Selective Processing: A Strategic Challenge for Public Diplomacy An Alternative Approach to Russian Public Diplomacy in the United States
April 26th, 2012
The information age has made public diplomacy an integral component of statecraft. In essence, public diplomacy is transnational and cross-cultural strategic communication that aims to inform and engage foreign publics. Yet, developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) have also made it much more difficult to overcome the cacophony and noise, especially in contexts where the audience is not predisposed to listening in the first place. Therefore, there is a need to approach the challenge through alternative communication strategies, incorporating them into the overall nature as well as specific techniques of any public diplomacy strategy. This analysis looks at the case of Russian public diplomacy in the United States, where, even twenty years after the end of the Cold War and various public diplomacy initiatives, public attitude towards Russia is still largely negative. The paper posits that selective processing of information is a potential explanation and suggests relational and network-based approaches to improve the effectiveness of Russian public diplomacy in the US.
During the second half of the twentieth Century, Cold War superpowers and their respective camps had very little information about each other. This was especially true of their publics, whose communication and contact with the “rivals” – if any – was more likely than not, controlled by their own authorities. Hence, public attitudes toward the other side would mostly be based on whatever information was provided and/or allowed by their respective authorities, their own media coverage (which would also reflect the officially released or sanctioned information), framing of that information by the elites, and most importantly, by the cognitive schema of the perceiving audiences. Many public opinion studies from the Cold War period demonstrated that Americans were mostly hostile to the Eastern bloc countries, not only because the Soviet Union was considered to be the prime national security threat to the US, but also because it “symbolized the antithesis of cherished core values, including political and religious freedom and what might simply be termed an ‘American way of life’”.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, American public opinion about Russia and its international role is still largely negative. Aware of the persistence of these attitudes and various stereotypes among Americans, the Kremlin has started an increasingly active public diplomacy strategy over the past decade. And yet, despite the changing international, political, and technological context, and despite various official efforts by the Russian government, public opinion polls consistently show that negative perception of Russia persists in the American public mind. Thus, for example, several recent polls conducted by the Pew Research Center have found that 32% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Russia and 61% consider Russia to be “a serious problem”. Other polls conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal indicate that 49% of Americans think of Russia as an “adversary” , while the study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes has found that 64% of the public in the US thinks that Russia is having a “mainly negative” influence in the world.
Such persisting negative attitudes not only hamper Russia’s attempts to improve its relationship with the United States, but also – given the American leverage in international affairs – limit Russia’s ability to pursue its foreign policy goals around the world. What is more, given the political and technological transformations in the global political system, public opinion has come to play an increasingly important role in decision-making , thus, making public diplomacy an integral part of statecraft in the 21st Century. Hence, public diplomacy has become a high priority on the Russian foreign policy agenda, too, as the country has started to identify and address the reasons affecting Americans’ negative attitudes.
The objective of this paper is twofold. Firstly, it will look at the transforming informational context that necessitates new approaches to public diplomacy, examining possible factors that constitute persisting stereotypes and unfavorable public opinion within this context. The paper will then use those theories to suggest possible reasons for the limitations of communication and public diplomacy attempts in Russia’s case. Thus, based on a synthesis of the existing public diplomacy literature, relevant communication theories, as well as a brief analysis of several Russian public diplomacy tactics and approaches, the paper will suggest a set of recommendations that could, potentially, enhance the effectiveness of Russian public diplomacy in the US.
Public Diplomacy: Does It Matter?
The US State Department’s official definition of public diplomacy states that it centers on “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences”. However, public diplomacy is a much wider and very nebulous concept, often incorporating theories and approaches from a wide range of disciplines such as international relations, political communication, history, anthropology, media studies, and public relations, to name but a few. Recently, the concept has gained increasing prominence and popularity around the world, especially in the context of the latest developments in information technology, which have had an unprecedented impact on communication, affecting the way issues are formulated, communicated, perceived, and acted upon. Such transformations created new opportunities in foreign policy-making, shifting away from the former top-down, coercion-based approaches to those that involve appeal, interdependence, and influence garnered through networks.
