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Blog Post | An Identity Perspective on Non-great Power Public Diplomacy

The postwar Liberal International Order faces grave challenges today mostly in the form of geopolitical competitions among great powers and exclusionary identity politics unfolding across different countries.

The retreat of democracy, combined with authoritarian rise, since the turn of the century has led to increasing “bloc-ization of values” between liberalism centering around the U.S. on the one hand, and counter-liberalism around China and Russia on the other.1 Even within the trans-Atlantic liberalist value bloc, anti-liberal political forces in the form of the far-right populism, nativism and ethnonationalism are contesting liberal values. Current value-based confrontation, unlike in the Cold War era, essentially builds on deleterious identity politics, which centers on exclusionary collective resentments based on national, ethnic, cultural, religious, sectarian, and other primal identities. It thus takes place in the shape of scattered confrontations between different national and primal identities, in contrast to the two clashing ideological blocs consolidated in the Cold War era. Moreover, the new Biden administration’s emphasis on human rights and liberal democracy in its foreign policy has expanded Sino-American rivalry beyond the arenas of military, economics, trade, and technology to the realm of values. In this increasingly confrontational world, what should be the role of non-great powers’ public diplomacy, particularly public diplomacy of those non-great powers with international normative impact, either individually or collectively in multilateral coalitions? 

Public diplomacy has conventionally underscored its task of serving as an instrument for attaining a country’s foreign policy goals and promoting its national interests. This widely held view perceives public diplomacy activities aimed at informing, influencing, and engaging with foreign publics as a means of advancing national interests. Public diplomacy’s primary toolkit aims to help a particular state induce foreign countries to craft policies favorable to its own interests and raise its profile and reputation on the global stage. This instrumental view also postulates that public diplomacy should focus on the content of messages disseminated and the projection of desirable national images, or brands. 

The identity perspective,2 on the other hand, pays close attention to the process of breeding intersubjective meanings, namely, shared understandings and meanings, with others on specific phenomena, objects, issues, and identities, and to socially constructing inter-state and international relations. Seen from this perspective, public diplomacy could be defined as “communicative practices seeking recognition of a nation’s state/national identity, or some elements constituting the identity.” Since it is rather common that there exists discrepancy between one’s subjective and other’s understandings of self, states endeavor to reduce the gap by engaging in material and discursive practices of recognition-seeking. Discursive and communicative practices mostly fall in the realm of public diplomacy especially when they are directed at foreign publics. When one’s recognitive practices earn empathy and recognition through interactions with others, the subjective self-identity is eventually established as “recognized identity” in the international society.3 The recognized identity, in this sense, is a social construct. “Norway as a peace nation,” for example, is not so much an outcome of the Norwegian authorities’ subjective projection of national image as a social reality constructed through its active, and impartial, post-Cold War involvement in numerous conflict resolutions across the continents. It is not simply a subjective understanding of self; it reflects shared, and thus recognized, understanding and meaning of Norwegian identity. The identity perspective shares commonalities with constructivism in IR as it values interactions with others over self-centeredness, and supposes that identity itself is subject to change and reconstruction in the process of generating intersubjective meanings with others. Identity thus (re)constructed in turn shapes a country’s national interests.

Depending on which elements of state/national identity are to be communicated, there could be two types of public diplomacy. “Projection public diplomacy” places emphasis on presenting “Who We Are” by communicating essentialist, or primordial, elements of collective identity, such as ethnicity, language, history and culture shared by a nation through a long-lived experience. “Advocacy public diplomacy,” on the other hand, concentrates on such ideational elements as values and norms, and the policies and institutions reflecting those values and norms, to demonstrate “What We Stand for” in the international society. Advocacy of a status – e.g., great power status, middle power status –, and the role accompanied to a given status, are also crucial elements of a country’s external identity that constitute the content of advocacy public diplomacy. When the instrumental and identity perspectives on public diplomacy are combined, we could have four ideal-types of public diplomacy approach as shown in Figure 1.

