Expectations Grow for New Public Diplomacy as Government-to-Government Diplomacy Stagnates: Experts

March 19, 2014

Video: Japanese Only

Seiichi KondoSeiichi Kondo, Former Commissioner of Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs

Hatsuhisa TakashimaHatsuhisa Takashima, Special Adviser of Japan International Broadcasting Inc.

Yasushi WatanabeYasushi Watanabe, Professor of the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University's Graduate School of Media and Governance.

Yasushi KudoYasushi Kudo, President of The Genron NPO

With a stalemate lingering in formal diplomacy with neighboring countries --China and South Korea -- over the issues of history perception and territorial disputes, not a few Japanese are looking with greater expectations for alternative options for improving bilateral relations.

Among them is "public diplomacy" that is aimed at influencing public opinion in other countries, the efforts made not only by government but also by civic organizations. Such informal diplomacy can play a greater role, particularly when two governments continue making nationalistic claims against each other, agree experts.

Public diplomacy emerged during World War I, when governments actively attempted to influence public opinion in enemy nations as a means of wartime propaganda, points out Seiichi Kondo, the former commissioner of Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs. He currently heads his think tank, the Kondo Research Institute of Cultural and Foreign Affairs.

"New and diverse actors have appeared on the stage of public diplomacy year after year since around the 1980s, including TV and other media, and more recently the Internet," he says. Now many people believe that governments may be able to exercise their diplomatic policies more effectively after all by facilitating those new actors, instead of excluding them, or trying to control flows of information or image-building. Such an idea has developed into what is today called "new public diplomacy."

According to a recent survey conducted this February by The Genron NPO, as many as 87 percent of the 179 selected intellectual respondents expressed their expectations for greater civil diplomacy in diverse forms when government-to-government diplomacy does not function well as seen between Japan and South Korea/China. In another survey one month earlier, more than 70 percent of the respondents insisted it is difficult to handle diplomacy only through formal government channels.

Kondo agrees that governments may simply continue pushing only formal claims simply to displease or antagonize the other party in the bilateral relationship. But, when top leaders can informally hold discussions on the basis of personal channels, it can open new doors eventually. When it does not work that way, intellectuals, and private- and civic-sector actors can take initiatives in building public opinion, and consequently provide new space for governments or top leaders to make adjustments to their formal claim, according to him.

If bilateral networks are built expansively at all levels, they can possibly pave the way for governments to reopen dialogue channels, agrees Yasushi Watanabe, a professor of the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University's Graduate School of Media and Governance.

"It is extremely significant to listen to the voices of non-governmental organizations and also of other groups experienced in exchange activities, sports and cultural figures, and business people familiar with the other country and even students from the other country," he says. Their views and visions can feed ideas for easing confrontational tensions, and for improving diplomatic relations, he explains.

Meanwhile, the Japanese would like to see their government take diplomatic action to engage global challenges and inform the world about its actions, according to Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO. The organization's recent polls indicate that 40 percent of the respondents believe public diplomacy should be promoted by civic forces; 44 percent thinks it should be done in collaboration with the government and civic forces; while only 4.1 percent says the government should be a primary player in public diplomacy. Civil society players, including Kudo himself, are interested in playing a role in new public diplomacy, he assures.

It is very important (for Japan) to be proactive in solving global challenges and thus to be recognized as a nation worthy of respect in the international community, according to Hatsuhisa Takashima, special adviser of Japan International Broadcasting Inc., the English-language station of the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (known as NHK). It is in fact stipulated as a national goal in the postwar Constitution of Japan. The Japanese public shares such a view because postwar Japan fostered such a principle by pledging to be a pacifist nation, he thinks.

"The government may place emphasis on national interests while the public may be deeply concerned about the interests of the international community," Takashima says. "Letting the world know (of such a fact) will help to improve Japan's image, too."

National interests do not yet go hand in hand often with the interests of the international community, notes Kondo. It is seen in debates over climate change, for example. Japan's drastic carbon dioxide reduction is making a great contribution to the globe while industries at home may not like it as they would face higher energy bills. It is where civil initiatives are called for.

"Not powerful interest group lobbies, industries or political groups, but ordinary citizens or consumers should actively discuss the issue, examining themselves if they would agree to reduce power consumption or if they would not endure it," he says. "Their decisions will then contribute to upgrade the quality of Japan's diplomacy," he says.

Experts also discuss how new public diplomacy can be distinguished from propaganda that is exclusively for the sake of a single nation's interests.

Professor Watanabe points out that public diplomacy is defined differently today, compared to the past. The Japanese government has endeavored in making appeals to the public in America, Europe and China about Japan's positive aspects, including its contributions to the world. But, he thinks, it is not sufficient.

"It is today said to work best when it appears least like propaganda," he says. "We need active and strong civic exchanges, in addition, to prevent a vicious cycle of blow for blow, tit for tat." It is very important for the peoples of respective countries to build mutual confidence by getting to know each other well, including their admirable aspects and shortcomings.

Excerpts of their remarks on other issues:

Agenda of medium- and long-term diplomatic visions

Japan has missed the opportunity to provide space for a wide range of panels for discussing expansively the country's diplomatic visions. We should have more opportunities for intellectuals and citizens to openly discuss the true public interests of the country, like the British Council. It will help Japan's democracy to mature and will have a positive impact on Japanese diplomacy.

Regarding role of media

When we discuss public opinion or national interests, we see they are closely related to the (behavior of) media. The Japanese media appear to be domesticated in a way, as all the press coverage is shackled to national interests.

The media plays an important role in public diplomacy as it is seen with the British Broadcasting Corp. Because the BBC is independent from the government, British public diplomacy works well. We would like to train the Japanese so that we will have a greater number of people telling the world about Japan through the Japanese media, or at international conferences or global communication setups.

Like-minded global networks as diplomatic safety net

Even when government-to-government relations deteriorate, it should not prevent bilateral civic exchanges. Even amid serious tensions, governments could agree on certain rules to build such a consensus. Civic forces should collaborate with global network organizations, such as the Davos conferences (of the World Economic Forum) or Project Syndicate so that they can win the support of like-minded groups around the globe. They can together build common ground for cross-border dialogues in a manner that no one can oppose.

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