Features Symposium Reports
Public Diplomacy: Why It Matters and How It Works

Kent Calder [Profile]

[2014.01.21] Read in: 日本語 | ESPAÑOL | Русский |

Public diplomacy efforts are an increasingly vital part of Japan’s diplomatic outreach, particularly in the light of friction between it and its neighbors over territorial and historical issues. On November 5, 2013, we cohosted “The Popularity of Nations: How and Why Governments Seek Public Approval Abroad,” a symposium to explore public diplomacy questions. Kent Calder, director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, gave the keynote address printed below.

Let me begin by saying that I certainly look forward to this very interesting symposium on an extremely important subject. We have a superb group of presenters today. There is a wealth of knowledge present in this symposium, particularly on the comparisons with European experiences. We should see a rather interesting discussion on the ways in which Japan is no doubt unique—in which its situation may be best thought of as different from other international cases.

Right now, for Japan in particular, the question of public diplomacy is extremely important. Coming from Washington DC, I can see this every day. I’ve just finished a book called Asia in Washington: Exploring the Penumbra of Transnational Power, which will be out soon. My research for this has convinced me that public diplomacy is crucial today. There’s a whole series of reasons why it has become particularly crucial, and I would like to go into some of those today.

Public diplomacy is something that I’ve been interested in since I first went to study with Edwin O. Reischauer, which is now well over 30 years ago. Professor Reischauer wrote a classic piece for Foreign Affairs in the fall of 1960: “The Broken Dialogue with Japan.” Of course many things have been done to overcome that broken dialogue. But remarkably, in spite of all those efforts by many people across the years, this “broken dialogue” continues to be an issue in Japan’s relations with the world—and indeed, in cross-cultural relations among many countries. I don’t think the issue is Japan alone. If we look at the American ability to engage in dialogue, particularly with the Islamic world in the last decade, or at the complexities in US dealings with Latin America, that issue is there. Here in East Asia, obviously, we have a series of regional issues where broken, incomplete, and tortured dialogues of various kinds are perennial problems that affect foreign policy.

This topic is particularly important at a time of transition like this. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy will be arriving here in Tokyo in about a week. My guess is that cross-cultural relations and public diplomacy will be a concern of American policy across the Pacific in the coming years, just as they have been since President Obama’s early speeches in Europe and in the Middle East. This has been a central concern of the Obama administration.

The Need for the Public Diplomacy Approach

The arguments for public diplomacy of course are legion. Let me just briefly go through the general ones that transcend Japan itself, and then focus on the ways that Japan’s dialogue with the United States in Washington is structured, how it compares to the dialogues of some other countries with Washington, and what that may mean for the future.

The first question is fundamental: “Why public diplomacy?” Clearly, the benefits are substantial: the greater international acceptance that comes about as a result of engaging with the publics and the leaders of other countries informally. It’s particularly relevant in postconflict situations, when countries have relatively fixed perceptions of the partner country. Overcoming those, changing them, and providing additional information are vital tasks.

The ways in which world politics are changing also make public diplomacy more important. The civil societies of the world’s major nations are becoming more active. I think Samuel Huntington’s “third wave” of democratization has been a part of this, but also the way that the information society has emerged. The coming of the Internet has flattened hierarchies. It’s making people much more conscious of statements that are made in other parts of the world. It’s allowing citizens throughout the world to engage in debates on a whole range of issues that have previously been the province largely of diplomats.

We also have the rising power of the media: of course, the classical media as we know them, the newspapers and television stations, but also a range of new, increasingly important forms of communication like podcasting, live-streamed video, and other internet broadcasting of events.