Figure: 1 Four types of public diplomacy approach across spectrum of the two perspectives [4]

The horizontal axis of Figure 1 indicates a spectrum of instrumental perspective all the way from unilateral information dissemination to medium- and longer-term relation building via persuasion and engagement. In contrast, the vertical axis displays the spectrum of the identity perspective ranging from the self-centered pursuit of maximizing national interests to the extension of the boundaries of identity in an effort to breed shared meanings and understandings with others. Each approach, however, is a conceptual ideal-type, while in reality, different approaches coexist intermingled and overlapping with each other. For example, while most countries are engaged in traditional cultural diplomacy promoting their “nation-culture-language” abroad, many of them simultaneously advocate for transnational values and norms in areas such as climate change and public health. 

There is no doubt that public diplomacy is an instrument that contributes to advancing a country’s foreign policy and national interest by representing and communicating its national identity. But to take it one step further, seeking recognition by establishing a meaning of the identity that is shared by the others, and doing this through interactive communication will help promote peaceful coexistence and cooperation between countries with different values and institutions in the anarchical international society. For example, peace diplomacy, normative diplomacy based on human security, and the role of an impartial mediator and bridgebuilder conducted by such traditional and emerging middle powers as Norway, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Japan, Indonesia, and Puerto Rico5 are clearly distinguished from the public diplomacy based on the self-centered instrumental logic and serving to justify geopolitical statecraft of great powers. These countries pursue mutual recognition and cooperation by spawning “shared understandings and meanings” of peace, human security, democracy, and religion.

South Korea has been not simply a self-claimed, but intersubjectively recognized, middle power country at least since the 1990s. Seen from the identity perspective, South Korea’s public diplomacy needs to promote its status and role identity as a middle power by initiating “normative public diplomacy” based on middle-of-the-road values and norms positioned between liberalism and anti-liberalism to dilute the confrontation of the two contending value blocs. Normative public diplomacy focuses on communicating to people at home and abroad the discourse and narrative anchored on such in-between values and norms as “positive peace”6 and reflecting them in public diplomacy programs. Organizing a transnational epistemic community of experts and intellectuals, for example, would be a meaningful step forward in the direction of constructing a cognitive cultural structure in Northeast Asia based on the discourse of “security through peace,” not “peace through security.” Transnational peace camp for youth would be another. Since non-great powers such as South Korea do not have the same level of hard power as that of great powers, they would need to endeavor to build multilateral coalitions with like-minded and like-situated countries, as well as international NGOs, to embark on peace-oriented normative public diplomacy. In so doing, one must re-consider the notion of soft power in multilateral coalitions as a complement to traditional state-centric soft power that only focuses on attributes of individual countries.7 “Collective soft power” in multilateral coalitions of state and non-state actors underpinned by norms and values should be a crucial part of their foreign policy at large, and public diplomacy in particular.

Taehwan Kim is Associate Professor of Public Diplomacy of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA), the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before joining KNDA in 2013, he had served as Director of Public Diplomacy at the Korea Foundation since 2008, and has also been Managing Director of the East Asia Foundation since its establishment in 2005. In addition, he is also a member of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy’s International Advisory Board.

1. For a discussion on “blocization of values” with empirical cases, see Taehwan Kim, “The Rise of Value Diplomacy and Bloc-ization of Values: Comparing Great and Middle Powers,” IFANS Focus, IF2018-31E (October 5, 2018).

2. Taehwan Kim, “Seeking Recognition in Anarchy: An Identity Approach to Public Diplomacy,” IFANS Perspective, IP2021-07E (June 7, 2021).

3. Michelle Murray, The Struggle for Recognition in International Relations: Status, Revisionism, and Rising Powers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

4. The names of quadrants I, II, and III are drawn from Geoffrey Cowan and Amelia Arsenault, 
“Moving from Monologue to Dialogue to Collaboration,” The ANNALS of the American 
Academy of Political Social Science
, Vol. 616 (2008).

5. For the roles middle power countries played in the areas of human security, see Ronald M. Behringer, The Human Security Agenda: How Middle Power Leadership Defied U.S. Hegemony (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012). For Indonesian case, see Taehwan Kim, “A Status Identity Approach to Middle Power Diplomacy: Comparing Public Diplomacy Cases of Australia, Turkey, and Indonesia,” IFANS Focus, IF2020-06E (May 7, 2020).

6. Johan Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization (London: Sage, 1996).

7. Arendt, contending that “action in concert is power,” underscores the importance of collective power generated when humans come together for a common purpose. Hanna Arendt, On Violence (San Diego, CA: Harvest, 1970); The Human Conditions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).

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