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Margot Wallström

Vice-President of the European Commission

Public Diplomacy and its role in the EU's external relations

Mortara Center for International Studies, Georgetown University
Washington DC, 2 October 2008

Let me begin by thanking you for your generous welcome. It is a great pleasure to be back in Washington again. I attach as much importance to my meetings with students and young people as I do with political and economic leaders; so it is good to see so many of you today.

I hope that we'll have plenty of time for questions and answers after my speech because Georgetown students and indeed Washingtonians in general, have an enviable reputation for knowing their stuff and for saying what they think. Don't let me down!

We Europeans believe that public diplomacy plays a special role in the external relations of the European Union.

One of the fundamental strengths of the transatlantic alliance is that the EU and the USA not only share a common set of basic values – universal values - but also broadly similar foreign policy objectives. However, the diplomatic and other resources we respectively deploy, and the methods we use, can be very different and this is reflected in our approaches to public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy as a concept is not new, as many commentators constantly remind us. What is new is that despite residual scepticism by many 'classical' diplomats, public diplomacy is now broadly accepted as an essential arm of external relations. It is evolving rapidly in a world where the communication technology revolution has completely transformed how information is transmitted and who has access to it. The real technological leap is that one individual today can do mass communication. Just think of the importance of blogs. And the use “You tube” in your Presidential elections.

Diplomacy can no longer afford to be a question of 'sending good men and women abroad to lie for their country' as the old joke had it. In managing our external relations abroad we of course still concentrate heavily on identifying and working with key decision makers who can influence our bilateral relations. As I see it communication is one of the important tools for building and sustaining democracy. Increasingly diplomacy can only be effective if it reaches out much more widely. The concept of 'key decision makers,' especially on some of the most urgent global issues like climate change, democracy and human rights, and economic development, is no longer a question of an elite in smoke filled rooms; we need to know and understand a much wider and widely dispersed network of individual and groups, who, in turn, need to know and understand more about us.

This is not an exercise in 'national branding'; it is not 'propaganda', because we know that this does not work. It is the recognition of a fundamental shift, and especially so in relatively open societies, of how power, influence and decision-making has spread, and how complex it has become.

Nicholas Cull, who teaches public diplomacy, outlines seven key lessons for public diplomacy.

First; Effective public diplomacy begins with listening. That means listening to what citizens are saying and thinking, and not just what officials would like us to hear, or what we would like to hear. This is why our 130 EU Delegations around the world have local staff dedicated to building up relations with the people we need to listen to. In my job I call it putting ears on the EU.

Second; Public diplomacy must be connected to policy. In short good public diplomacy is essential in publicizing and explaining policy but cannot save bad ones. If citizens see that their governments are tackling the “right” issues, and ‘their’ issues, it increases their democratic legitimacy.

Here, the EU is not in a bad position. The fact that the EU and its member states provide the majority of the world’s development aid or that the EU is the world leader in the fight against climate change are good calling cards in many places.

Third; Public diplomacy is not for domestic consumption. It is essential to understand that public diplomacy, both in its tone and its targeting, as with all communication exercises, has to be carefully matched to the environment in which it is practiced. You have to 'go local'. Here, the EU is in a curious position: for many citizens, the other 26 member states are still “abroad”. The 5th round of EU enlargement, which saw 12 new members join between 2004 and 2007, has shown us how diverse the EU itself is. This also enables us to better target our communication work inside the EU.

Fourth; Public diplomacy must be credible, and be seen to be credible. When public diplomacy messages and activities fail, this often happens simply because the target groups see the messenger not the message. They fail to make a distinction between 'sophisticated propaganda' and a real attempt to engage in public dialogue and understanding.

Fifth; Credible public diplomacy often depends on the activities of well informed intermediaries. Academics, businesspeople, civil society organisations and journalists can engage far more effectively with the wider public than diplomats can. For example, this year, the European Union has brought 19 groups of journalists from places as different as Ukraine and Japan, Brazil and Norway to spend time in Brussels, talking to officials, of course, but also to academics and fellow journalists, businessmen and local or European politicians about what the EU is and what it does on a daily basis.

