China is housing its national treasure, the panda, in various countries as a sign of strong relations. Pix by Abdullah Yusof

THEN former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton arrived in Foggy Bottom in 2008, she spoke of how the State Department would use “smart power” and “hard-nosed diplomacy” in the pursuit of America’s interests abroad.

Smart power by then had been adequately explained by political scientist Joseph S. Nye to mean the dual use of soft and hard power to achieve one’s ends.

But hard-nosed diplomacy was a new coinage. Little did we know that it was only one in the latest trend of diplomacy-suffixed word.

Eight years on, it seems that “diplomacy” has not been able to stand alone because it is always preceded by a description of it.

We hear about “preventive diplomacy”, “celebrity diplomacy”, “direct diplomacy”, “sports diplomacy”, and that cutest of all terms, “panda diplomacy”.

This last is perhaps the most well-known to us. It involves China housing its national treasure, the panda, in various countries as a sign of its strong relations with that country. In this sense, the pandas are actually a symbol rather than a tool towards ensuring good relations.

So, panda diplomacy is actually a misnomer.

I contend that the reason why there are now so many words in front of “diplomacy” is not because it is a word that cannot stand on its own. Rather, diplomacy is so large, so all-encompassing that it needs to be qualified and contained.

Consider the definition of “diplomacy”. The most widely accepted definition was penned in 1939 by British diplomat Harold Nicholson to refer to “the management of international relations by negotiation… by ambassadors and envoys”.

How these negotiations are to be conducted is not specified. As long as international relations are managed, then it is considered diplomacy.

When referring to diplomacy, there is always this presumption that the discussion involves much tact on sensitive issues. But “direct diplomacy” is also a type of diplomacy, where plain-speaking can yield more results than beating around the proverbial bush.

The late Tun Ghazali Shafie (King Ghaz to diplomats) preferred this kind of diplomacy. Those who knew him said that he had no time for getting it wrong, so speaking plainly was his choice method. Subtlety just does not cut it sometimes.

Celebrity diplomacy is something with which many of us are familiar.

The United Nations uses celebrities to raise awareness of issues. Stevie Wonder, for example, is the UN’s ambassador for disabled persons; George Clooney was UN’s peacekeeping ambassador; and Ewan McGregor is the ambassador for the children’s emergency fund.

Without these celebrities, the causes might just be a mere blip on the radar.

In 1971, the United States ping-pong team became the first Americans to officially set foot in Beijing since the end of World War 2.

Almost overnight, the isolationist policy of the US against China became a thing of the past. The event went on to be known as “ping-pong” diplomacy, or table tennis diplomacy.

What all these different types of diplomacy really are, are a specification of a very wide term. At the heart of it, they relate to the act of managing relations between two parties.

Which brings us to the much-used and well-touted “public diplomacy”. Diplomacy was traditionally very much a cloak-and-dagger affair, done behind closed doors with everyone practically sworn to secrecy.

Not so today. In this digital age, where nothing is off-limits, the public needs to be engaged in foreign affairs. At least in the understanding of it.

So, public diplomacy became a staple in every foreign ministry and international organisation. Its function was to inform, disseminate and promote the course of action already taken.

If this sounds remarkably similar to what we used to call a public relations exercise, it is because it is. Similar, that is. Down to a tee.

Public diplomacy is less about managing international relations than explaining it. Members of the public do not really have a say in foreign affairs.

Even this is changing. As demonstrated recently in the Brexit polls, the days when international relations are decided by the public and not by bureaucrats may not be too far off.

Public diplomacy may one day mean what it says on the label.

The writer is attached to the public diplomacy arm of the Foreign Service. She is a research fellow of the University of Sheffield and writes on international affairs

352 reads

Related Articles

Most Read Stories by