Some Lessons from ISA 2012

April 10th, 2012   by Craig Hayden

So I’m still trying to digest all that I learned from this year’s International Studies Association annual convention. For the first time, there was simply no way to attend all the panels pertaining to public diplomacy and strategic communication. That’s a good thing. I also learned that issues central to public diplomacy and strategic communication studies – information and communication technologies, the politics of information, and the mediatization/mediation of politics – are being eagerly studied across a range of related fields of international studies. I felt the sneaking suspicion that public diplomacy studies, in particular, needs to “get with the program” or else be left behind by more traditional forms of international studies research. This was made evident in my participation in the New Media and Foreign Policy” working group, and in many other panels.

There’s much more than I can put forth in one blog post. But a brief summary of some key insights:

I) Critical Inquiry. The political economy of information technology is increasingly relevant to public diplomacy-related concerns. Put simply, we need to be aware of the critical implications of foreign policies that seek to deal with the global infrastructure of communication. I do not mean simply governance – but how policies (like the US “Internet Freedom” agenda) work to forward broader soft and hard power objectives. Jillian York‘s presentation to the New Media working group, in particular, highlighted the issues at stake when the US spends money on technologies to allow foreign publics to circumvent network authoritarian control, while at the same time allowing US companies to export the technologies that enable censorship abroad.

II) What are publics? A number of paper’s grappled with the issue of audience analysis. Steven Corman‘s paper on audience segmentation leaps to mind. There was an evident concern with how we understand publics as politically effective, as necessary for foreign policy objectives, and as audiences to be reached through particular communication tactics.

III) Theory. Eytan Gilboa‘s paper called for a language for PD theory that can be shared by practitioners and scholars. Not sure I necessarily agree with this, but it does point to the need for more coherent terms and categories, something that Robin Brown argued for in his paper. Caitlin Byrne‘s paper on the utility of constructivist IR theory in PD research was a refreshing stance, and illustrated how constructivist research could provide some theoretical coherence to PD studies, while PD could offer constructivism a vehicle for analysis. Indeed, the charge of PD to shape an iterative process of mutual understanding between states, let alone publics, seems to point to PD as a kind of “applied constructivism.” Yiwei Wang‘s linkage of soft power to national identity was also important call to contextualize some of the key theoretical warrants for why states engage in soft power. His assertion that the US position on soft power comes from a position of unquestioned legitimacy (read: the US is always “right”), was a helpful reminder to broaden our understanding of how states interpret soft power and public diplomacy. Gary Rawnsley‘s study of Taiwanese soft power programs also illustrated the problems with the “architecture” of public diplomacy programs, which reflect how states fail to adapt to the requirements of wielding soft power effectively. Rawnsley’s analysis shows a consequence of a problematic architecture: Taiwan is trying to promote the wrong thing in order to cultivate soft power. Instead of amplifying the message that Taiwan was a steward of Chinese culture, it should highlight its unique status as a Chinese democracy.

IV) Method. Many of the papers, including ones previously mentioned, argued for more comparative work. Public diplomacy and strategic communication are too often understood from the US experience. It was again important to see that scholars have taken up the charge to internationalize PD studies. I was also struck by some smaller scale studies, that opened up new lines of systematic inquiry. Emily Metzgar’s research on Japan’s JET program was a straightforward and illuminating study of public diplomacy program effects, that also helped to provide a route towards measurement strategies that are seemingly lacking amongst PD practitioners. Frank Smith‘s work on science diplomacy, through a study of a US Navy program in Indonesia, was a very insightful study, illustrating the tensions between the politics and the science at stake in understanding how science diplomacy actually works in context.

Bigger questions seemed to animate a lot of the panels across the conference. Questions that dealt with how academics understood the way technology transformed contentious politics, democratic action, and the practice of statecraft. It was clear that this scholarly community is attempting to understand how the context of network-enabling information technologies are transforming the traditional institutions of international politics – from conceptions of action and identity to governance and diplomacy. There was a clear sense that while maybe some theories relevant to international studies may yet hold, our sense of the practice of things like public diplomacy needs to catch up with reality. It was also clear that insights from outside the traditional sphere of international relations/political science might yet shed some light on communication and media effects, the cultural foundations of new media ecologies, and the constitutive effects of communication on international institutions.

There were many more papers and authors I would have liked to mention here. Suffice to say it was a stimulating, at times frustrating, and inspiring conference. I’ll dig deeper into some of the issues raised at ISA in future posts.

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