Sixth; Public diplomacy should be about far more than national branding and limited bilateral objectives. And finally,

Seventh; Public diplomacy is everyone's business. In our globalised and connected world, we are subject to a barrage of impressions not only from 'the professionals' in the diplomatic services, official media and cultural bodies but also from many other sources, not least the internet.

To Nicholas Cull's 'seven lessons' I would add three more:

Public diplomacy cannot be effective unless it devotes as much attention outside the capital as within it. We call it going local. That is why the EU delegation in China, for example, recently spent a lot of time on the road, taking exhibitions and giving seminars about climate change to all major provincial cities.

Public diplomacy should reflect not only what we do or want to do; but also what we are and what we stand for. As we move towards a new and uncertain global order, this is probably more important than it has ever been. The values we considered self evident before, may not always be so in future.

And last, but not least. Public diplomacy should always respect and promote gender equality. A big responsibility and challenge lies with us to reach out to women across the world; in the industrialised as well as the poorest regions of the world. Take security policy as an example of where the role of women is extremely important. Women make up the majority of people leading insecure lives today. Not only is it usually women at home with their children in the front line when disaster strikes, but women also define security differently from men. They see it as a matter of individual and social well being. It means freedom not only from violence but also from the poverty and social injustice that are often the root causes of violence.

Public diplomacy as damage limitation to problems associated with the deployment of ‘hard’ power is public diplomacy on its back foot, which is usually not a good place to be. The use of soft power is “to speak softly and to carry a big carrot", as my close friend Chris Patten used to say.

The EU famously believes in multilateralism and 'soft' power, and this is strongly reflected in the nature and conduct of many of its public diplomacy dialogues on such issues as the environment, energy efficiency, global warming, development cooperation, free trade, democratization and human rights. All of these are directly linked to defined EU policy objectives, and all require a broad measure of global support - official and popular - to succeed.

But the EU model is not a soft option because it always involves patience, difficult compromises, and often generous offers of EU funding as well; nor can it be the only option. The EU can be surprisingly robust on certain issues even in its use of public diplomacy – and our strong and pro-active condemnation of the death penalty is a case in point. But slowly and surely, the EU is building up the capacity, through the Foreign Security Policy, to play a greater role in pursuing external policy objectives through “hard” power when all other options fail.

For example we supported the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo a year or two ago, but we also deployed troops to the capital to safeguard the process; we supplied humanitarian aid to the victims of the Tsunami in Indonesia, but we also put in place a military-backed peace process that enabled guerrillas to put down their guns and go home; we support Moldova’s efforts to reform, but we also station police on its border to combat smuggling. And so on.


Although the US and the EU may play different roles on the world stage, and although we sometimes adopt different approaches to democratization, nevertheless our efforts complement each other. Moreover, we share the same objectives – a stable, peaceful and increasingly prosperous world where democracy prevails and human rights are respected. So I believe we can and should work together.

We already have a very important bilateral relationship. Trade and investment between us amounts to 4 trillions of dollars a year and – an especially important point at this time of economic crisis - sustains millions of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, Europe accounts for 75% of all foreign investment in the U.S. and, in 2006, provided more than half of U.S. global profits.

The challenges facing us today are truly global, from climate change, security, and the global economy; to the fight against poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world. Neither Europe nor America can take on these challenges single-handed: we need to work at them together, along with other like-minded partners.

John F. Kennedy's proposal for a "Declaration of Interdependence" is more appropriate now than ever before! In fact, as President Kennedy said: "Acting on our own, by ourselves, we cannot establish justice throughout the world; we cannot insure its domestic tranquillity, or provide for its common defence, or promote its general welfare, or secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. But joined with other free nations, we can do all this and more"

Thank you all, for your attention; and in the best traditions of public diplomacy I now look forward to hearing your own observations on all this.

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