Changing geopolitics in the wake of the Cold War is also making relationships among nations more fluid than they once were. This makes public diplomacy more and more important. Classically, many diplomats have felt that the ideal way to proceed is to have public diplomacy very closely related to formal diplomacy itself. During the years when I was in the US Embassy in Tokyo, that tendency became stronger, and it’s become common in a number of other countries, too, for several reasons. Integrating classical diplomacy with public diplomacy—our State Department and the United States Information Agency, for example—does reduce costs, which are a major concern today. The integration of public diplomacy and classical diplomacy is often more popular in the home country. The US Congress, for instance, doesn’t want some parts of the government going off and saying things that it feels are uncoordinated with the major line the government wants to adopt. Some people say this approach increases foreign policy cohesion and allows for a more unified message.

Of course, the other side is that it also potentially reduces the legitimacy of the message that comes out. It could be mistaken for propaganda, as opposed to more impartial dialogue. There’s really room for the two, of course. There’s room for nations to forthrightly present their own strategies and their own sense of themselves and what they should do. But there’s also a lot of room for “track two,” or “track one-and-a-half,” efforts: for organizations that can be effective in helping a country to be better understood overseas, but are not simply official mouthpieces of government itself. Right now, NGOs and so forth are in a dialogue with one another, and perhaps we could even look at the level of individuals talking to one another. Some of what Nippon.com is doing is very positive in that respect.

The Scene in Washington DC

Let me say a few words about Washington itself and on some new approaches to public diplomacy that are being pursued by other countries in Washington. I will also note why I think that matters, particularly to Japan and to US-Japan relations today.

Washington is not only the site of the US government. It’s also the site of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, a lot of regional organizations like the Inter-American Development Bank, and, of course, three of the five top think-tanks in the world. I call this range of other organizations the “penumbra of power” in my book, and it represents a part of the overall power equation that is becoming increasingly important, globally.

We must also remember that there are deepening differences of opinion between the various interests in international centers of policy development like Washington. Some of them arise from conflicts of national interest. Some of them are simply misperceptions, but I think they create an increased value for public diplomacy. There are issues of territory and of the interpretation of history. There are issues like the problem of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. There are questions about finance. There are questions about energy, such as nuclear power and what ought to be done about it.

There’s the question of how to think about Abenomics, or about other approaches to Japan’s economic problems; the question of how to reinflate the Japanese economy once again. There are many issues that are quite central to Japan on which there are different points of view. The resolution of those divergent views is becoming quite important internationally. So the questions of the world, or Asia, or Japan as they are addressed in Washington are increasingly important issues to consider in the rapidly changing information and globalized age that is dawning now.

Let me give you briefly some examples of the institutions in Washington today and the functions that are being performed by some of the organizations of other countries They may be somewhat useful in thinking about the US-Japan relationship.

One is the idea of “track two” agenda-setting forums. The Korea Economic Institute in Washington is doing a particularly effective job in that regard. It has some indirect support from the Korean government, as well as support from nongovernmental interests. It’s at 1800 K Street, in the office that used to be held by Henry Kissinger’s associates. There are lectures, there are networking sessions, there are podcasts. It’s quite advanced technologically and has proven to be relatively effective in promoting Korean interests.

As an academic and a scholar, I think idea-creation forums are also something important that has been developing in Washington. Here I would particularly note the Transatlantic Academy, which the German Marshall Fund has set up. This brings scholars, from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, generally, to the United States to talk with American analysts about immigration and about a range of global problems that both sides have an interest in. There are many other examples. I feel happy that our university has also been active in this regard, including our Europe-related programs. These are endeavors that can actually generate ideas for the future.

Media, of course, is another key area, and media innovators that are willing to use new techniques are another important element in Washington. NHK has done some very good things. CCTV, the Chinese national broadcasting network, has been extremely active in Washington, as many of you know. They have about 100 journalists, and 80 of them are Americans, which interests me. They are broadcasting heavily out of Washington to the broader world. It’s a relatively unusual and innovative technique that could be more broadly noted.

Cultural exchange and networking forums, especially from Europe, have been very active in this area. There’s the Maison Française, the Goethe Insititut, and many other institutions around Washington. The Japan Information and Culture Center in the Japanese embassy has been doing a lot of things—and choosing not to do others. An international comparison could well be interesting.