Within this context, “favorable image and reputation around the world, achieved through attraction and persuasion, have become more important than territory, access, and raw materials, traditionally acquired through military and economic measures”. Nye is perhaps the most prominent voice in this regard, conceptualizing this form of influence in terms of “soft power”. Nye also explores the significance of foreign public support when dealing with democratic societies, stating that even when foreign leaders themselves are friendly, they can be very limited in their leeway and actions if their publics hold a negative view of the country with which they are dealing. Thus, he suggests that diplomacy aimed at public opinion can be the ultimate guarantor of success in achieving particular foreign policy objectives. This is especially true in light of the unprecedented contextual transformations: the rise of globalization and information society. As noted by Nye, “Information is power, and today a much larger part of the world’s population has access to that power”.
Russia is an interesting case for examination in this regard, because, as noted above, it is faced with a significant lack of appeal and major credibility deficit in the West – and especially in the US – which it has been trying to address, in order to create a viable international environment for the success of its foreign policy objectives, such as WTO membership. In order to achieve that, however, Russia needs to change its strategy and find a better way of reaching the hearts and minds of the foreign publics.
Information Overload: But Who is Listening?
The information age, however, has also brought major challenges to the conduct of public diplomacy. One of these challenges is the “paradox of plenty”: the abundance of information has overwhelmed the public, resulting in scarcity of attention and lack of orientation in terms of focus and issue prominence. This is especially true given the great variety of choices and personalization options provided by the Internet. Directly related to this problem are the issues of selective exposure and, more importantly, selective perception, since the overload of information necessitates adopting a certain structure and method of information processing by members of the public. Selective exposure refers to the selective choice of information based on one’s needs, interests, and attitudes . Selective perception, on the other hand, occurs when, even if exposed to the information, only certain parts of the message are filtered out and accepted, according to one’s value schema and pre-existing biases in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.
A further issue to consider in this regard is that of negative elaboration. Elaboration refers to the process whereby messages prompt cognitive responses from recipients, who carefully scrutinize the information and decide whether it deserves merit based on their prior knowledge and/or experience. If the message is perceived as inconsistent with one’s worldview and prior experience, there is a tendency to counter-argue, thus consciously rejecting the message. Therefore, in terms of public diplomacy, overcoming the lack of information and exposure – particularly for major global powers, such as Russia – might not be as pertinent as dealing with differing worldviews and selective perception, which are bound to be present in any transnational and cross-cultural setting.
The other major challenge posed by the information age is the “credibility deficit.” According to Zaharna , the 24/7 news cycle and increasing transparency of policy-making necessitate diplomacy by deed, and not just diplomacy of information or promises. She suggests that “without credibility, no amount of information holds persuasive weight,” undercutting the much-desired soft-power and appeal. Seeing public diplomacy essentially as “a form of national image management,” Gass and Seiter suggest a multi-dimensional construct of credibility, which emphasizes audience-centric, culturally-specific, and ethical approaches. According to them, competence, trustworthiness, and goodwill – or rather, their perception by the target audience – constitutes the basis of any credible public diplomacy strategy, while the ultimate key lies in the ability to make the communication salient to the receiving public by adapting it to their fundamental values and overall culture. Therefore, the major underlying challenges facing public diplomacy are the pre-existing schema of the target audience, and the need to prime the desired issues and messages so that they are perceived as salient and credible by the receiving public.
Stereotypes, Media Effects and Perceptions
Audiences often have severe cognitive limitations – in terms of attending to, storing, retrieving, and using information – and therefore, have a need to simplify their environment. That is especially true in case of the complex and ambiguous international environment, about which the public has a limited and unclear knowledge, if any at all. Based on previous research and literature, Hurwitz and Peffley suggest that “citizens cope with this uncertainty much the same way they do in other domains – by relying on their general beliefs to interpret foreign affairs”. Hence, falling back on generalizations, simplifications, and stereotypes – which essentially make up the cognitive schema that help them make sense of the world – becomes the norm, while also making the public increasingly resistant to or ignorant of the information that does not fit into this worldview.
An important concept to consider here is that of imagology, which Leerssen sees as perceptions of the “national character” of certain foreign people, constructed over time and reinforced through communication and often misguided contextualization. He writes:
[Images] are tropes, commonplaces, [which] obtain familiarity by dint of repetition and mutual resemblance; […] whenever we encounter an individual instance of a national characterization, the primary reference is not to empirical reality but to an inter-text, a sounding-board, of other related textual instances. In other words: the literary record demonstrates unambiguously that national characters are a matter of commonplace and hearsay rather than empirical observation or statements of objective fact.
