Society and Culture // Analysis

16 october 2012

What is Public Diplomacy, and Why Russia Needs It?

Alexey Dolinsky Cand.Sc.(Ped.), Junior Research Fellow, Moscow Lomonosov University
National Geographic

More and more often public diplomacy is referred to as an important instrument of foreign policy which Russia is either short of, or which doesn’t work in this country. Actually, public diplomacy if an instrument of long-term usage, which seldom allows achieving a desired effect in a specific situation, but which facilitates creating a favorable climate to foreign policy in general.

On June 19, 2012 the Russian Council for International Affairs held a round-table on public diplomacy. The discussion was attended by the representatives of the academic community, non-government organizations, expert entities in the field of foreign policy and international relations. The outcome of deliberations was both paradoxical and predictable: we are unable to fully realize the meaning of public diplomacy, though we have to continue discussing the topic. The key result of the discussion was an opportunity to give a more precise identification of the problems we are facing in public diplomacy.

Problem # 1 – Synchronized Definitions

At times, entirely different phenomena are attributed to public diplomacy, which disallows working out a comprehensive balanced strategy thereof. The term of «общественная дипломатия» has been widely spread in Russia as the exact translation of «public diplomacy». Initially, the term appeared at one of the main talent foundries of the US State Department – Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy – as a substitute for the term “propaganda”. Dozens of various definitions have appeared over the years of its existence, but they all boil down to the “system of dialog with foreign societies”.

Alongside with the understanding of public diplomacy as diplomacy of the people, the Russian language developed the second meaning of the term – diplomacy at the level of public organizations. It generated a dangerous confusion: even certain experts are convinced that public diplomacy is no more than a dialog at the level of non-government organizations. However, public diplomacy implies a far wider spectrum of activities – from overseas broadcasting to student exchange. (Therefore, the most appropriate translation seems to be «публичная дипломатия» without implying diplomacy at the NGOs’ level. Hereinafter the author uses the term of “public diplomacy” in its initial sense). The confusion is also dangerous because professional interaction among specialized NGOs on the topics of vital importance to interstate relations is rather the “second track” diplomacy, that of the expert community. It is also a significant mechanism of international relations, however, as a rule it is not focused on interaction with public at large.

It is important to recognize that we are specifically talking about public diplomacy as a system of interaction with foreign societies for political reasons, while the term «общественная дипломатия» should be seen as its synonym or as one of its elements. Limitation of public diplomacy by a dialog of non-profit organizations is an error, both semantic and, potentially, political.

Problem # 2 – Understanding the Aims of Public Diplomacy

In Russia public diplomacy is more often mentioned in the context of resolving various foreign policy problems united by the only feature that today they still remain unresolved. We need a systematic understanding of the role of public diplomacy in the Russian foreign policy. Another reason to continue discussions was the growing interest to the concept of “soft power” coined by Joseph Nye as an ability to make others do what one wants through appeal instead of violence or bribery.(The term “soft power” was translated into Russian in different ways at different times – as «мягкая мощь», «гибкая сила» etc. Today the most widely used translation is «мягкая сила», however, the term «власть» – as an ability to make others do what one wants – seems to be closer to the original meaning than «сила».)

In February 2012 in his article under the ever-youthful title “Russia and the Changing World” Vladimir Putin characterized soft power as a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence. One can see a difference between the definitions offered by J.Nye and V.Putin, which is far from being stylistic: the American political scientist points out attractiveness as the key element of the notion, while the Russian politician is focused on the levers of influence.

Photo: RIA Novosti

The difference is approximately the same as between the availability of powerful armed forces and a favorable outcome of an international conflict: powerful armed forces cannot guarantee a victory in any conflict; they can only facilitate a fortunate outcome, while the level of their development and combat readiness is more often a deterrent factor. Possession of “soft power” does not warrant a favorable outcome of any international situation but enhances the chances to achieve it.

