Public diplomacy: A missing dimension in our foreign policy

Thursday, 8 December 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Defining public diplomacy

Public Diplomacy (PD) is a relatively new term in international relations and is designed to influence foreign audiences. PD is being vigorously promoted and pursued by many countries owing to recent developments in communications technologies.

PD came into prominence with the founding of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at the Tufts University in the US. PD has since then become a crucial aspect in US foreign policy and this lead in US has since been followed by other countries

PD has been defined as influencing public attitudes on the formulation and execution of foreign policies.

It is meant to set right or to mould foreign perceptions on any issue that promotes or undermines the interests and the image of a country. It also encompasses new dimensions of international relations transcending the traditional official diplomacy.

Official diplomacy is the art and skill in conducting foreign relations whereas PD is a complimentary to official diplomacy and deals directly with foreign audiences often in coordination with the Foreign Ministry. Mass media plays a pivotal role in shaping PD strategies. Some critics argue that PD is yet another name for official propaganda.

The US Advisory Committee on Public Diplomacy was created within the US Department of State to meet the ever increasing challenges on the global communications battle. The committee’s main task is to engage the “rapidly evolving global communication environment characterised by the speed, ubiquity, and mobility of human interaction. US foreign policy activities are increasingly the subject of public discourse that extends beyond traditional borders and boundaries of politics, geography, time, language, and technology. This provides significant opportunities for representatives of the United States, regardless of their department or agency, to interact directly with key publics and increase global awareness and understanding of our values, policies and activities.”

Our ancient relations with foreign powers

There are plenty of historical anecdotes on how ancient kings cultivated relations with distant foreign powers such as Roman and Chinese Empire well over two millennia. We have our much loved and cherished Buddhist philosophy which could be mobilised to mesmerise the overseas audiences.

There are quite a number of Buddhist temples overseas managed by Sri Lankans and it is time a review was undertaken to study if anything beyond the propagation of Buddhism could be tapped. The lay and the clergy must come out in defending the country against adverse propaganda in consultation with Sri Lankan overseas diplomatic missions.

The current crisis in our foreign relations is due largely to our own bungling. It would be harmful to adopt a confrontational and aggressive attitude towards our traditional allies who in fact stood by us and helped ban the LTTE in their countries. Foreign powers are not going to be cowed down by a small country like ours, which depends heavily on foreign funds for development assistance.

Cultural diplomacy

Cultural diplomacy is one part of public diplomacy. American political scientist Milton C. Cummings describes cultural diplomacy as “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding”.

Sri Lankan Tourism, SriLankan Airlines, the Board of Investment, Convention Bureau and other Sri Lankan institutions and organisations dedicated to higher education, media, sports, film, art and museums should also partner with our overseas missions in promoting events and projecting the good image.

We now have a new dimension in promoting our victory over terrorism, the Sri Lankan experience, with foreign governments. This is an opportunity that must be exploited to our benefit. There should be greater interaction between academics with educational institutions overseas.  

Empowering Sri Lankan associations overseas

The pro-separatist lobby is mounting a campaign against Sri Lanka and this has reached alarming proportions. As Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke rightly said, the separatist lobby overseas needs to be confronted with soft power, through confronting Western media “in the corridors of power in Washington, London and Brussels. That is not a battled Sri Lanka is geared for right now. It is a battle we will lose if we do not revise our notions of what it is to be a Sri Lankan, if we do not construct an inclusionary Sri Lankan identity that is based on equality and merit”. (Lecture delivered at the Bakeer Marker Oration – aptly titled ‘Sri Lankan Identity’.)

It is important to strengthen Sri Lankan organisations overseas to meet the challenge. Most of our expatriate organisations are not geared to face this new phenomenon. There should be direct support from the Government to galvanise Sri Lankan organisations. We would also require new formations and strategies to meet the ever-increasing demand to engage Sri Lankan associations overseas.

Obviously, if this task is left for the organisations themselves, then it would not produce the desired results and would end up in conflicts. All Sri Lankan associations should be subjected to a coherent strategy. The Foreign Ministry should take the lead in guiding and providing necessary impetus for Sri Lankan associations to meet the challenge.

The pro-separatist lobby is formidable. The separatist lobby has been successful in penetrating the most influential sections of our traditional allies. The Government too should desist from confronting our traditional allies and try to reinvigorate our centuries old Anglo – American friendship. It is perhaps high time a Presidential Advisory Committee on Public Diplomacy was formed to advise the Government on how to go about promoting the good image of our country.

Lessons from AIPAC experience

Israel has been successful in projecting its foreign policy despite adverse media reports. American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the world largest lobbying organisation based in Washington DC. Its core aim is to attract the US Congressmen. It has deep seated interests in US foreign policy and wields consideration influence over the outcome of US elections. It musters formidable support from the US Congress.

AIPAC has been successful in garnering support from the US Government over economic and military assistance. It is a manifestation of a truly remarkable friendship between US and Israel. Are there any lessons that the Sri Lankan Government could derive from this experience? Let AIPAC be ‘a case study’ for the Government of Sri Lanka on conducting its public diplomacy programmes.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and a political lobbying and government relations consultant.)

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