This is especially true in the cases of limited contact and interaction with the other nation, as the lack of information and opportunity of obtaining it merely encourage the dependence on previously available literary and historical representations of “the other”. Furthermore, stereotyping “the other” based on their national character constitutes an essential part of self-definition – although based on value judgments and prejudices – as it provides a point of reference and a basis for identification of the “in group” and the “out group”. This is a worrisome issue in terms of public diplomacy, particularly in the context of attention deficit and selective processing of information. Despite the changing international political and security environment, as well as the wide availability of information about foreign countries and nations, stereotypes have proven to be durable and resistant to change. Chew suggests this is true:
[...] not only because national stereotypes are generally rationalised [sic] by the spector as based on a supposedly objective reality, but also because they tend to be omnipresent in comics, cinema, literature, computer games, public media, jokes and the like, and are constantly though not consciously invoked to confirm one’s auto-image, one’s national identity. Once established, they remain latent in the individual consciousness, or collective mentality, to be called upon when needed.
Such perceptions are further reinforced by the features of current mass media and their coverage of foreign countries and issues. Writing in 1989, Hurwitz and Peffley discussed the growing body of research and survey data which suggested that “Americans are not particularly sophisticated about foreign policy matters” and that their “mass foreign policy attitudes are lacking in information, structure, and stability”. Other research on foreign news coverage has indicated that exposure to news about certain countries is significantly related to pre-existing positive perceptions of these countries. In turn, this results in a cycle where sheer exposure to and familiarity with certain nations makes them “seem more human” to the perceiving public.
More recent studies have shown that the development and proliferation of new communication technologies have not necessarily helped the American public gain a better understanding of international affairs. The literature consistently argues that negative foreign events receive more attention in American news media for a number of reasons. Even in instances where news and issues have the potential to receive positive or neutral coverage, major American television networks still continue to concentrate on the negative and highlight the potential threats to the US. This is a major concern in terms of general public information, since the news media are not painting an accurate picture of the world. As Golan and Wanta suggest, if viewers get exposed only to negative news from abroad, they may link these negative attributes to all foreign countries, which “may lead to a view that the world is full of threats to the US way of life”. All of the above feed into Russia’s problem in its attempt to reach the American public, whose knowledge about Russia is limited and biased, at best.
Therefore, the relationship between knowledge about foreign countries, their “likability”, and interest in further exposure to information about them seem to be circular and interdependent. Breaking this cycle can pose a major challenge to public diplomacy strategists and practitioners. Therefore, data show that Americans are largely uninformed or misinformed about the world and the context where the paradox of plenty and selective perception are ever present necessitate alternative, non-traditional approaches to the conduct of public diplomacy in the US.
An Alternative Take on Public Diplomacy
Several studies have shown that despite the pervasive tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance, some individuals might also seek out further information when they receive a message that is incompatible with their worldview. Possible explanations for this behavior include socio-economic, cultural, and educational factors , as well as motivated reasoning , according to which if one believes something about the world, he or she is “more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms [his or her] beliefs, and actively dismiss information that does not”. Coupled with idiosyncrasies in specific beliefs and worldviews, these findings suggest that the perception of and reactions to any seemingly discordant message largely depends on the individual and cannot be predicted. And yet, there are ways to decrease the overall level of dissonance and hence, make public diplomacy efforts much more successful in their appeal and effect.
The first and foremost factor to consider is cultural congruence. Public diplomacy, by default, involves transnational and cross-cultural communication, which also implies a degree of incompatibility in the general outlook and value systems of the communicating sides. Nonetheless, a special effort can be made in terms of emphasizing issues that are salient for the receiving public, as well as framing those in less discordant terms. Strong knowledge and understanding of the receiving audience and its culture – i.e. “listening” – is, therefore, an indispensable step at this stage, as it can provide an invaluable insight into the prevalent attitudes, interests, as well as general beliefs of the wider public. It is also important to consider the potential impact of any foreign policy on foreign public opinion, incorporating this consideration into the decision-making process. In fact, Cull labeled this consideration as “the Golden Rule of Public Diplomacy” , which can help produce better informed foreign policy decisions that are more resonant with and important for foreign publics. Furthermore, considering foreign public opinion when making foreign policy will ultimately help attain “public diplomacy by deed” as well as provide the much needed overall credibility to the actor, correspondingly enhancing the effectiveness of other public diplomacy initiatives as well.