Ethnic support NGOs also have been quite important for many countries. China has a “Compatriots Bureau” in its embassy in Washington that focuses particularly on its relations with Chinese-Americans in the United States. There are more than four million Chinese-Americans in the US now. The US-Japan Council has been very active as well, doing a fine job of promoting cultural exchange and the understanding of issues across the Pacific. Ambassador John Roos, who just left Tokyo, has been very involved in this.

Finally, I’d like to mention political party institutes. Here I must mention the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, one of our cosponsors here today. They are affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and they have played an important role in nurturing young people and leaders. There are many party institutes of various other German parties as well, under programs that are supported by the German government in a nonpartisan way to help broaden the dialogue between Germany and the world.

Building a Stronger Presence for Japan

So there are a real variety of institutions in Washington. Looking at those, asking what is relevant for Japan and its foreign policy and what is not, are useful things to do. That’s what I’ve been trying to do in my new book, Asia in Washington. Implicit in what I have said so far is that there are areas for potential innovation in this space. Some things that have some distance from the government, but also have a common national concern, could be useful.

What sort of a representation might the business world have? The Keizai Koho Center, affiliated with Keidanren, did have a branch in Washington for a long time, but that doesn’t exist anymore. What exactly is appropriate in the business area? What sort of independent presence is optimal? These are issues to consider.

Japan could pursue a stronger capital city focus. Seoul and Beijing are both sister cities of Washington DC, while Tokyo is not, despite the Cherry Blossom Festival. It’s a sister city of New York, and there’s no problem with that from a business point of view, but on the issues I’m talking about I think the question can be raised. There are some cities that have multiple sister city relations. Why is Tokyo not a sister city of Washington, given the importance of the US-Japan relationship?

New media trends and cycles also deserve deeper attention. I mentioned that many broadcasting networks are getting involved in this area. Are there ways that new media might be used more effectively? As I said, the KEI has been very effective in using podcasting, both as a networking tool to meet people who might be useful for Korea and as a way to present ideas.

The role of local staff needs examination too. I mentioned CCTV. About 80 percent of its staff is American. This is an approach that could also apply here. In Japan, should Americans be presenting themselves entirely, or are there ways that Japanese staff can be put to good use? How might people of multiple nationalities work together to be most effective in presentation?

The Issues to Be Examined

I think there are several avenues of thought to pursue in connection with public diplomacy. The first is its importance as a tool for understanding. We can’t go out to present our own ideas without understanding where the other country is coming from. So understanding and monitoring is important. Secondly, public diplomacy is increasingly important as civil society rises and becomes more volatile, and as diplomatic orientations become more fluid. Thirdly, the methods through which we try to achieve these objectives are crucial, but one size doesn’t fit all, and the imperatives are increasingly varied. Fourthly, speed and sensitivity are increasingly vital. When I was in the embassy, we faced the question of the Ehime Maru—the tragic case of a Japanese fishing boat that was hit by a US submarine. The world was changing so fast, and we had to respond quickly and with sincerity. In that regard, there’s real value in being on the ground and being sensitive to very rapid developments. In this sense, a strong local presence in the host country can turn out to be quite important, as well as roles for host country citizens.

In conclusion, I think the Olympics are presenting Japan with a tremendous opportunity to innovate, to broadcast, to present its message to the world. That said, it also has to understand the concerns of the outside world. We’re going to hear many of those concerns articulated today. I look forward very much to the discussions.

Thank you very much.

  • [2014.01.21]

Director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies and director of the Japan Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University. Since earning his PhD in government at Harvard University, has taught at Princeton University and served as Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, among other posts. Was also a special advisor to the US ambassador to Japan. His recent publications include Pacific Alliance: Reviving U.S.-Japan Relations (2009), The New Continentalism: Energy and Twenty-First Century Eurasian Geopolitics (2012), and Asia in Washington: Exploring the Penumbra of Transnational Power (2014).

Related articles
Also in this series

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news