A Chinese Internet user browses the Chinese Twitter of Microsoft founder Bill Gates on Sina.com in Shanghai, 28 Sep. 2010. Gates’ Chinese Twitter drew the participation of more than 80,000 followers for a 24-hour period after its launch.
"The Pros and Cons of Citizen Diplomacy"
Op-Ed, New York Times
October 4, 2010
Author: Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Global politics has become a contest of competitive credibility. The world of traditional power politics was typically about whose military or economy wins, but in an information age, power is also about whose story wins.
Narratives become the currency of soft or attractive power. Governments compete for credibility not only with other governments, but with a broad range of alternatives, including news media, celebrities and other individuals, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations and networks of scientific communities.
Conveying information and selling a positive image is often best accomplished by private citizens; today, the soft sell may prove more effective than the hard sell.
The main strength of the government broadcasting and mass media approach to public diplomacy is its audience reach and ability to generate public awareness and set the agenda.
But the inability to influence how the message is perceived in different cultural settings is its weak point. The senders know what they say, but not always what the target(s) hear. Cultural barriers are apt to distort what is heard.
Networked communications among civil societies, on the other hand, can take advantage of two-way communications and peer-to-peer relations to overcome cultural differences.
Rather than a central design and broadcast of a message across cultural boundaries, networks establish the structure for effective communication channels, and narratives are co-created across cultures.
Simply put, face-to-face relations have more cross-cultural credibility than do government broadcasts. But this type of decentralization and flexibility is difficult for governments to accept.
The greater flexibility of nongovernmental organizations in using networks has given rise to what some call "the new public diplomacy," which is about building relationships with civil-society actors in other countries and about facilitating networks between nongovernmental parties at home and abroad.
In this approach to public diplomacy, government policy is aimed at promoting and participating in, rather than controlling, such networks across borders.
Indeed, too much government control, or even the appearance thereof, can undercut the credibility that such networks are designed to engender.
The evolution of public diplomacy from one-way communication to a two-way dialogue model treats publics as peer-to-peer co-creators of meaning and communication — a phenomenon well known to the younger generation.
For governments to succeed in the networked world of citizen diplomacy, they are going to have to learn to relinquish a good deal of their control.
But this runs the risk that the goals and messages of civil-society actors are often not aligned with government policies.
This gives rise to the paradox of using citizen diplomacy in a global information age — decentralization and diminished control may be central to the creation of soft power, but in an age where every phone is a camera and every computer is a photo shop, the obscure pastor of a small Florida church can also wreak havoc and destroy soft power by threatening to burn a Koran.
In a democracy, such risk is unavoidable, and the best response may be the type of national conversation that eventually dissuaded the unruly pastor.
Difficult though citizen diplomacy may be for democracies, it is likely to be even more difficult for the international relations of autocracies like China.
As the China expert David Shambaugh has written on these pages, if "real soft power comes from a society, not from government. China's government continues to muzzle many of its most creative and diverse elements, while China's human rights record, its political system, economic strength, and growing military power all continue to negatively afflict its image abroad."
Recent polls show that Hu Jintao's expensive efforts to increase China's soft power have yielded an inadequate return on his investment, and this may remain true until China unleashes its civil society.
As public diplomacy is done more by publics, both democratic and autocratic governments find themselves caught on different sides of a cleft stick. Citizen diplomacy is increasingly important, but far from easy in a global information age.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is professor of international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and author of the forthcoming "The Future of Power."
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