[Ma Young-sam] Public diplomacy and citizen ambassadors

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Jan 5, 2014 - 19:27
  • Updated : Jan 5, 2014 - 19:27
Korean newspapers recently carried a photo of the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, holding a calligraphic work with “friend” in Japanese at Mangokuura Elementary School in the northeastern city of Ishinomaki. This region was one of many hit by the devastating 2011 tsunami. Cal Ripken Jr., a Major League Baseball hero, coached orphans in China as a special envoy of public diplomacy appointed by the U.S. State Department. President Barack Obama visited Shanghai in 2009 and participated in a dialogue with university students. Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong celebrated the opening of a Confucius institute at Stony Brook University in New York. Last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping embraced old friends in Muscatine, Iowa, a town he had visited 27 years earlier on an agricultural research trip.

By the same token, a photo of Korean Olympic medalists paying respect to Korean War veterans at London’s St. Paul Cathedral caught the attention of many netizens. These athletes wanted to express their deepest gratitude to the veterans, a sign that Koreans will remember and cherish their sacrifices forever. The war veterans and their families may have felt a special sentiment toward the Korean Olympic team when they observed Korea’s spectacular performances at the London Olympics.

Such actions by the world leaders, celebrities and individuals can be seen as good examples of public diplomacy in practice and thereby depicting the development of a new frontier in foreign policy for the upcoming “G2 era.”

Traditionally, diplomacy was defined as communication and negotiation between governments. However, since the aftermath of 9/11, traditional diplomacy focusing on military and economic power has reached its limit. According to Joseph Nye, an American political scientist, governments focusing exclusively on hard-power principles will no longer be able to achieve their diplomatic objectives. Instead, governments need to incorporate the hard power with soft power such as culture, art, music and sports to devise successful foreign policy.

The U.S. government accepted this theory and made public diplomacy an important aspect of its foreign policy. Large amounts of financial and human resources were designated toward its public diplomacy programs. Moreover, China, the world’s second-largest economy, has also decided to utilize public diplomacy as a means of alleviating concerns regarding its ambitions. Other states are following in the footsteps of the U.S. and China. The British Council and Wilton Park both have long been successfully pursuing London’s public diplomacy. France’s numerous language institutes and its culture centers throughout the world have attracted many young adults. The use of government-funded media for public diplomacy is also widespread. Global news networks such as Voice of America, England’s BBC, and China’s CCTV are affecting not only their own citizens, but the entire global population.

However, public diplomacy is not one-way communication and requires more than public relations. Genuine public diplomacy requires an exchange of sports and cultural performance teams. Only then can differing governments and citizens feel a connection and affinity with one another. Public diplomacy usually does not produce immediate outcomes, but requires long-term strategy and vision that brings results more slowly than we are accustomed to seeing.

In contrast, Korea’s public diplomacy is still in its beginning stages. As Korea’s economy depends heavily on foreign trade and investment, it will need to promote its cultural image and maintain good relationships within the international community. Fortunately, Korea has assets to use in its public diplomacy, including its model of rapid economic and high-tech growth, its rich culture and high popularity of K-pop, the international recognition of Korean movies and television dramas, and the perception of Korea being a strong sports competitor. Moreover, having the highest-speed Internet connection in the world will also act to its advantage in its public diplomacy programs.

Each government wants to win the hearts and minds of foreigners through public diplomacy. By reanalyzing and upgrading both traditional and modern culture, countries can craft emotional bonds with each other on the international stage. This cannot be done by governments alone. Nongovernmental organizations, corporations, media, scholars and the general public all need to play a part. Countries should realize that their international image is made through their respective citizens.

Some might believe that public diplomacy is out of their reach. But in reality, citizens can implement public diplomacy in their daily lives. The simple act of sharing one’s culture and customs with foreign friends while respecting their differences is key to public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is something that can be done by everyone. Diplomats are not the only representatives of their countries, but every individual can act as an ambassador ― a true citizen ambassador.

By Ma Young-sam

The writer is Korea’s ambassador for public diplomacy, former ambassador to Israel and representative to the Palestinian Authority. ― Ed.