Another significant factor to consider is the need for symmetric information and engagement. In an age where information technology fosters horizontal communication , while power wielded through information has become a public good , “active engagement and empathy with audiences” – and not simple pronouncements – will help advance the set objectives. What is more, Zaharna argues that a strategy that is based merely on the transmission model of communication and perceives its challenges arising primarily from insufficient or inaccurate information cannot provide a viable approach in a context where information overload and credibility are the biggest issues. Hence, there seems to be a general agreement among scholars that mutual understanding and harnessing of networks can provide the much-needed alternative approach to public diplomacy.
There are several dimensions to this approach. The first dimension involves relationship-building. According to Zaharna, the relational approach focuses on the creation and “maintenance of social structures,” which help to balance the levels of risk and trust by providing the social context of connection, mutuality, and interdependence. The resulting commitment and trust enhance the ability of all involved parties to achieve their respective as well as collective goals. Because of its rejection of the purely transmission mode of communication, the relational approach relies on the circulation of information through a network of a multitude of active participants. This, in turn, necessitates a message that is resonant with the social context of that network and enhances cohesion within it. To ensure effective utilization of the potential carried by networks, the relational approach emphasizes the active participation and coordination of actions from across all levels of the society – from political leaders to the general public – fostering direct communication and bonding among societies. Thus, in what Cull calls “New Public Diplomacy,” the role of the government shifts away from “actor-to-people” communication, to facilitating network-building and horizontal “people-to-people contacts”.
The network-based public diplomacy is the second dimension in the alternative approach. Networks not only help promote the rapid and effective dissemination of information, but they also enhance the diffusion of innovation – in this case, new messages/information as a part of the public diplomacy strategy. Entman argues that a successful strategy will effectively activate cascading networks to promote the diffusion of the desired message frames from foreign elites and opinion leaders, to the general public. The structure of such communication patterns is also promoted by the increasing prominence of new information technology, which has created new opportunities for virtual and real-time contact and interaction. In what has been dubbed “Public Diplomacy 2.0” or “open-source public diplomacy” , the proposed strategy is to utilize the advantages of the Internet, and particularly of online social networking platforms, to foster communication and exchange of ideas that would never have been possible otherwise.
What is more, the relational, network-based public diplomacy can promote true engagement and a degree of public investment in the process, ensuring continued interest from all involved actors in a mutual, beneficial exchange. As highlighted by Castells, the role of the government and elites in public diplomacy should shift away from “wielding influence” and “soft power,” to harnessing the “dialogue between different social collectives and their cultures in the hope of sharing meaning and understanding”. Hence, the major objective of official public diplomacy, within this approach, becomes the building and maintenance of a truly transnational public sphere, where diverse voices can be heard without regard to their origins, distinct values, or contradictory interests.
The emergence of such shared public sphere and common culture implies that there will be less dissonance and cultural incongruence in the process of communication, thus enhancing the ability of all involved actors to successfully overcome distrust, selective exposure, and cognitive resistance. Most importantly, this model already incorporates the factor of “listening,” which only helps to facilitate the two-way communication process. Fisher also discusses the involvement of various non-governmental and individual actors with “overlapping agendas,” who actively contribute to the work of public diplomacy. Thus, “the open-source approach to public diplomacy engages in collective effort among peers (both foreign and domestic), whether they are governments, NGO, commercial enterprises, or members of a blogroll or Facebook group”.
Therefore, this multi-dimensional alternative approach to public diplomacy provides various interwoven strategies that bring together the establishment of relationships and platforms for mutually beneficial dialogue and exchanges between publics. Moreover, it provides for more individualized contact and engagement, thus helping to personalize various issues, increase (or, where appropriate, decrease) their salience, and instill credibility and trustworthiness in any communication that takes place within the network.
Russia’s Image in Crisis
As discussed earlier, American public sentiment toward Russia is lukewarm at best. Certainly, there is a strong correlation between these attitudes and the legacy of the decades-long Cold War. However, the problem of negative perception of Russia – which has become a long-term image crisis – seems to be running much deeper in the West.
