Skip to content
May 18, 2000


Going public: Diplomacy for the information society

Mark Leonard and Vidhya Alakeson



1. Introduction:
Rethinking diplomacy for the information society

Part One. The age of people power: the three great transformations that are reshaping the world
2. From the security of states to the safety of people
3. How the rise of democracy is reshaping sovereignty
4.Why the information society is turning the rules of economics upside down

Part Two.The changing dynamics of diplomacy: the role of public opinion and values in a multilateral age
5. The power of attraction, the limits of coercion
6. Why government-to-government contact isn’t enough: Britain’s diplomatic challenges in practice

Part Three. Going Public: putting the new diplomacy into practice
7. The new diplomacy: fusing traditional and public diplomacy
8.Conclusion: six signposts to put the new diplomacy into practice

Mark Leonard is Director of The Foreign Policy Centre. He invented the idea of ‘rebranding Britain’ and is a member of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office Panel 2000, the taskforce that advises the Foreign Secretary on promoting Britain abroad. His groundbreaking reports on European reform and public legitimacy, including Network Europe, Rediscovering Europe and Making Europe Popular have influenced EU governments and the European Commission, and have been published in several languages.

Vidhya Alakeson, a member of the New Policy Network, is a former Researcher at The Foreign Policy Centre. She is co-author of New Visions for Europe: The Millennium Pledge, published in advance of the 1999 Helsinki summit, and coordinated the Centre’s New Visions for Europe project, run in association with Clifford Chance. Vidhya studied at the London School of Economics and Oxford University.

Article first published in IT Insight Magazine, August 2000

Mark Leonard argues that Governments are unable to achieve their policy objectives unless they build public trust abroad.

The era in which the world was carved up over brandy and cigars has gone forever. The inexorable spread of democracy worldwide means that public opinion is a stronger force than ever before. Yet Foreign Ministries have concentrated efforts on arguing a well-honed case to their opposite number in another foreign capital. Important though these traditional diplomatic skills are, they need to be complimented by efforts to engage ordinary people.

This simple truth was demonstrated during last year’s Anglo-French beef war. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin admitted privately that British Beef was safe. But the French public’s mistrust of British safety standards tied his hands, scuppering any attempt at negotiation. The international coalition on Kosovo, the furore over British Nuclear Fuels in Germany and Japan, and the trade talks at Seattle are all issues which were entirely shaped by public opinion. We have to find effective ways of communicating with publics, as well as Governments abroad if we are to realise our national goals. But this means a change of strategy.

New technologies – from desktop publishing to the internet – have proved a liberating force: dragging democracy and markets in their wake. We used to have Orwellian nightmares of the state developing new technologies to control us all. Now we realise the opposite is true: technology has proved far more effective at threatening dictatorships than the will of the international community. The stamp of the censor becomes pretty redundant when any document can be emailed anywhere in the world within seconds.

But the power the new technologies have given to protest movements mean that Governments have to find new ways of putting their case. The wall-to-wall coverage of last year’s Seattle protests show that well-organised demonstrators have the power to wrest the agenda from Governments at major international summits. The web enabled the anti-globalisation warriors dispersed world-wide to co-ordinate their message- leaving politicians looking cowed and out of touch.

We won’t win hearts and minds by proselytising about Britain like missionaries to the unconverted. We have to offer people practical services that they will want. Here our diplomats can learn from the philosophy and techniques of the IT industry. The BBC World Service, the British Council and the Design Council have sponsored a project by the Foreign Policy Centre to look at how Government should take these kind of policies forward when communicating with publics abroad. As I argue in my new pamphlet Going Public: Diplomacy In The Information Age, long-trends, fuelled by the democratisation of technology, have changed diplomacy forever.

The Government has enthusiastically embraced the technology of our age – but has been slow to understand how it will change the very relationships between G overnment and citizens. The buzzwords of the net – “community” “chatroom” “communities of interest” show that seeing policy from the perspective of a Government Department, a region of the world or even an individual country no longer works. One-size fits all information will carry little weight when people are used to receiving tailored information; statements of policy will appear irrelevant to a public used to a consumer ethos in which their specific questions are answered.

