Definitions, definitions, definitions

By Maya Babla

Welcome to INDIA: INSIDE OUT. To learn more about what this project is all about, please click here.

This project conceives of public diplomacy as being conducted by governments, but also by NGOs and the private sector. That said, “official” definitions offered by governments provide a useful starting place for discussion.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) writes in its Mission Statement that,

“The Public Diplomacy Division seeks to create a better understanding of India and its foreign policy concerns. We intend to put in place a system that enables us to engage more effectively with our citizens in India and with global audiences that have an interest in foreign policy issues.”

As defined by the Department of State, the mission of American public diplomacy is:

“to support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.”

There are two key differences between these definitions:

1. While the US definition privileges the achievement of US foreign policy goals, Indian public diplomacy is primarily focused on articulating who India is, and what her role is on the global stage. This is what Indian MP Shashi Tharoor called for last year: “a positive and forward-looking strategy that projects a vision of India in the world, that helps define and shape what is increasingly being called Brand India.”

2. Secondly, the MEA definition includes both foreign and domestic audiences, a signal of what Tharoor cited as the “need for an informed, engaged citizenry to face up to the responsibilities of being a global player in the 21st century.”

Nirupama Rao, when she was Foreign Secretary, suggested that as an emergent power, and as the world’s largest democracy, India must be heard—and if it does not communicate itself in a compelling and clarion way, it will be drowned out by other voices. The first few minutes of her remarks, below, are worth watching:

In advancing that “public diplomacy is a public good, for the public good,” she gets towards the definition that I will use in approaching this project.

Public diplomacy is a public good, for the public good

As graduate students from the Master of Public Diplomacy program at the University of Southern California (a joint program between the School for International Relations and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism), my colleagues and I have analyzed and dissected the various descriptions and interpretations of public diplomacy through the eras.

Now nearing the end of my graduate studies, it’s time I offer my own (abbreviated) sketch of public diplomacy, as it’s from this vantage point that I’ll approach this research project.

I see public diplomacy as turning the traditional notion of closed-door, government-to-government diplomacy inside out, such that actors—governments or otherwise—engage in two-way communication with global publics, towards the end of mutual understanding, and thus, strengthened international relationships.

In my view, the taxonomy of public diplomacy (adapted from Nick Cull) is such that listening can be considered the ultimate prerequisite; advocacy, the aim; and cultural diplomacy, exchange, and international broadcasting ever-ready tools in a sizable toolbox. If effective, public diplomacy yields influence, and its results manifest as policy.

A public diplomat’s skills include: her ability to navigate a crowded information environment, both making sense of the various voices and being clearly heard herself; clarity of purpose in advocating for a particular policy outcome; a nuanced understanding of the nature of the media, and how to leverage its power; the dexterity to develop networks and foster long-term relationships; and the perspective to see all people has having the potential—and the right—to become empowered citizenry.

In theory, democratic governments are responsible—and responsive to their people. Similarly, governments must recognize their inability to achieve foreign policy aims without engaging foreign publics along with that domestic audience. As such, I give credence to the unique capacity of public diplomacy to create a more democratic, and more secure, international environment.

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8 Responses to Definitions, definitions, definitions

  1. Maya,
    I applaud the “India: Inside Out” project and especially that you decided to start with a conversation on public diplomacy concepts and theory.
    I’m glad to see that you´re re-arranging Nick’s taxonomy into categories. I’ve been doing so too, but with different conclusions.
    I have also been studying definitions of public diplomacy and other related concepts. Again, I have reached different conclusions, but I celebrate that more people in the public diplomacy world are trying to solidify its theoretical foundations. I would like to exchange views with you when you have time.
    I look forward to reading more about the “India: Inside Out” project.
    All the best to you and your colleagues.

  2. Cesar,
    Thanks for writing. Would love to hear your views as well. There are so many divergent views on how to define public diplomacy within the field, that there’s certain to be even more interpretations of what PD is all about from those looking in. Perhaps one of our greatest challenges as PD practitioners is doing, well, PD for PD!

    Appreciate the good wishes– it’s certainly an adventure ahead!


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