04 May 2005 - 06 May 2005

World opinion and public diplomacy: how should policy makers influence and be influenced?

Chair: The Rt Hon Lord Kinnock of Bedwelty, Mr Lewis Manilow and Mr Newton N Minow

(A joint conference with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, at Cantigny, Wheaton, Illinois)

The McCormick Tribune Foundation Headquarters at Cantigny, Illinois provided the attractive setting and the spring weather to inspire a very interesting conference on Public Diplomacy, held in harness with Ditchley’s long-time partners, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.  We were looking at the subject very much from the developed world point of view, with strong contingents from both the United Kingdom and the United States, with some broader perspective added by Canada, Ireland and Italy.  The conference chose as its context the accelerating changes generated by globalisation, rapid technological advance, ease of communication and the difficulties thrown up by the invasion and administration of Iraq for the dual challenge of presenting a positive image in the world in the world and explaining the actions of the United States and the United Kingdom.  We came to the conclusion that policy makers have to re-think the basis of their approach to Public Diplomacy if they are to achieve the right sort of impact on both their domestic and their international audiences. 

Participants quickly agreed that the modern media environment, including the “new media” such as the Internet, was profoundly different from the past as individuals gain access to a much wider variety of sources from which to obtain information and as new outlets become more specialised for particular categories of individuals.  No government, or any other entity trying to reach a wide audience, can any longer seek to manage public opinion.  Biased or selective presentation has become increasingly counter-productive.  News travels rapidly in all directions and false statements can immediately be debunked.  This means that a government is no longer capable, through public diplomacy or otherwise, to impose its perception of a situation on either its domestic public or on foreign public opinion.  Nevertheless, with so many other voices seeking to affect world opinion, public diplomacy has become an even more important and necessary action of government if its policies are to be widely accepted. 

The conference therefore concentrated much of its effort in examining how public diplomacy can best be carried out.  We agreed on a number of cardinal points.  First, there is no substitute for sound policy:  presentation cannot compensate for a poor product.  Next, public diplomacy has to be regarded as a long-term process, in which credibility and trust is steadily built up.  With both competition and scepticism to contend with, establishing a reputation for honesty and reliability becomes an essential ingredient of persuasiveness.  Third, governments with broad international interests have to direct themselves to an international as well as a domestic constituency.  Fourth, no public opinion effort is going to be respected unless it convinces its audience that it is tuned to listen as well as to transmit.  The language of absolute right and wrong is inadequate, if it suggests that the audience being targeted does not have a point of view that is worth considering.  Participants were firmly of the opinion that all profitable inter-cultural commerce was a two-way street, based on knowledge, openness and sensitivity. 

We examined these propositions in some depth.  We agreed that in recent years our governments had not succeeded in winning the trust of their audiences and had underestimated the difficulty and the importance of establishing a long-term reputation for reliability.  As our chairman emphatically put it, “There is no such thing as short-term success in public diplomacy”.  This creates a problem for governments which are attached, as all are in a democratic system, to the elections cycle.  Some participants advocated a return to bipartisan foreign policy as a way of ensuring a continuum.  Others suggested that the public diplomacy effort should remain at one remove from the party political areas of government.  One way or the other, we concluded that it was vital for governments to avoid the temptation to control its public presentation too tightly.  Not only are the media well beyond control, but the public audience quickly recognises too strong a wish to steer and distrusts it.  Governments need a lighter, more delicate and more subtly articulated relationship with public opinion, suggesting collaboration rather than control and promotion of a mutuality of interest rather than a one-way street. 

The conference decided that it would be going too far to suggest that there was a single thing called World Public Opinion, because of the sheer diversity of views, interests and sources of information.  But we did regard it as important for policy-makers to take account of the effect of their policies on other people across their own national borders and to treat them as a legitimate audience.  We were clear that domestic and international opinion were inextricably linked in a globalised world and that a tension existed between the idea of influencing world public opinion and being influenced by it, because a government was unlikely to be able to influence unless it was prepared to be influenced.  Any reluctance to engage with a powerful organ of World Public Opinion, like Al Jazeera, simply fortified it against influence. 

In looking to the future, the conference tried to suggest some paths for policy-makers to follow in preparing their public diplomacy strategy for the next generation.  All participants agreed that there was a critical need for more research capacity to support public diplomacy strategies.  Governments needed to invest in knowing more, and being more up to date, about other societies, while also encouraging research which asked and answered difficult questions about our own society.  A globalised world needed not only to find broader areas of mutual interest, but also to create a shared framework within which different societies could constructively disagree.  In this context, the word “humility” came up more than once in the course of the conference. 

A second area of recommendation was people-to-people exchanges, especially involving younger people.  It was important to cushion the impact of globalisation on people’s worries about losing cultural identity.  Different populations should be encouraged to move proactively to find ways of building bridges between their societies and others.  A global culture should not be seen as replacing different local cultures, but as an accompanying reality of the global condition.    This meant that public diplomacy should continue to promote local languages, offer radio services in a wide spread of vernacular languages and encourage access to information through the internet and other forms of modern communication.  The more that developed societies could offer the prospect of evolution through dialogue, the more developing societies would come to accept the effects of globalisation and want to become part of it.  Building understanding through education, cultural diplomacy and the free exchange of people and ideas was an important part of this.  The conference firmly advocated both a top-down and a bottom-up approach in this area  :  in the top-down category, why not encourage the US Secretary of State to institute a global broadcast every few months to talk openly and informally about shared interests?