Currently the Governments e-strategy still appears producer led. At their worst, Government websites become a dusty repository for minor ministerial speeches and stale press releases. But even the attractive, well-produced sites around Whitehall are plagued by departmentalitis. If a business wanted to find out information about setting up an office abroad through the internet, they would be led through a labyrinth of different websites. They would have to tour the Foreign Office website (for travel advice), the DTI website (for export information) the DSS website (for employee information) to cover the basics.

But a few recent initiatives show that lessons are being learned. The Cabinet Office’s web version of the much-maligned Government Annual Report has proved a quiet success. It allows voters to enter their postcode and find out whether local hospitals and schools are recruiting staff: basic information that would be too expensive to disseminate in other ways.

Those seeking to create new markets often need to hit critical mass for their products to take off, especially in the sectors of information and communications. The first telephone and fax machines were of limited use – because there was no one else to communicate with. Many netizens continue to promote the idea that “information just wants to be free”. Britain should learn from Microsoft, Cellnet and Vodafone’s scramble to give away products for free – hoping to set the industry standard. We could offer free financial services and expertise to developing countries, locking them in to British suppliers for future orders.

The British Council should also exploit the opportunities of IT to sell our greatest natural resource: the English language. It should use the web and other broadcast media to bring language learning to mass audiences, in collaboration with quality UK control providers, media specialists such as the BBC and the Open University, and with local partners. It could bring English language training to as many as five million people rather than the 125 000 it reaches today. They should also take a leaf out of Microsoft’s book and give away free beginners courses via the Internet. This would not only encourage people to buy further language products from the council, but also encourage valuable links between Britain and millions of people overseas.

There are many “loss leader” ideas worth exploring which could tackle the anachronistic stereotypes of Britain abroad. The British Council’s cyber-cafes in Moscow build rare goodwill in a society where perceptions of the West are overwhelmingly negative. The British Council and the World Service should extend this to a network of portal sites giving people around the world access to the best of British education, culture and healthcare. This could include NHS direct; free access to the contents of The British Library and other university galleries; and virtual tours of national museums and galleries.

The scourge of the information age – “too much information”- provides opportunities for Britain build on its credibility abroad. Just as we learn which brands we want to trust, countries and their national broadcasters depend on their ability to command attention in an era of information overload. Establishing credibility means developing a reputation for providing quality products and correct information – even when it may reflect badly on the information provider’s own country. The World Service is uniquely placed to do this. It could reach more people through its online site by becoming the free news content provider for leading internet service providers. Diplomatic posts could set targets for the number of people reached and the quality of connection and follow-up.

It should also become a highly valued partner overseas by working with local communities where, as well as persuading local stations to broadcast BBC material, it could agree to carry locally produced programmes on its airspace or online. It could also extend to other areas of conflict the refugees assistance programme, which sought to put refugees back in touch with their families during the Kosovo conflict.

It has become a truism in politics that there is nothing so vacuous as a speech by a leading politician on technological change: from Harold Wilson’s grandiloquent “white heat of technology” to Al Gore’s short-lived claim to have invented the Internet. Politicians stand accused of lacking a vision or bathing in the reflected glory of others when conjuring up their shiny visions of the future. Perhaps this is why political elites throughout the world have been slow to articulate the enormous impact of information technology on global politics.

But the stakes are high. In the last century, the British Foreign Service was held up as a model for the rest of the world. To continue to win power and influence in today’s world, we cannot rely on our ministers and diplomats alone. Britain can win competitive advantage – not just for our political elites – but also for our businesses, NGOs and citizens – if we take on board the reality of the new diplomacy and develop the flexibility to combine our traditional and public diplomacy skills. If we grasp the challenge now, we can be as influential in the information society as we were in the industrial age.

Read More
Share on social media :

 Join our mailing list 

Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre