Thursday, August 18, 2022

Public Diplomacy & Covid-19

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By Dr. Eugenio Matos G.

As the fight against this pandemic continues, both Donald Trump and Xi Jinping begin to deploy one of the least known diplomatic tools, the public diplomacy (PD) strategy. This new science has transformed Washington’s foreign policy since 1999, Shanghai since 2003, and a handful of other states in recent years. For the People’s Republic of China and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gonggong waijiao (public diplomacy in Mandarin) is a matter of survival and national security.

The PD of both governments fulfills the objective of caring for the country’s image overseas. This can take the form of the issuance of favourable press releases worldwide or sending medical aid to nations in need.  

For some developing countries, the short-term Covid-19 outcome will be critical. Only those states having incorporated public diplomacy into their external action will be able to recover more quickly from the peripheral effects of today´s crisis. The ministries of foreign affairs of Israel, South Korea, Vietnam and Spain (just to mention a few), are including public diplomacy as a compulsory subject in contemporary diplomatic training.

Implementing a successful PD can be an affordable option under scarce resources  (Arias L. 2018). The terminology of public diplomacy, as we understand it today, was first coined in 1965 at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts (Guillon E.). However, its practical implementation started to flourish after the closure of the United States Information Agency (USIA or USIS) and the inauguration of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in 1999 at the United States Department of State. 

Public diplomacy is the science responsible for establishing strategies to listen, empathize, influence and engage foreign audiences (Matos E., 2007).

It is a discipline partially opposed to the praxis of traditional diplomacy as defined by Sir Harold Nicholson. The PD is per se innovative, democratic and transparent. PD is not limited to diplomatic agents but extends to lobbyists, NGOs, members of civil society and the diaspora.

According to studies from the University of South Carolina, the Clingendael Institute and the International Public Diplomacy Council in The Hague, its effectiveness might be an antidote to face crises or as an alternative solution when diplomatic relations may be deteriorated or even broken (Noya J. 2006). Some scholars and politicians refer to PD as “People´s Diplomacy”,  (Albright M., 2000).

In the practice field, public diplomacy uses soft power as a formula to attract minds and hearts in a subtle way (Nye J. 2009). PD is equally nourished by other tools such as digital diplomacy due to the immediacy of communications, as well as cultural diplomacy for its proven merits (Milton C. C., 2003). Unlike traditional diplomatic duties, public diplomacy remains a very recent discipline, sparse in literature and falling short of cutting-edge professionals. Surprisingly, too many career diplomats still ignore the advantages of this key foreign policy tool (JK Stewart 2017).

After spending weeks in quarantine during this pandemic, which triggered the biggest plunge in global stock markets since 1933, several superpowers are starting to display their public diplomacy muscles well before igniting a recovery strategy. In sum, China and the United States of America are excellent models in implementing public diplomacy as an important soft power tool for effective communication and crisis management.   


About the author: Dr. Eugenio Matos G. is Minister-Counsellor at the Dominican Republic Embassy in Ottawa. He is one of the first Latin American experts in public diplomacy and recipient of several Canada´s Ambassadors of the Year & Public diplomacy recognitions. 

This article was also published in Spanish by the author in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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