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Diplomacy and its practice, Public Diplomacy and National Branding


 By Dr. Luis Ritto. Former EU Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta and former EU Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations. Emeritus Professor at the International School of Protocol & Diplomacy in Brussels and expert on diplomacy, diplomatic protocol and world affairs.

« Successful diplomacy is an alignment of objectives and means”, Dennis Ross (American politician and diplomat). In my previous articles about this same subject of diplomacy (http://ispdnews.wordpress.com/), I explained how it has evolved and how it has became more open and transparent with time. And I also said that there is no diplomacy without power, although diplomacy tends to be generally associated with soft power .

Today, I am going to write about two subjects that, I hope, will serve as examples of soft power and how diplomacy has become more open in the last one hundred years or so: public diplomacy and nation branding (or country branding, as some scholars also call it). At the beginning, diplomacy was the instrument used by governments to implement their foreign policies and strategies. It was carried out in all discretion by government officials, mainly from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and by diplomats. The people, the general public or the citizens of nations, knew little or nothing about what diplomats discussed and negotiated on behalf of their countries. And this is still today the traditional understanding of diplomacy in many parts of the world.

But, as from the end of the First World War (1914-1918), diplomacy started to be less secretive and more open. US President Woodrow Wilson, who travelled to Paris to sign the First World War armistice agreement in Versailles (in June 1919), said more or less the following to his European allies: “diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view”. And this is what really started to happen as from that date especially with the spread of democracy in the world.

The United Nations considers the 20th century “the century of democracy” because democracy spread in that century to all parts of the world. In fact, the 20th century transformed the political, social and economic structures of the world in ways no one could have imagined before. According to UN figures, electoral democracies now represent 120 of the 196 existing world countries and constitute more than 58 percent of the globe’s population. And with democracy, relations between countries also changed. In democracy, which means government by the people, citizens are engaged in their country’s political process, people are sovereign and form the highest form of political authority with the result that governments are based on the consent of the governed. Besides, democracy brought transparency and accountancy with it. And in more open and transparent systems, governments are required to have their foreign policies discussed and approved by parliaments and then carried out in practice not only by professional diplomats, but also by other people and organisations— like for example, non-governmental organisations (or NGOs), trade organisations, cultural bodies, scientific committees, media organisations, sports groups and so forth.

This is how public diplomacy was born in fact, a rather new tool used mainly by democratic nations to help put in place their foreign policies by using communication tools intended primarily to inform and influence foreign citizens and their opinion leaders. Diplomacy is essentially about communication and image. Public diplomacy fits well into this definition. Public diplomacy changed the traditional understanding of diplomacy based on the relationship between states and state organisations carried out by government officials and diplomats, to a diplomacy that attempts also to reach foreign publics and their public opinions. This is generally carried out by embassies in foreign countries— in other words, by official diplomats— and also by other organisations, such as non-state actors, cultural organisations, academic institutions, etc. in a joint attempt to use several tools at the same time to pass necessary information to other nations. In practice, public diplomacy includes programmes for international audiences, such as broadcasting and information activities, cultural productions, scientific programmes, educational exchange programmes for scholars and students, visitor programmes, books and literature, conferences and seminars and language training.L.Ritto

In recent decades, public diplomacy has become increasingly central to the practice of diplomacy. The need for public diplomacy in modern times is obvious. In the era of globalisation, where communication is easy and reaches foreign publics in record times (the so-called democratisation of information), states must pay attention to public opinion in other states. Experience with the use of this new tool of soft power has shown that public diplomacy must not be based on propaganda, but on the honest and objective dissemination of information and values. In other words: it must have credibility! In fact, diplomatic communication to be effective must not misrepresent the truth and must be made in such a way that governments and citizens of other countries feel that the interaction is respectful and positive. Besides, public diplomacy to be successful needs to be viewed in a long-term perspective that requires working through the exchange of people and ideas in order to build trust, understanding and lasting relationships.

In reality, public diplomacy is also about building relationships: understanding the needs of other countries, cultures and peoples; correcting misperceptions; looking for areas of common cause; and communicating points of view. Trust is essential for effective public diplomacy and trust usually can only be built on the basis of long and trusted relationships. Besides, this is the most effective way of communicating positive messages and fostering good relations with other countries. Examples or cases of best practices in public diplomacy have often been given as being the following: Alliance Française; the Fulbright programme of the US; the Goethe Institute of Germany; the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET); and the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung Foundation of Germany. The United Kingdom has some of the most effective and envied public diplomacy institutions in the world: the BBC World Service; the British Council; its excellent network of universities; and the programme called “Invest UK”, which has consistently been able to draw over the years higher levels of inward investment in the UK than any other EU country. British institutions are engaged in public diplomacy in almost every country of the world.