When exploring the view of Russia’s “national character” in the “West,” Naarden and Leerssen highlight that it is multilayered and fluctuates between “oriental despotism” and “progressive Western-looking nation”. According to them, such fluctuations in the “Western mind” run parallel to historical periods: at times of seeming Russian weakness, or when its rulers and major cultural “creators” were more “Westward-looking,” Russia was perceived as more progressive and civilized; the opposite was true at times of emerging Russian power and its attempts to extend its influence and assert authority in the international arena.
Various surveys, opinion polls, and research results indicate that, to a certain degree, the above characterization of the Russian image is still relevant today. As a number of studies by Katchanovski demonstrate, not only is the mainstream American news media biased in its representation of Russia and Russian-related issues, but it also suffers from a degree of Russophobia, referring to an “irrational dislike and fear of Russia and Russians”. Often, the coverage of issues involving Russia by major cable news channels is incomplete and mostly negative, while “Russian foreign policy was frequently distorted as striving to start a new Cold War with the United States, allying itself with Iran, and bent on restoration of the Soviet Union by military force”.
And yet, it should be noted that most of the American public receives very little information about Russia to begin with. Overall, there is a dearth of coverage of Russia and Russian-related news, interest in the country has been dwindling, the demand for academic literature on Russia and the former Soviet Union has been in decline, while the American high school and college curricula provide very little education about the country and its history. Katchanovski cites interesting findings:
More than half of high school graduates in the US in 2004 thought that not the Soviet Union, but Germany, Italy, and Japan were US allies during the Second World War. A Gallup poll in 1994 showed that 11, 12, and 65 percent of Americans considered that the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States respectively contributed the most to the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II, even though in fact at least 75 percent of German military casualties were inflicted on the Eastern Front.
Given this dearth of information about Russia, Katchanovski also calls into attention the potential impact that popular culture, and especially Hollywood films, can have on the overall perception of the country. His analysis of a set of blockbuster Hollywood movies from the 1990s and 2000s has shown that a large percentage of them focus on “Russian mafia” and criminals, illegal and very dangerous weapons, KGB, immigrants, technological backwardness, poverty, and mail-order brides and prostitution, to name but a few. Similarly, Russian characters are usually represented as extremely anti-American, in many cases killing or attempting to kill Americans, and often striving “to restore the power of the Soviet Union and begin a confrontation with the United States”. The parallels with the findings about the nature of news media coverage are more than just coincidental, and thus, demonstrate that such fictional representations, news frames, and perceptions by the public are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
In terms of actual effects of such representations, Evans reports:
A 2003 poll commissioned by Putin’s government revealed the depth of the problem. The survey asked Americans to name the top 10 things they associated with Russia. The top four were communism, the KGB, snow, and the mafia. The sole positive association – Russian art and culture – came in dead last. A poll conducted in August  on foreigners’ awareness of Russian brands did even worse. The only “brands” foreigners could think of were Kalashnikov rifles and Molotov cocktails.
Acutely aware of this problem, Moscow has made a phenomenal push in its public diplomacy efforts since 2004-2005, including, but not limited to, launching its own international broadcaster Russia Today (initially in English, but now also in Arabic and Spanish), investing millions in various web-projects, revitalizing its public diplomacy organs within the Foreign Ministry (such as Russkiy Mir or Rossotrudnichestvo), hiring foreign public relations firms to work on its image in the West, and even making attempts at digital diplomacy. Nevertheless, as the latest polls from 2009 and 2010 indicate, the Americans’ attitude toward Russia is still largely negative and distrustful. These results suggest two possible explanations: either it will take much longer for the Russian public diplomacy efforts to have any significant and observable impact on public attitudes, or the Russian approach in the US is simply inappropriate. Since no time-related assessment can be made at the moment, the following section will focus on a set of recommendations for alternative and potentially more effective approaches to Russian public diplomacy in the US.
A Preliminary Look at the Challenge: Alternative Approaches for Russian Public Diplomacy?
