Public Diplomacy: An Emerging New Normal in Foreign Policy

States must now learn to shape the context in which their policies are perceived by foreign publics in order to achieve national goals.

Date Posted

1 Aug 2012


Issue 11, 14 Aug 2012

A Ferrari, a Fatal Collision and its Fallout

On 17 May 2012, The Straits Times carried a letter from the Chinese embassy in Singapore expressing regret over a fatal crash in the Republic involving a Ferrari, driven by a resident from China, and a taxi, driven by a Singaporean. The letter urged Chinese nationals in Singapore to “respect life, value the safety of themselves and others, abide by its [Singapore’s] laws regulations, live responsibly and gracefully”.1 It was evidently a response to the outrage at the accident expressed by many Singaporeans, in whose eyes the driver of the Ferrari was the epitome of a class of affluent expatriates from China and elsewhere, whose influx into their country had pushed up living costs and strained public services.

The Chinese embassy’s effort to mollify Singaporeans and urge its nationals in Singapore to avoid behaviour that offends citizens of their host country should come as no surprise. We now live in an age characterised by the rise of civil society and growing empowerment of just about anyone with an Internet-enabled camera phone. Coupled with the easy movement of goods, services, people, capital and information across borders, the emerging “new normal” in international relations is that governments and inter-governmental organisations such as the United Nations (UN) are no longer the sole determinants of international policies and sole practitioners of diplomacy. Gone are the days when a huddle in private between, say, the prime minister of Singapore and the president of Indonesia was all that it took to sort out bilateral issues; any government that seeks to improve ties with a foreign government or to secure an agreement with it must also reach out to the public of that country.

Goodwill Hunting

Efforts to explain policies and actions to, and influence, foreign publics, as opposed to foreign governments, are hardly new in international relations. “Public diplomacy”, the term applied to this practice, has historically been considered an euphemism for propaganda. It was most closely associated with America’s extensive use of the former US Information Agency (now absorbed into the US State Department) and the Voice of America radio service in Cold War-era efforts to project American culture and values to weaken the Communist bloc.

Today, public diplomacy is increasingly seen as a critical tool for developing what Joseph Nye calls “soft power” — the ability to co-opt others through the attractiveness of one’s “institutions, ideas, values, culture and the perceived legitimacy of policies”.2 Countries around the world have recognised, especially since the September 11 attacks, that military and economic power are often inadequate to bring about desired foreign policy outcomes; an equally important national asset is a positive reputation or soft power.

China is among several players now actively seeking to develop soft power. Through its international broadcasts and some 350 “Confucius Institutes” set up across the world to teach Chinese and showcase Chinese culture, Beijing is attempting to shape how it is perceived abroad and allay fears that a rising China is a threat. China has evidently begun to realise that as goods, services, capital, people and information traverse borders easily in a globalised world, its nationals at home or abroad also serve as its flag bearers — hence, the efforts of the Chinese embassy in Singapore aim not only to appease angry Singaporeans but also to urge Chinese nationals in Singapore not to undermine their country’s reputation.

Public diplomacy does not render redundant the kind of quiet negotiations between governments that must take place in camera, such as the Oslo peace process or free trade negotiations. However, the agreements concluded through such confidential government-to-government transactions may languish on paper if the governments in question have weak standings with each other’s publics and fail to convince the latter of their good intentions.

Forms of Public Diplomacy

Scholars note that public diplomacy is practised in several inter-connected dimensions.

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Beyond Branding to Woo Tourists, Talent and Capital

While some of the tools of public diplomacy are in pervasive use today, there is no consensus or clarity on what the specific objectives of public diplomacy are, apart from the broad one of seeking to shape perceptions and influence foreign audiences. Neither is there clarity on how best to deploy these tools. Consequently, there is much hand-wringing about the efficacy of public diplomacy as a strategy.

A good national brand image notwithstanding, countries may still come up against political hurdles in advancing their commercial interests abroad.

The rise of “nation-branding” as a discipline over the past decade or so has led to public diplomacy being conflated with commercially-oriented brand-building exercises. By default or design, countries as well as cities acquire distinct brand identities based on their key attributes and the values that shape their institutions and policies. For instance, Germany has acquired a reputation for engineering precision and reliability while Italy for style and high fashion. As the scramble for tourist dollars, investments, talent and markets intensifies across the world, many countries and cities, especially developing ones, have begun adopting corporate branding techniques to market their brand identities and establish some form of “product differentiation” from their competitors.