“Soft power” of a country in international relations is identical to an individual’s reputation in society: making a reputable statement and acting respectively one can become a more attractive and esteemed person. In a difficult situation a man or institution with appeal and authority are most likely to be better perceived and listened to. On the contrary, a bad reputation would smother even a reasonable viewpoint. As the aim of development of the armed forces is to provide national security, the aim of public diplomacy is to enhance the “soft power” potential of a country

In the today’s world the public diplomacy is aimed at generating a positive image of a country. Reputation is being formed not only by the rhetoric, but by the actions, too. If one undertakes political steps which negatively tell on the country’s international image, attractive rhetoric can hardly help improve the situation. Respectively, the aim of public diplomacy is both to disseminate positive information about a nation, and to participate in foreign policy decision-making with due regard to its potential impact on the country’s image.

Problem # 3 – Realistic Assessment of Potentialities

Photo: Maria Prosviryakova
University Club, Washington DC, USA, July, 2012

Addressing members of the Russian diplomatic corps, V.Putin pointed out that the image of Russia abroad is being formed by other people, therefore, it is often distorted, and does not reflect the actual situation in our country, and demanded to amend the situation. However, it is hardly viable to assign the task of dominating in the global information space (even on a separate issue) to public diplomacy.

At the times of the cold war only governments could afford mass international communication: newspaper publishing, development of broadcasting networks, financing of NGOs. Development and cost reduction of communication technologies, as well as the growth of the number and aggregate influence of non-government actors of the world politics have entirely altered this sphere. Today, a gifted blogger can well compete with a world-renowned newspaper, and satellite TV channel with initial annual budget of several million US dollars – with the leading news corporations of the world. Reportedly, by the end of 2011 the number of Internet users worldwide exceeded 2.250 million people, and nearly all of them had access to various viewpoints on international issues.

In the environment of contemporary information pluralism one can voice his/her opinion publicly, but it is impossible to make it absolutely dominant. The US had to face this problem soon after the tragedy of “nine-eleven”. Apart from the military operation in Afghanistan, the immediate response to the terrorist attack was to step up the US public diplomacy aimed at creating a positive image of the United States. In October 2001 former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke asked a rhetorical question: how can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world’s leading communications society?. However, establishment of TV channels and radio stations, massive proliferation of reports on good attitude to Muslims and other measures failed to change the sentiment toward the United States. It became evident that positive information on the US in any amounts would be unable to make up for the damage done by the US statements and actions in the Arab world reported by other media.

The US experience proved that one-sided proliferation of information in an already different international political and information-communication context yields no results. The Russian attempt to replicate what the US has done earlier in the 2000s, and with a smaller budget, would hardly be more effective. One has to build a system of two-way dialog with foreign societies instead.

In the context of increasing the soft power potential as a factor of Russian international political influence, public diplomacy has to resolve three tasks:

  • Informing of the foreign community on the viewpoints of the Russian state and society;
  • Ensuring a feedback from the foreign community;
  • Participation in working out of the Russian foreign policy stance with due regard to the opinion of the foreign community.

The first task is partly implemented due to better financing of public diplomacy over the last decade, revival of the old and establishment of the new instruments of external communication (Russia Today, Russky Mir Foundation, RIA-Novosti, Voice of Russia, etc.). However, the system of public diplomacy is still practically void of educational exchange and a number of other long-term instruments. In fact, the second and third tasks are not on the today’s agenda. However, proliferation of information without comprehensive long-term efforts in building up credibility is futile: Russia is often kept in distrust even when it is right.

Thus, today the Russian political elite and expert community faces the task of coming to common understanding of the content, tasks and potentialities of public diplomacy. Based on this common understanding, at the next stage we shall have to work out a comprehensive strategy, to adjust the available and to establish new mechanisms, as well as the systems of their efficacy assessment. The current state of affairs in Russia is not something unique. Its improvement only requires to make proper use of our own and foreign practical and academic experience.

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Alexey Dolinsky, “What is Public Diplomacy, and Why Russia Needs It?,” Russian International Affairs Council, 16 October 2012,

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