Given the historically persistent stereotypes and negative perception of Russia among the American public, a viable argument to make – when explaining the weakness of Russian public diplomacy efforts – is that Russia is faced with the issue of selective information processing. As Katchanovski’s research suggests, the American public receives very little credible information about Russia. However, given the rise of the Internet, as well as Russia’s official efforts to reach out to Western public, this explanation cannot fully account for the persisting negative attitudes. The suggested explanation, therefore, is that based on these pre-existing attitudes, Americans are either choosing to avoid Russian communication altogether, or, even when exposed to it, selectively filter out and analyze the information to confirm already-held beliefs and stereotypes. In other words, Russia is faced with the phenomena of motivated reasoning and negative elaboration. Hence, mere informational initiatives and programs – as useful as they might be in providing truthful and correct information about Russia, its people, and its culture – are not adequate in trying to rectify Russia’s negative image in the US, necessitating the use of alternative approaches to public diplomacy. What follows is a set of preliminary suggestions that the Russian government would adopt in order to achieve improved public diplomacy effectiveness in the US.
Public diplomacy by deed: Besides making pompous speeches – whether intended for the domestic or the international public – Russian leaders should consider adjusting both their foreign as well as domestic policies so that they better reflect the positive image they are trying to project abroad. Thus, for example, Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation of 2009 focused on the need to modernize Russia, to enhance its progress and success domestically, as well as in the international domain. To quote him directly:
A truly modern society is the one that seeks constant renewal, continuous evolutionary transformation of social practices, democratic institutions, visions of the future, assessments of the present, the one engaged in gradual but irreversible changes in technological, economic and cultural spheres, the steady improvement of the quality of life.
Furthermore, he emphasized the need to promote Russia’s foreign policy objectives through economic, cultural, and educational initiatives. As demonstrated by his statements and further actions, the Kremlin’s current attention and efforts primarily center on promoting Russia’s economic interests: attracting foreign investment to the country, but also making it easier for Russian businesses to expand internationally.
Focusing solely on economic and business interests, however, might not suffice in truly revamping Russia’s image, particularly when these initiatives are not coupled with true reforms – or, at least, the perception thereof – to help bring about such a change in attitudes. There is mounting evidence indicating that Russia is still gripped by corruption, while the 2010 Transparency International Report shows Russia ranking 154th in the world in terms of corruption perception – worse than Mexico, Belarus, Iran and even Libya. Russia also does not seem to be progressing much in terms of its freedoms and human rights record. Recent events surrounding parliamentary and upcoming presidential elections demonstrate the problematic situation in which Russian democracy finds itself, while a range of recent reports suggest that arbitrary killings, arrests, oppression of civil society, and freedom of speech are still pervasive in Russia. What is more, Russia’s foreign policy is still perceived as aggressive and a threat to American interests, as demonstrated by cases such as the controversy surrounding the ratification of the New START Treaty or the perception of the 2008 war in South Ossetia, seen as Russian old Soviet-style expansionism.
Yet, Medvedev had identified major objectives – democratization, modernization, opening up of markets, fighting corruption – that are, at their core, grounded in Western values, and therefore have the potential to resonate with the American public. Hence, as a major step in overcoming this overall negative attitude in the US, it is essential for Russia to demonstrate progress and true transformation, and perhaps even incorporate the consideration of international public opinion into its domestic and foreign policy-making. Zaharna’s recommendation for American public diplomacy is, therefore, applicable here as well:
US public diplomacy needs to critically assess US policies from the audience’s vantage point and red-flag two types of policies: those that appear to contradict stated US values, and those that negatively affect the public in some way. Aggressive communication in a political environment where US policy appears to contradict its values – or where US policies negatively affect the public – will heighten perceptions of duplicity and lower US credibility.
This is especially true in the case of Russia, which lacked credibility and trust in the West to begin with.
Relational approaches to public diplomacy: A major development in Russian public diplomacy efforts has been the establishment of its multi-language international broadcaster, Russia Today TV (RT). Labeled by some as Kremlin’s publicity and propaganda arm , RT is yet another example of Russia’s information-based approach, which, given the context of credibility deficit, information overload and selective perception will most probably fail in its effort to change the attitudes of the Western public. Instead, Russia would benefit from additional relational and network-based approaches to public diplomacy.
One way to establish networks is through initiatives that involve cultural and educational exchanges. The issue has only recently become a concern for the Russian government, which, despite the various steps to address it, will require more time to demonstrate significant results. So far, the participation of students in various exchange programs with the US has been largely one-way, with the number of Russian students visiting the US in 2008-2009 three times larger than the number of Americans going to Russia. Encouraging more Americans to visit Russia – especially in settings that facilitate medium or long-term interaction with the local people and culture – will provide a first-hand experience and hence, a much better understanding of the country. More importantly, however, such educational and cultural exchanges can create new points of reference, beyond those promoted by the American popular culture or historical and literary stereotypes, helping shape better images of the country and its people, and hence overcome outright distrust and selective perception.