However, while nation-branding in this narrow sense, involving catchy taglines and dazzling skylines, may help a country lure investments, tourists and talent, and even boost the appeal of its goods and services to consumers abroad, public diplomacy serves broader national interests. For small countries, concerted and sustained public diplomacy efforts could conceivably make some difference in their ability to maintain secure borders, ensure air and maritime access, guarantee food and energy supplies and achieve a whole host of critical national objectives other than commercial success. Indeed, a good national brand image notwithstanding, countries may still come up against political hurdles in advancing their commercial interests abroad, given occasional backlashes against globalisation in the wake of unemployment, stagnant wages and widening income disparities, especially in the developed and emerging markets. Thus, apart from targeting business constituencies and talented professionals seeking to relocate, public diplomacy involves developing broader messages that will resonate with a wider cross-section of foreign publics. These include non-governmental organisations (NGOs) representing special interests or causes, such as migrant worker rights, human rights and environmental protection, as well as journalists, academics and other opinion-multipliers.

It’s the Policy, Stupid

While many governments fork out massive sums on public relations campaigns to help re-brand their countries, deploy an army of information specialists to explain policies, and engage in some form of relationship-building efforts, including providing development assistance, they generally still tend to treat public diplomacy as a communication exercise peripheral to policy — in Nye’s words as “a bandage that can be applied after damage to a country’s standing has been done by other instruments”.3 But, as the US discovered in the wake of its response to September 11, no amount of skilful communication can airbrush away the effects of bad policy; ultimately, good public diplomacy is about good policy.

Simon Anholt, who gave us the term “nation-branding”, notes that publics generally tend to hold on rigidly to a rather simplistic view of a foreign country once it is formed.4 He cautions that a single good policy or deed may not yield a lasting positive perception if the underlying image is weak or poor. Conversely, it must be added, a single policy misstep could be amplified many times over in today’s new media environment and could potentially undo a painstakingly-built positive image.

Good public diplomacy, therefore, begins with a mindset change that regards public diplomacy as a strategic function which has to be mainstreamed and integrated with traditional diplomacy. Public diplomacy also entails overcoming cognitive biases that blind a country to elements of its policies and behaviour that rile others, a thorough assessment of what can realistically be done to undo underlying negative images, ongoing anticipation of how foreign publics might respond to specific policies, and if necessary tweaking, or even changing, policy to mitigate any potential negative fallout.

A single policy misstep could be amplified many times over in today's environment and potentially undo a painstainkingly-built positive image.

Public diplomacy cannot be approached in a one-size-fits-all manner; unique circumstances in target countries and theatres, particularly the differences in how a country is perceived in different parts of the world, call for country-specific strategies where specific sub-messages consonant with the overarching theme are emphasised and appropriate tools deployed. Most countries embarking on public diplomacy programmes tend to tackle the low-hanging fruit of improving visibility in places where visibility is lacking, while sidestepping the more intractable task of attempting to redeem weak reputations in places that count most. Furthermore, in their relationship-building activities, they tend to preach to the converted, that is, to seek out those who already have positive impressions of their country, and to ignore the peskier, but oftentimes more influential, elements whose views may be at variance with their own. Public diplomacy is not about getting others to accept a country’s policies; it is more about using open, two-way communication to create a foundation of trust against which foreign audiences may understand a country’s policies and actions, even if they do not necessarily accept them in toto.

Credibility is an essential element in the building of trust, which is the ultimate goal of public diplomacy.

“Smart Public Diplomacy”

While public diplomacy is a strategic function and public diplomacy consciousness must permeate the policy process, the heavy hand of the state in the implementation of public diplomacy plans may not be the best way forward. For in the information age, publics are better informed and increasingly cynical about statements and deeds emanating from government institutions. Credibility is an essential element in the building of trust, which is the ultimate goal of public diplomacy. This is why Nye advocates shifting towards what he calls “smart public diplomacy”, which involves tapping into the credibility inherent in emerging cross-border, peer-to-peer civil society networks involving NGOs, academics, journalists, and the like.5 Mark Leonard, another proponent of this approach, calls it “stealth diplomacy”.6

There are compelling reasons for working with non-state entities in pursuing public diplomacy. Governments often do not have the resources to reach the large numbers of foreign constituencies they must cultivate beyond their foreign counterparts. More significantly, as goods, services, people and information cross borders freely today, businesses, NGOs, academics, and even ordinary citizens and diasporas unwittingly or otherwise serve as flag-bearers abroad. Their business decisions abroad, their behaviour abroad as tourists or students, their blogs, Tweets, and home-made YouTube videos all contribute to the shaping of their country’s perception abroad, whether governments like it or not. Governments, therefore, need to work with these players to ensure that, at the least, their decisions and behaviour do not undermine national reputations.

