s not that there can’t be theories of public diplomacy. However, as I understand it, some practitioners fail to see the need for an explanatory theory for something that is so contextualized and often hard to “teach” in a comprehensive way. Public diplomacy is statecraft, public relations, inter-personal communication, cross-cultural communication, persuasion, networking, media and technological competence, and of course, about good writing. I actually would tend to agree with the practitioner bias, in that we don’t really need a grand theory of public diplomacy. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we don’t really have many universalizing theories for diplomacy either.

Public diplomacy is really a term of convenience, a cover word for a range of practices: cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, information programs, public affairs, advocacy, and yes, even international broadcasting. The point here is not to propose a definition. Rather, it is to offer that we don’t have a vocabulary to make the kinds of claims that lend themselves to explanatory theories that apply across the range of what PD can be. While scholars such as Eytan Gilboa admirably seek new vistas for public diplomacy theorizing, general or even “middle range” theories may have limited utility for public diplomacy. Which is one reason why I don’t really care to participate in the construction or defense of totalizing theories.

To understand public diplomacy at the level of theory is get past simple definitions, by decomposing the practices of public diplomacy into its component parts or activities. In so doing, we open up those vistas that people like Gilboa and Entman seek in their lament over a lack of theory. What do I mean by this?

I mean quite simply to focus on what we actually want to know. If the point is to articulate how particular messages influence attitude or behavior, we have a ready stockpile of mass and strategic communication research techniques available to test messaging. Practitioners (cough, the State Department, cough), in particular, don’t need to reinvent the wheel of “measurement and evaluation.” Rather, they need to be better consumers of what academics do when they study similar things.

However, there is much to be said about how institutional analysis and social theory can inform our understanding of why public diplomacy exists as a part of a strategic culture, a set of norms, a component of a larger foreign policy apparatus. Such “constitutive” or “materialist” theories certainly didn’t originate in public diplomacy studies – but they can help the academic community understand public diplomacy as a set of social practices, value commitments, and historical, path-dependent institutions. We can leave public diplomacy in order to find theoretical frameworks that help us understand public diplomacy in relation to broader contexts that invetiably shape its practice. This point is elegantly argued in Iver Nuemann’s critique of the English School scholars tradition of studying diplomacy.

“Leaving Public Diplomacy” in order to study it is a point I will return to in future posts – about how to see cognate fields as relevant to the study of public diplomacy.

So what does the communal pool of knowledge and expertise on public diplomacy actually have in lieu of such theories? We have types and categories. In particular, I am thinking of the work of RS Zaharna and Robin Brown’s thinking on this subject. Typology creation can be very valuable, especially since public diplomacy studies is fraught with (friendly) definitional debate. More on this in a future post. Probably after ISA 2012.