Canada and the New Public Diplomacy

By Potter, Evan | International Journal, April 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Canada and the New Public Diplomacy

Potter, Evan, International Journal

Assistant Professor, Department of Communications, University of Ottawa; and Special Adviser (Communications), Policy Planning Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The views in this article reflect those of the author and do not necessarily represent the positions of the government of Canada. I would like to thank members of the Policy Planning Division and the International Cultural Relations Bureau at DFAIT for their insights. I am also grateful for the detailed comments from the anonymous reviewers.


We are witnessing a fundamental shift in how nations manage their international relations. National interests are advanced abroad through events and actions that go well beyond the classic diplomacy of communiques, demarches, and aide memoires. Foreign ministries must now devise programmes and muster complex coalitions involving the wider public aimed directly at specific problems rather than simply urge governments or international organizations to act. It is a cliche to say that the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and the subsequent public relations campaign by the United States and its allies to win understanding in the Arab and Islamic worlds have changed 'everything.' Nonetheless, this tragedy has enabled public diplomacy, 'once the stepchild of diplomats,' in the words of David Hoffman, to assume its rightful place at the centre of diplomatic relations.(1)

In this new world, knowledge, culture, and communications are the key, not only to technological progress and economic prosperity, but also to social cohesion and sustainable development. There is concern that the powerful engine of the global economy will roll over cultural diversity, fragile social and political systems, and state sovereignty itself. In this world of instant and ubiquitous communication, hyper text (a document on the World Wide Web that has links to other text, sound, images), and easy travel, the ideas, images, and values that motivate citizens take on an importance and power never known before. As Akihiko Tanaka says, 'word politics' is becoming more important in world politics.(2)

In other words, image counts for a lot in contemporary world politics. Whether a country needs to build international coalitions against terrorism, co-operate to protect the environment, attract foreign investment, or bring in foreign students, influencing foreign public opinion is critical to national success because, in the absence of substantial military or economic weight, most countries are the image or 'words' they project abroad. Their room to manoeuvre is affected by their image, or soft power, so that all points of contact - whether promoting policies or exporting - will feed off this general image in both positive and negative ways.(3) The diplomatic advantage goes to countries that are able to present distinct voices or 'information edges,'(4) attract broad non-governmental support, and project three-dimensional national images. Forging relationships with citizens in other countries is now as important as talking to their governments. More than a decade ago, Allan Gotlieb, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, summed up his experience: 'The new diplomacy, as I call it, is, to a large extent, public diplomacy and requires different skills, techniques, and attitudes than those found in traditional diplomacy.'(5)

This article examines the extent to which Canada as a middle power has embraced this new diplomacy and describes how Canada is positioned to develop the 'information edge' in its diplomacy. My thesis is that a middle power such as Canada, with a limited ability to influence the global public discussion, must give its image serious attention because Canada's global influence today depends increasingly on factors that transcend raw economic or military power and that appeal to public perceptions abroad.

Despite the severe budget cuts of the 1990s, Canada still brings formidable assets to the table: a bricks and mortar network of 160 embassies and trade offices abroad linked by the most advanced information technology infrastructure of any foreign ministry in the world; extensive experience with civil society groups on sensitive international trade and security issues; the enshrining of culture and values as a 'third pillar' of Canada's foreign policy following a parliamentary foreign policy review in 1995; and global leadership in providing all government services on-line. …

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