Mr. Melissen, you are a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague and professor of diplomacy at the University of Antwerp, but you have also recently joined the Chinese Charhar Institute as a senior research fellow. What was your first professional China experience like and how did Clingendael, ifa and Charhar come across each other? Who or what catalysed this intercontinental cooperation in public diplomacy research and what did you learn from this exchange with Chinese colleagues?
The collaboration with the Charhar Institute and Clingendael dates back to my first visit to China in 2011, when I was visiting scholar at China’s Foreign Affairs University (CFAU). I remember that stay in Beijing as one of the most stimulating moments in my career. Not only was I introduced to some of the country’s top scholars at institutions like CFAU, Peking University, Tsinghua and Renmin University in Beijing, and Fudan University in Shanghai. This exploratory trip also turned out to be a major eye opener in another respect: I learned that China is one of a few countries in the world with a distinguished tradition in the study of diplomacy. Three other findings stand out from my exchange with Chinese colleagues in this field. First of all, their enormous enthusiasm and drive in building warm and trusted relations has made it so easy for me to create strong and lasting bonds. Secondly, the long term view and entrepreneurial spirit that characterize the Chinese also left their mark on our contacts. Form the start in this venture we have always been thinking ahead. Third, the Chinese see real added value in the relationship with Europe. Our discussions over the past years can be characterized as a kind of joint public diplomacy laboratory. On the European side this has taught many of the newcomers involved in our activities that it is essential to take into account Chinese ideational and cultural perspectives and historical experiences. Fundamental on both sides is insight that our joint future can only be one that will be co-created.
On the level of forging networks, Chinese scholars assembled in the Charhar Institute took the lead in proposing a more institutionalized relationship, which was a first major step in Charhar’s internationalization strategy. The choice for Europe instead of the United States was a remarkable one. It has to do with the Chinese preference for Europe’s less politicized approach of public diplomacy and Europe’s recognition of ‘diversity’. Right from the inaugural conference in Beijing in 2012, the chemistry in this project has been very good. Ronald Grätz of the German Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen and Oliver Radtke at the Bosch Stiftung with its considerable China expertise were quick to pick up these positive vibes. A new coalition was born. With meetings in The Hague (2013), Shanghai (2014) and Berlin (2015) this project also gave an impulse to relations in Europe.
A hundred years ago, diplomacy was a highly exclusive practice with secret diplomacy even bearing bitter fruits of war. What will or should diplomacy look like in the future and what role should public diplomacy play in a globalized world?
The future of diplomacy is indeed fundamentally different from the traditional Westphalian model of state-to-state relations. It is clear, though that the state is here to stay and that sentiment is certainly prevailing in East Asia. More than in Europe, Asian governments adhere to the fundamental diplomatic norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries that, as the conventional argument goes, is upholding the system of states. At the same time, however, we see the rise of a plethora of other international actors that claim their rightful place at the international negotiation table. More important than their rise, though, is the fact that we see the emergence of a multi-actor environment. National policy-making and global problem-solving depend on ever deeper forms of collaboration between different types of official and non-governmental participants in the international game. Rather than juxtaposing state and non-state actors, their mutual dependence will become stronger. This is one element contributing to deep changes in the diplomatic space, the work processes needed to make diplomacy work, and indeed the DNA of diplomacy itself.
Much can be said about where diplomatic practice is or should be going, and more fundamental than anything else is probably that networking has become the conceptual basis of diplomacy today. National governments need to adapt to new rules of international relations and traditionally hierarchically organized foreign ministries are in the process of adapting to ‘horizontal’ dynamics. What gives individual diplomats added value is more and more determined by what they can contribute to networks in which officials and governments are no longer at the centre. This runs counter to traditional perceptions by officials. And then there is of course the new digital dimension showing up most aspects of diplomacy. Its major importance in this digital age is evident and for starters diplomatic functions will be re-defined to meet changing needs. The obvious example here is that gathering information may be easier for foreign ministries, but that processing and analyzing it will be much more complex.
It is important to see public diplomacy in this larger framework of diplomatic change, even to the point that the term public diplomacy may become redundant. Diplomacy simply includes public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is epiphenomenal, in other words: a symptom of wider patterns of change in diplomacy. The role of public diplomacy in a globalized world is that it helps including more and more people in diplomacy and it is much more than image promotion, or even relationship building. It helps solving international problems. Like all diplomacy, public diplomacy can be used for all sorts of purposes. The truth is, this includes undercutting one’s opponents, which brings us closer to propaganda and the use of modern means of communication to serve nationalist agenda’s. We can see examples of this in the sometimes tense international relationships in Northeast Asia.
A contemporary challenge in Europe’s public diplomacy development surely is the conceptualization of supranational public diplomacy. What do you think needs to be done? What would a – as you called it – more ‘structured’ European public diplomacy look like and how could this still allow for the diversity of voices that are traditionally at the heart of democracies and of the European Union?