Inevitably, working with non-state entities requires ceding some control over messaging, which governments may find hard to countenance, especially where NGOs with socio-political causes are concerned. Nye points out that such “decentralisation and diminished control may be central to the creation of soft power” as long as deviations from the government line are not too significant.7 In any event, viewing NGOs as stakeholders and engaging them and enlisting their support is a surer way of making them behave responsibly than isolating them.

Singapore’s Public Diplomacy Challenges

Over the past two decades and especially in the past five years, Singapore has been undertaking various elements of public diplomacy in addition to nation-branding. These include engaging in “a diplomacy of deeds”, such as the post-2004 tsunami humanitarian aid and reconstruction support for Indonesia, efforts to reach out to foreign opinion multipliers, diaspora outreach efforts and even encouraging some form of peer-to-peer networks involving think tanks and journalists. What seems still lacking, however, is a conscious attempt to integrate public diplomacy with the policy function and to take a more focused approach to public diplomacy efforts.

Building trust with foreign publics takes a long time and a huge commitment of resources, especially when stereotypes and deep-seated negative opinions need to be changed or at least tempered. The effectiveness of public diplomacy is also not immediately perceptible; neither is it easy to measure as opinions can change for any number of reasons and not just because of the efficacy of public diplomacy programmes. Therefore, taking a cost-benefit approach to public diplomacy could render it ineffective.

Working with non-state entities requires ceding some control over messaging, which governments may find hard to countenance.

On the other hand, public policy in Singapore today is no longer insulated from public pressures, making it harder to justify expenditure on public diplomacy programmes whose outcomes are not imm8diately perceptible.8 With the distinction between domestic and foreign policy having blurred, Singaporeans can be expected to become more vocal on issues that have international dimensions.

More critically, the nation-branding exercise to project Singapore as a cool and creative city, largely with a view to wooing foreign businesses and talents, is clearly not resonating with many citizens. Singapore’s most daunting public diplomacy challenge will be to ensure that the simmering resentment of “foreign talent”, manifested in the harsh invectives hurled at the Chinese national who drove the Ferrari, does not descend into xenophobia, which could affect Singapore’s reputation abroad and efforts to build political goodwill with foreign publics. In sum, the success of a public diplomacy strategy will also hinge on first securing broad public consensus at home.

"Building a reputation in our busy modern world is like trying to fill a bathtub with the plug pulled out: as soon as each symbolic action is completed, its effect on public attention begins to decay, unless it is swiftly followed by further equally remarkable proof of the kind of country that produces it, that country’s reputation will stand still or move backwards, the bathtub will never fill."

—Nation-branding guru Simon Anholt, Place Branding & Public Diplomacy,
Volume 4, Issue 1, 2008


Premarani Somasundram is Principal Researcher at the Centre for Governance and Leadership, Civil Service College. She spent a good part of her career with the Strategic Assessments Directorate of the Ministry of Defence, which allowed her the opportunity to serve as counsellor with the Singapore embassy in Washington, DC, from end 1999 to early 2003. The views expressed in the article are her own.


  1. Forum page, The Straits Times, May 17, 2012.
  2. Nye, Joseph S. Jr., The Future of Power (New York: Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group, 2011), 20.
  3. Nye, Joseph S. Jr., “The New Public Diplomacy”, Project Syndicate, February 10, 2010.
  4. Anholt, Simon, “Public Diplomacy Place Branding: Where’s the Link?”, Place Branding, Editorial (2006).
  5. Nye, Joseph S. Jr., ”Soft Power Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century”, British Council Parliamentary Lecture, January 20, 2010.
  6. Leonard, Mark (with Stead, Catherine and Smewing, Conrad), “Public Diplomacy”, The Foreign Policy Centre (2002): 54.
  7. Nye, Joseph S. Jr., “The Pros Cons of Citizen Diplomacy”, International Herald Tribune, October 5, 2010.
  8. The inaugural Youth Olympic Games hosted by Singapore is a case in point, with Singaporeans questioning the sizeable expenditure overrun and perceived lack of returns.

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