Though it has begun well, India has miles to go for securing optimal projection of its foreign policy concerns.

Confidentiality and conventional diplomacy go together. As diplomacy is about communication and negotiation involving governments, they have inevitably to undertake their sensitive work outside the media's reach.

However, the 21st century is characterised by globalisation, assertive public opinion, an ever present 24x7 media and Web 2.0 technology. This combination lends increased significance to public diplomacy. Recognising the magnitude of the changing scene, India has begun well, but it has miles to go for securing optimal projection of its foreign policy concerns.

What is public diplomacy? Barack Obama told the Indian Parliament that he was “mindful” he might not be standing before it as the U.S. President “had it not been for Gandhi[ji] and the message he shared and inspired with America and the world.” Michelle Obama won hearts by dancing with Indian children. Carla Bruni, the French President's wife, communicated by doing a perfect namaste, besides informing the public that she prayed for “another son” at a shrine near Agra. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed that China and India “would always be friends and would never be rivals.” Our distinguished guests were thus using tools of public diplomacy to connect with their hosts in India.

Public diplomacy is a web of mechanisms through which a country's foreign policy positions are transmitted to its target audiences. The term was first used by U.S. diplomat and scholar Edmund Guillion in 1965. He saw it as “dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy, the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries …” Indian diplomats, however, rightly maintain that public diplomacy has to do with both foreign and domestic audiences. When you put out a story on television, blog or YouTube today, it is consumed by a university student in Bhopal as much as by a financial analyst in Toronto.

Delhi conference: Recently the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) hosted, in collaboration with the CMS Academy, a two-day conference and workshop in Delhi to explore the challenges of “Public Diplomacy in the Information Age.” Attended by a cross-section of scholars, communication experts, media personalities, business leaders and diplomats, it aimed at crafting a new understanding of how India could exploit the full potential of public diplomacy.

Participants, including this writer, gained much from the presence of four top experts in public diplomacy and communication in the world today, namely Nicholas J. Cull and Philip Seib, both professors from the University of Southern California, Prof Eytan Gilboa from the Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Nik Gowing, chief presenter, BBC. Select panels of Indian and foreign speakers, interacting with an informed audience, examined diverse themes such as “Public Diplomacy in a Globalized World,” “21st Century Statecraft and Soft Power,” “24x7 News and Public diplomacy,” “Web 2.0 and the New Public Diplomacy,” and “Corporate Diplomacy.” Three workshops were also held focussing on fascinating aspects of the subject. It may be useful to recall the key takeaways for a broader audience interested in foreign policy projection.

Key conclusions: First, public diplomacy and “new public diplomacy” (which uses social media tools for reaching younger audiences) need to be situated in the post-Cold War context. With a clear trend towards multipolarity, globalisation and democracy, non-state actors, NGOs, business enterprises and others have been playing an increasingly important role. The emergence of global television and Internet-based communication have now empowered governments to reach out to constituencies as spin doctors of yesterday could hardly dream of. Hence the importance of the medium has grown enormously.

Second, the message nevertheless retains its significance: if it is not clear and credible, it will not get through. The former Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor, suggested that while “Incredible India” has been a great campaign, what we needed was to project a “credible India.”

Third, the link between public diplomacy and foreign policy formulation is inextricable. If policy is flawed, projection alone cannot help. Therefore, senior public diplomacy officials should have a seat on the policy-making table.

Fourth, thinking about how to put across one's message has undergone a fundamental change. The advice now is to transcend government-to-public communication and, instead, focus on two-way communication, on “advancing conversations.” Public diplomacy is about listening and articulating. Beyond the traditional media, the cyber space sustains a “Republic of Internet” and a “Nation of Facebook” which cannot be ignored. If the government does not cater to their needs, someone else, possibly with an adversarial orientation, will. Perhaps this perspective led the MEA to embark on a new journey last year, establishing an interactive website, a Twitter channel, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, a BlogSpot page and a presence in online publishing sites like Scribd and Issuu. These may still be “baby steps,” but they are laudable.

Fifth, the importance of speed in communication was repeatedly stressed. “Tyranny of deadline,” impact of the ticker, “Breaking news” and “citizen-journalist” were referred to. Image managers no longer have the luxury of time nor leisurely weekends. Addressing them, a television professional put it bluntly: “If we don't sleep, you don't sleep!”

Sixth, management tools such as planning and evaluation are essential for devising and assessing the impact of public diplomacy strategies. They clearly form part of a continuing process, to be handled with transparency, integrity and professionalism.

Finally, the concept of nation branding is highly relevant to the task of projecting India.

After the conference, Prof. Seib, a keynote speaker, reportedly observed that India lacked “a consistent profile that it can present to the world,” that it did not have “a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy.” I find it difficult to accept this assessment. India's foray into public diplomacy in the digital era may be new, but it can certainly lay claim to a decent record of projection abroad. Turning Western public opinion in Delhi's favour prior to the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 is a shining example. India has a broader conception of public diplomacy encompassing all facets: media, cultural, educational, and economic and Diaspora diplomacy. Speaking at the conference, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao aptly observed that “the tradition of public outreach and interpretation of foreign policy positions” had been “ingrained in our conditioning as diplomats.”

Tasks ahead: In the MEA, projection is driven by the External Publicity division as well as the Public Diplomacy division. Beyond them, the bulk of work is handled by our missions abroad, often the unnoticed members of our collective choir.

They all perform very well, but room for improvement exists. Our ambassadors should be trained to become savvier at handling TV interviews. Our diplomats should rapidly acquire skills relating to Web 2.0 technology. The rising importance of non-state actors should be factored in fully.

Finally, the striking disconnect between India's self-perception and the world's view should be addressed. Amidst unprecedented visits by leaders of all P-5 states within five months, our nation's attention was primarily focussed on internal concerns — scams, onion prices and excessive politics. Assuming we want India to become a truly Great Power, we, as a polity, must deepen interest in world affairs. The MEA would do well to use all its weaponry of public diplomacy to increase our awareness of the world and India's place in it. It must sustain its initiatives to project India's soft power. The task begins at home!

(The author is a former ambassador with considerable media experience.)

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