While not a panacea, public diplomacy can help set the scene for improved Russian-American relations.

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The first question that arises when discussing public diplomacy with regard to Russia and the United States is whether public diplomacy mechanisms alone can improve relations between the two countries. My answer is “no.” 

Despite all the buzz about public diplomacy, it must be remembered that it cannot replace classic diplomacy, and, most importantly, it cannot come before it. The countries themselves must seek to improve their relations with each other. Then public diplomacy might play a useful role.

Failing that, the effect of public diplomacy could be counterproductive. Encouraging personal contacts against the background of belligerent inter-state rhetoric would further alienate the two societies and would eventually lead to a confrontation. 

Of course, contacts can and sometimes do develop spontaneously. Yet that can hardly be described as public diplomacy, which implies deliberate actions. 

Does it mean that we should wait until the two sides are mature enough for another “reset” at the official level? No. Public diplomacy can set the scene for improved Russian-American relations. But how?

Government to people or people to people? 

The question is: what is public diplomacy? Is it the influence that government structures have on society in the other country (government to the people), as it is usually seen in Russia, or is it the interaction between the two societies (people to people), as it is increasingly perceived in the United States? The development of the Internet and social networks opens up vast opportunities in this sphere.

The problem is not only that of the academic definition of public diplomacy – it runs much deeper. On the one hand, it is obvious that the second approach implies a different scale of influence, because government structures, try as they might, cannot reach out to a large number of people in another country. 

Marina LebedevaThis can only be done by non-governmental organizations and interaction on a personal level. Even so, the approach based on the networking principle has some minuses for official structures. Influence is contingent on a multitude of imponderables. In this case, it is hard to predict the direction in which the relations between the two societies will develop. 

On the other hand, the approach based on official structures’ direct influence on the other society makes it easier to control the message, but the extent of the influence would be much smaller. 

Moreover, there is a temptation to try to use non-governmental structures to put pressure on the authorities of the other state regarding certain matters (this is sometimes thought to be the task of public diplomacy). That would hardly be helpful. 

Of course, a combination of both approaches is possible and justified. 

In either case, influence has a political element to it. In addition, it is important, first of all, for the two sides to be aware of all the pluses and minuses of each approach.

There is much evidence of the fact that the parties have not yet reached that conclusion. Both Russia and the United States must agree with each other’s approach to public diplomacy, or put public diplomacy within a certain framework. 

Without it, public diplomacy will inevitably fail.

Public diplomacy as a tool for dialogue 

Finally, another question is what spheres we are going to use public diplomacy in. Basically, the military-political sphere is the least appropriate, and the social and humanitarian sphere is the most suitable for public diplomacy. 

Yet even here things are not that simple. The social and humanitarian sphere has to do with values. Arguing about values does not get us very far. Compromises on values are impossible. But even so, they can be influenced. They evolve and change, and this happens in the process of dialogue. It has to be stressed that dialogue should be a two-way street. 

Oddly, this fact is often overlooked. Even those authors who stress the need to use soft power with regard to the other side assume such influence to be one-sided. 

Joseph Nye, for instance, interprets “soft power” as “getting others to want what you want.” “Soft power” would seem to be aimed at dialogue. But the sticking point is that the other side is seen as merely the recipient of information, so, within this frame of reference, the main task is to present information in the most attractive way. 

Yet, in reality, things are far more complicated. A human being is not a “hostage,” but is always active, influencing the influencer. This is the essence of dialogue and, ultimately, of public diplomacy. 

Thus there are so many obstacles in the way of public diplomacy that, at first glance, it seems more reasonable to forget about it – but only at first glance. 

As I have pointed out, public diplomacy can play a positive role in Russian-American relations, but only if it is not used “head on,” in all areas, and one partner does not try to outwit the other, but the parties are aware that it is a fairly delicate instrument that can backfire if mishandled.

What is to be done? 

First of all, we must have an understanding and an awareness of the possibilities and limitations of public diplomacy. The second important thing is the choice of the sequence of steps. 

The first step should be to expand dialogue at the expert level in order to identify common ground, common viewpoints, etc., for further development of cooperation in these areas. 

Simultaneously, dialogue must be expanded at the professional level in various fields: economics, technology, science, culture, sports, etc. Higher education and tourism could be important areas. Yet, so far, the movement has been mainly in the direction of the United States. 

It is necessary to find the niches that would interest Americans, for example, the study of mathematics, theoretical physics, etc. in Russia. These spheres sometimes seem to be outside politics, but they help to strengthen trust, to understand one another, and that, in turn, can influence the political sphere. 

And the last point: public diplomacy is not a “magic wand” or a panacea for all the problems in Russian-American relations. Its existence (or otherwise) is part of these relations. It should be remembered that not only does public diplomacy influence Russian-American relations, but these relations influence public diplomacy.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.