Options for Influence: Global campaigns of persuasion in the new worlds of public diplomacy
Reviewed by John Brown
My father, a Foreign Service officer (FSO), taught me to swim at the age of six in a simple way: he threw me into the swimming pool (a public one in Brussels, Belgium). As I hit the water, I heard him shout, “Don’t worry, you’ll stay afloat.” And stay afloat I did, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this review.
I tell this story (in a somewhat embellished form) to make a larger point: Many things in life are learned through daily experience rather than bookish instruction. Certainly that could be said about diplomacy – including public diplomacy (PD).
So, as an ex-PD FSO myself, I approached the volume under review with a dose of skepticism. It represents, in its words, “a practical guide to practitioners in the field of public diplomacy.” Published by Counterpoint, the cultural relations think-tank of the British Council, it is directed primarily, but not exclusively, to UK “international actors” (as it calls them, using a rather infelicitous designation evoking associations with the entertainment industry).
But even skeptics of how-to manuals will acknowledge this slim, clearly written book can be useful to busy practicing diplomats for several reasons. It sheds light on the nature of public diplomacy, a tricky term if there ever was one. Rather than trying to give a rigid definition, it states that “[t]he concept and practice of public diplomacy are constantly evolving at a rapid rate. As a result, both academics and practitioners frequently put forward their own understanding of public diplomacy, seeking to capture a new perspective on the discipline.”
In its most illuminating section, the volume depicts public diplomacy as a "spectrum" involving a considerable range of activities. These are: listening, facilitation, building networks or long-term relationships, cultural exchange, broadcasting, and direct messaging (telling). Public diplomacy uses these activities depending on the audience and situation. The book underscores that "[v]iewing public diplomacy as a spectrum whose emphasis continually shifts between listening and telling, acknowledges that the boundaries between the methods are blurred. Rather than being seen as a hindrance, these overlaps should be taken as an opportunity."
Despite its laudable stress on PD “options,” the book’s rather severe, my-way-or-the highway bottom line regarding PD (and one with which not all its practitioners would agree, as it seems to reduce public diplomacy essentially to propaganda), is that "[w]hatever label practitioners wish to put on their work, the aim of their activity is not just changing people’s perceptions, but rather influencing the way people act. Changing perceptions may be a means to changing action, but, at the end of the day it is changed behavior that matters."
The guide deals interestingly with soft power, a term that, it notes, “is very popular in current public diplomacy debate.” (Soft power is defined by the scholar who coined the term, Joseph Nye, as “the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals.”) Options for Influence makes the important point that “attraction to or consumption of any part of the culture does not necessarily contribute to soft power.” Indeed, “[a]ttraction to American culture … may result in imitation which opposes rather than supports the soft power aspirations of the US.”
The book shows a keen appreciation of the new world of the Internet and its implications for public diplomacy. It underscores that when engaging audiences on the Internet the “international actor” must be “seen as a peer within the community rather than an ‘authority’ figure communication with a subservient network.”