Network approaches to public diplomacy: The utilization of new technologies and web-based social networking will only enhance and further this relationship-building, opening up opportunities for individual interaction – although virtual – to a much larger section of the general public. Various Russian government bodies and officials – most prominently, President Medvedev – have started English-language blogs, as well as Facebook and Twitter profiles with the objective of reaching out to foreign publics. However, their approach in this matter seems to be somewhat misguided, since the communication flow still remains top-down and one-way, with officials using these new media outlets for dissemination of information and expression of their own views on various issues, instead of utilizing these tools for listening and true engagement with publics abroad. Similar to Medvedev’s personal Twitter page, that of Rossotrudnichestvo – Russia’s official cultural diplomacy arm within its Ministry of Foreign Affairs – features only news and information about its own activities, without any observable attempts to engage its followers in a meaningful conversation.
To be able to truly benefit from the various opportunities provided by online communication technologies, the Russian government should, instead, focus on the creation of special platforms based on these technologies that would facilitate dialogue and interaction between the publics in Russia and the US. Moscow should also pay closer attention to bringing in non-Kremlin-affiliated actors into this process, engaging the private sector, as well as non-governmental, civil society organizations and interested members of the general public, both at home and abroad: in short, outsourcing the work of diplomacy to the public. More specific steps in this direction might include being responsive to public comments on social networking websites (i.e. demonstrating true dialogue), as well as initiatives such as the facilitation of online and “offline” public conferences, forums, discussion groups, sharing of experiences, photo and video material, etc. In this regard, Sunstein’s concept of “cybercascades” and information diffusion is especially pertinent, as by engaging opinion leaders and communicating through networks, public diplomacy messages will have a much higher chance of being framed, promoted, and perceived in a desirable light. What is more, the creation of the common “communication space” through such deliberation and discussion will certainly help inform Russian policy-making, and if taken into account, might help mitigate Russia’s credibility deficit as well as the cultural incongruence of its messages.
This paper examined the various aspects of the construction and endurance of various stereotypes and national images, suggesting historical, cultural, and cognitive factors as major reasons for those phenomena. Often, these images can be justified on factual and policy bases, and yet, sometimes, they are brought about by lingering misperceptions, misunderstanding, and selective information processing. Such misperceptions by the public have increasingly become significant foreign policy hurdles for states in the information age, since they create an environment that is not conducive to the achievement of their foreign policy objectives. Traditional public diplomacy is proving to be insufficient in addressing those issues, thus necessitating the use of alternative approaches and techniques to such transnational and cross-cultural communication.
The Russian case, discussed in the second half of the paper, is one of the most compelling examples demonstrating the need to adopt an alternative approach. Russia is still stuck with its Cold War image, especially in the American public psyche. This image seems to be constantly reinforced not only in the American popular culture and media, but also by Russia’s own domestic and foreign policies. The Kremlin’s various initiatives at improving its image – although largely nascent – have not yet shown significant success or potential promise. To achieve more effective performance, Russia could better utilize various public communication and public diplomacy techniques, mostly focusing on relational and network approaches, in order to overcome the distrust and selective perception as well as the lack of perceived credibility. However, in order to be successful, the Kremlin needs to recognize the true value of genuinely public diplomacy, and acknowledge the need to maintain openness and to partially give up its control over the message.
Russia needs to combine the traditional attempts at information dissemination and image management with relational and network-based initiatives that involve and engage non-governmental actors and members of the general public in both Russia and the US. Perhaps more importantly, Moscow’s public diplomacy strategy should put greater emphasis on diplomacy by deed, which necessitates a cognitive shift among the officials regarding the Kremlin’s approach to internal as well as international affairs. In short, public diplomacy is a two-way street, and its success depends on both sides involved in the process. Russia cannot change history or significantly alter the context, but it can change its approach to overcome the cultural misunderstanding and the legacy of its Cold War image. In order to do that, Moscow needs to give up its Soviet-influenced approach to policy-making and communication, focusing on the establishment and harnessing of networks, building relationships, facilitating genuinely mutual exchanges, and using all available opportunities to truly open up to the international community.
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