There is of course no denying that the EU still has a number of headaches when it comes to foreign perceptions. The Eurozone crisis, the deteriorating relationship with Russia and the dramatic influx of refugees in the Eastern Mediterranean pose severe challenges, and they have exacerbated the image of European self-doubt. The good news is that we clearly see things changing for the better at the EU level, meaning that public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy are becoming a more central concern. EU communication with other parts of the world is growing increasingly important. Thankfully the EU is indeed losing some of its public diplomacy myopia. The EU’s so-called Partnership Instrument and new priorities in the EU Horizon 2020 research initiative are in my perception clear evidence that the European Commission and the External Action Service are developing ambitious strategies for EU engagement with the world. There is simply no alternative for a more active EU engagement with other emerging regions, with East Asia ranking as a top priority. But the EU should also be prepared to change and make sure that it will cast off its historical image as a ‘missionary actor’: public diplomacy is about sharing, mutuality and co-creation. It is not Infopolitik.
A more pronounced EU role may trigger national resistance, but we better see this as a normal occurrence in Europe’s body politic. It underlines the diversity of voices that communicate the very essence of what Europe is all about. The governments and people of the European Union do not see their EU as a top-down structure, and the essence of Europe is that it is pluralistic. In a 2013 Clingendael Policy Brief based on our book European Public Diplomacy, Mai’a Cross and I argued for making the best of the multi-level nature of Europe’s governmental environment: ‘The value-based discourse of regions and cities overlaps with European narratives … They are natural allies of the EU institutions that have helped them to extend their room for manoeuvre independently of the state, and there are numerous recent examples of town halls and foreign ministries that have successfully worked side by side. Europe also benefits from a remarkable group of city networks.’ At all of these levels the input from civil society actors matters a great deal.
On a more practical level, it is pertinent to create an environment with more transfer of experiences and skills in public diplomacy between states, the EU institutions and other players. In the interests of all, expertise could flow better across the different levels of the entire EU public diplomacy eco-system. I like to see Europe as a public diplomacy mosaic and laboratory. Essentially this mosaic should have connections between its big and small pieces. Europe’s public diplomacy system is in other words supposed to function as a network in which information flows and practices are shared. Like the roots of a ginger plant, the structure of this network develops in ways that can neither be planned nor predicted.
This year’s Sino-European Public Diplomacy Forum focuses on public diplomacy for Global Public Goods (GPGs) and includes controversial issues. This reminds me of the decision of the US embassy in Beijing to publicize sensitive air pollution data. It was daring, but in some aspects this helped change the way people in China thought about their rights on information and it firmly placed air pollution on Beijing’s political agenda. This illustrates a fundamental difficulty of doing public diplomacy in non-democratic states. In Germany, there are always debates about being either too moralistic or, conversely, too subservient as a hanger-on of the Chinese regime. It is surely hard to find channels for meaningful public diplomacy campaigns, and one has to adhere to many rules posed by China’s authoritarian political system. Do you have some advice and some golden rules for public diplomacy practitioners in China on how to manoeuvre between waltzing with the regime and meaningfully engaging with the public? How to keep a respectful but critical stance when engaging in meaningful public diplomacy?
The example of the US Embassy in Beijing publicizing pollution data is a wonderful illustration of public diplomacy’s capacity to penetrate foreign societies – accelerated and magnified by the social media – of informal people power, and of the increasingly blurred line between domestic issues and international relations. But it would not be helpful to portray this example in terms of a victory of the West over authoritarian rule. Generally speaking, the worst imaginable public diplomacy in China would of course be one that smacks of delegitimizing China’s political system or lack of mutual respect. When it comes to dealing with China it makes a lot of sense to keep all channels of communication open, including those connecting with the party-state. And as far as there is a ‘European model’, values, norms and practices underpinning this model can serve by example – not by peddling Europe but by doing things right. Public diplomacy can sometimes be equally effective at home rather than in China. The growing influx of Chinese students on European university campuses gives many thousands of them in their formative years an excellent opportunity to make up their own minds about what they see and experience. When it comes to public diplomacy actions inside China, for Europeans it is important to keep an eye on the diversity of the relationship. The Chinese government made this point during President Xi Jinping’s tour of Europe in 2014, but most European media did not pick up this underlying theme. It should be superfluous to say that Chinese people are not mere economic animals. Fortunately there is a growing awareness in Europe that framing contacts as ‘just business’ would impoverish the relationship potential and amount to missing multiple opportunities. One of the keys of public diplomacy towards China lies in people-to-people initiatives, i.e. all sorts of collaborative projects, economic and otherwise, between Europeans and Chinese. Many initiatives are already being taken, this is a promising development and European governments are advised to develop their facilitating skills and – where possible – be more effective by staying in the background.
The dichotomy between moralizing China and waltzing with the system is a false one. The golden rule is called common sense. Both sides will get better from forging relationships based on their own values whilst welcoming the other side with an open mind. It stands to reason that there are less opportunities for engagement with the public when compared with public diplomacy within the European Union, but both Chinese and Europeans inhabit a world in which we see a thickening pattern of transnational, non-official relations.
Prof. Dr. JAN MELISSEN is an expert in diplomacy and foreign affairs and Senior Research Fellow, Netherlands Institute of International Relations „Clingendael“, The Hague, Professor of Diplomacy University of Antwerp, Senior Research Fellow Charhar Institute, China, and Co-Editor The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. He was one of the initiators of this Public Diplomacy Forum series.
Interview: Ines Sieckmann