In recent times, the increased interest in public diplomacy has led to developments in other fields, such as marketing and nation branding, which are now also part of diplomacy. In many Western countries— and this is particularly the case of EU nations— public diplomacy is considered an essential foreign relations tool and not as an add-on to the rest of diplomacy, as it was the case in the beginning. It is therefore a central activity which is played out across many dimensions (political, cultural, economic and scientific) and with many partners.

In what concerns “nation branding” it is, simply put, the use of branding techniques by countries in an effort (a) to improve and enhance their overall image and (b) to position themselves in terms of their investment potential, credit worthiness, export opportunities, tourism potential and relations with other states. It is also a sort of image management. Nation branding has been especially important for small countries with limited diplomatic resources (Andorra, Monaco, Singapore, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Slovenia….), although large countries like India, the US and Canada have also been using it with success.

Scholars, like for instance Professor Evan Potter of the University of Ottawa in Canada, consider nation brands as one of the best forms of soft power. For him, when governments support national brands at any level (directly or indirectly), they become in essence public diplomacy (1). In fact, many countries use nation branding as one of their main tools of public diplomacy and even consider it an integral part of their public diplomacy efforts, through which foreign nations and people can be reached more easily. Some experts also consider nation branding as the economic dimension of public diplomacy or as the public dimension of economic diplomacy (2).

One of the great achievements of nation branding has been to revitalise the promotion of countries and to make public diplomacy more strategic. Many countries have been able to prove their relevance by using nation branding together with public diplomacy. Other benefits of adopting a branding-oriented approach to public diplomacy have been:

  • To better visualise public diplomacy;
  • To bring creativity in reaching out to foreign publics;
  • To increase the competitiveness of nations in a globalised world;
  • To improve communication skills of nations aimed at foreign audiences;
  • As nation branding targets a wider audience than public diplomacy, it widens the number of people it can reach;
  • And as nation branding is more results-oriented than public diplomacy alone, it generally translates into more dynamism and more tangible results (2).

A commonly cited success story of public diplomacy coupled with nation branding is the one of Norway. Norway is a small European country of under 5 million people. It is not a member of the European Union, Norwegian is not an international language and the country is not a main tourist destination. It is located in the northern part of Europe far from hub countries like Belgium and the Netherlands.

Yet, Norway has a voice and an important presence on the international stage out of proportion to its size and modest position. It has achieved this presence through the aggressive pursuit of niche public diplomacy together with a good prioritisation of its target audiences. It concentrated on a single message— Norway as a force for peace in the world— and on improving the effect of two negative images: lack of influence in Europe (through non-EU status) and its attachment to whaling. It has worked so well that Norway has today international visibility around the issue of peace and conflict prevention which is very beneficial to the country. The reputation of Norway in conflict resolution ensures that it is regarded as relevant in multilateral forums and other important international players, thus affording it influence on this issue. And this strategy was developed with a limited budget and based on the geographical concentration of its public diplomacy activities on just six relationships: the USA, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan.

But it is not only Norway that has been successful in jointly using public diplomacy and branding techniques to market their countries. A brand identity is based on the strength of delivering a quality product over time: the USA for freedom and investments; Switzerland for tourism and banking; Italy for food and fashion…. Everybody remembers certainly the brand campaign of India called “Incredible India”, which has led to a different image of that country which saw with it its tourism increase substantially. Other popular branding slogans are: Malaysia: Truly Asia; Dubai: The Jewel in the Desert; Uniquely Singapore; Amazing Thailand; and Sri Lanka: The Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Soft power experts like this spread of branding strategies, they believe that they are contributing to a better world, to a world that is better known by a great number of countries and citizens. Let us hope they are right and that these soft strategies will contribute effectively in the long term to a better world!

(1). Potter, Evan, “Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power through Public Diplomacy” (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal/Kingston, 2009).

(2). Szondi, Gyorgy, “Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding: Conceptual Similarities and Differences” (Netherlands Institute of International Relations, October 2008).


Nye, Joseph, “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” (New York: Basic Books, 1990).

Nye, Joseph, “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics” (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

Olins, Wally, “Branding the Nation-The Historical Context”, Journal of Brand Management (2002).

Risen, Clay, “Branding Nations”, New York Times (Dec. 11, 2005).

Dinnie, K. “Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues and Practice” (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008).








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