The idea of Sovereignty in Public Diplomacy

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A theoretical question to start with. Is ‘sovereignty’ implicit in the concept of public diplomacy? This question has come up repeatedly in my recent conversations and exchanges with PD analysts and researchers. The question attempts to present a more contemporary narrative to understand international political communication, looking beyond traditional, state centric governmental and public diplomacy. In a globalised world, where people are communicating with each other like never before, it is relevant and timely.

Issues in this interconnected world are not always local. Even if it is, solutions may exist in some other part of the world. In the course of my conversations, what I learned was that, there is a need for diplomats and also other professionals today, to develop skills that help them operate across geographies & cultures with ease - consistently, repeatedly. “Global citizen diplomacy” is what I am hinting at, and it has the potential to dwarf government to government public diplomacy. Anurag Sinha, a PD analyst, drew my attention to this article in the huffington post that talks about 'global competency' as the new skill required today. It talks about problem solvers who are global in communication, knowledge, insights and are less constrained by notions of sovereignty. Read it here: 21st century skills include Global Competency.

(Image from: Supernova, MetroStar Systems blog)
Another dimension to this whole debate is that, with developments in communication technology, including mode and medium of communication, the ‘individual’ is more credible than institutions sometimes. For example, is a government sponsored conference involving intellectuals, policymakers, analysts on, say, a topic like, “Islam and roots of terrorism”  more effective in shaping perceptions compared to an internet chat room  discussion on the same topic? In such a scenario, people to people diplomacy directly play bigger role in shaping perceptions and might overshadow governmental public diplomacy efforts. This is where the notions of sovereignty are challenged.

Zhao Qizheng, spokesman for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), recently stated that most Chinese involved in public diplomacy include those with rich work experience in international trade and communication, leaders of non-Communist parties, heads of MNCs, and, research fellows of international affairs. It needs to be expanded to include ‘people.’ He said, "In such communications, participants from both sides don't need to restrict their talks to diplomatic rhetoric, as neither is there to sign some treaty or make some announcement for their countries," and added that such participants can discuss a wider range of issues relevant to their lives with more active and straightforward expressions.

In my subsequent posts I intend to expand this thought with examples from India’s Northeast.

Suggestions/Critiques welcome.



Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Dear Madhur,
I am a postgraduate student of International Communications at the University of Leeds and am writing my Masters dissertation on developments in Indian public diplomacy. It would immensely help my research if you could answer the following questions on email:

• How would you assess Indian soft power as it is presently being projected in the world?
• What are the gaps in Indian public diplomacy vis-a-vis the nation's toughening stance on issues like nuclear non-proliferation and climate change?
• How much of an impediment can India's domestic problems be to its positive image with foreign publics? How do you think public diplomacy can deal with this?
I would be really grateful if you could mail me on as it easier to quote material from personal correspondence. I'm afraid I had to contact you on your blog since I couldn't find an email address online.
Thanking you in anticipation.

Madhurjya said... [Reply to comment]


Hi Niharika:

Please find my thoughts below. Hope this helps.

1. There is a difference between "perception" and wilful and deliberate "projection of a perception." India is known for its culture, tourism etc worldwide. There is tremendous goodwill for India in the developing world owing to its stable polity, strong institutional framework, remarkable advancements in human resources, scientific and technological advancements and finally the commitment to rule of law ( a trait admired by the West). However, the question that arises is how successful have we been to use this strategically in international relations? This is where we are lagging behind. I would still put it as the potential of soft power in India has not yet been realised. Talking about culture, lets take the example of Indian classics. How dominant are they in popular psyche overseas among regular everyday people? If you look at the country brand index, India rates low in all the aspects we tom tom about - culture, art etc. Anybody who lives abroad realizes the fact that the image we have of India within the country is nowhere near to the perception among common folks overseas. A major reason for it I believe is the fact that wilful and deliberate projection of soft power has not been pursued. Like any communications campaign policy makers should ask themselves first what are we trying to achieve by talking about Indian soft power. Also what is the one great story that I want to tell the media in a particular country? Also who is my target audience? To conclude, India has the potential but lacks direction. Most of our PD efforts are cosmetic and not aimed at achieving national interest.

2. I feel the non proliferation debate and debate around climate change can be better managed by Innovativeness, foresight, information blitz, strategic planning and psychological management of foreign public opinion. Dissemination of authentic data on these issues could help garner more support for its policy choices. Public diplomacy offers an opportunity to create a favorable environment whereby tough decisions can be executed with minimum resistance. But the big question is "are we supplementing our negotiations with proactive media relations in strategic countries."? Such a strategic approach is crucial. On climate change per se I feel the debate has shaped up well and India enjoys support among lot of countries globally it may not be the same when it comes to NPT. However, India's independent stand on these issues is in itself a makes for a great story to launder in mass media. An analysis if media coverage internationally on these issues however tend to project India more as a "deal breaker." (do a google search u will realise what I mean!) So there are definite gaps arising from the fact that we are not proactive in engaging, discussing, widening our reach and afraid to talk to the man on the street abroad.

3. A lot. India is to a large extent an open society and headed towards becoming an advanced media society. In such circumstances, every domestic problem will reflect on its perception overseas. PD is more than art, culture, cuisine and bollywood. The positive attributes of the country can be projected through right strategy at the right time to serve national interests. PD should be pro-active rather than reactive and should essentially open the possibilities of launching a policy campaign. The attempt should be to inform, engage, cultivate and influence rather than being limited to explaining the details of the campaign. It is continuous and unending and needs a more professional approach of an agency set up ( 90% PR & 10% advertising). Ability to anticipate will be key and PD practitioners should attempt to "engage" more than "communicate." This engagement should be continuous and target oriented to build right perception.


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