There was some discussion about the effects of new technology, not least on the effort to establish the truth in a particular situation.  We came to the conclusion that technology was truth neutral or, if anything, truth positive.  The diffusion of information could only help raise awareness of its availability and of public participation in the process of knowledge dissemination.  The conference recognised some dangers in the multiplicity of sources and in the difficulty of being able to distinguish good and bad information, but we also saw advantages in the construction of an information environment which no-one could turn into an “Orwellian world”.  We were careful to note that the asset of widely available information was not universally shared, since the digital divide cut off much of Africa and other parts of the developing world.  Nevertheless, even in transitional countries, progress could be made very quickly through, for instance, satellite broadcasting.  We briefly discussed China in this context, noting that the Chinese Government was attempting to restrict access to certain internet sites and to the BBC World Service.  This was not something they were likely to be able to do for much longer. 

We asked ourselves whether government was employing the right sort of public diplomacy skills.  Paradoxically, as the world changed to become even more information-aware, government skills seem to be declining.  Political leaders would need to beware of the temptation to draw control of their public diplomacy into their own offices.  This increased the impression of political bias and reduced credibility.  A better strategy was to improve the range of public diplomacy skills across a much wider cross-section of public servants, including diplomats abroad, give them responsibility for getting the fundamental policy messages across in their own way to their particular audiences and make them accountable for the results.  This would not only increase the effectiveness of the operation, but it would also tend to enhance long-term relationships and trust.  If such a structure could be accompanied by a bipartisan approach to foreign policy issues, public diplomacy in the international sphere would be far more capable of generating the right kind of impact than at present.

The conference recognised how difficult it would be for governments to make such changes.  In an era where government itself was becoming increasingly more difficult, they might appear to be counter-intuitive.  We nevertheless regarded it as an aspect of political leadership in the modern age to develop public diplomacy strategies which not only broadened participation in the effort and relaxed central control, but also stipulated that the activity itself should be a two-way process of listening as well as talking and of forming relationships around mutual interests.  This overall sense of strategy would be a far wiser and more productive area of focus for political leaders than the control of the public diplomacy operation itself.

At the end we reminded ourselves of the words of a British journalist last year, writing about the BBC, which he called “A state-funded broadcaster which must be independent of the state in order to deserve its state-funded privileges”.  He continued:  “The British state would lose prestige if it had a tame broadcaster”.  The conference thought that more than prestige was involved.  Public diplomacy was central to national prosperity and security.  From the point of view of the United States and the United Kingdom in particular, we were in a recruitment competition with Osama bin Laden.  Our most effective weapons in that competition were patient listening and carefully cultivated understanding and respect.

Ditchley and the CCFR were fortunate in gathering around the Cantigny table such a depth of experience and such an excellent spirit of debate.  We owed especial gratitude to our three co-chairs, who combined wisdom, wit and discipline in equal measure.  Our Chicago hosts, and particularly the McCormick Tribune Foundation, looked after us sumptuously.  The journey turned out to be fully worthwhile.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression


Co-chairmen :   

The Rt Hon Lord Kinnock of Bedwelty

Chairman, British Council (2004-). Formerly: Member of the European Commission (1995-2004), Vice President (1999-2004).

Mr Lewis Manilow     

Formerly: Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (1978-2003); Chairman of the Commission (1994-1999).

Mr Newton N Minow      

Senior Counsel, Sidley Austin Brown and Wood; Chairman, Special Advisory Committee to the Secretary of Defense.           



Mr Evan Potter 

Advisor, Foresight and Policy Research Division, Policy Planning Bureau at Foreign Affairs, Canada.

Professor Christopher Waddell        

Associate Professor, Carty Chair in Business, Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Ottawa.


Mr Dick Spring     

Member of the Irish Parliament (1981-). Formerly: Leader of the Irish Labour Party (1982-1997); Deputy Prime Minister (1982-97).


Mr Matteo Maggiore        

Head of European Policy, BBC.


Mr Ashish Bhatt 

Deputy Director, The Ditchley Foundation (2001-).  A Trustee, Wateraid; 19 Princelet Street, Museum of Immigration and Diversity.  Member, Board of Directors, The United Nations Association, UK.

Mr Nigel Chapman 

Director, BBC World Service.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock GCMG       

Director, The Ditchley Foundation (2004-). Formerly: H.M. Diplomatic Service (1969-2004); UK Special Representative for Iraq (2003-04); Ambassador and UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York (1998-2003).  Special Adviser to the BP Group.

The Hon Peter Jay       

Non-executive Director, The Bank of England (2003-); Writer and Broadcaster.  Formerly: Economics and Business Editor BBC (1990-2001).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Andrew Knight      

Chairman, Jerwood Charitable Foundation (2003-); Director, News Corp (1991-).  A Governor and Member, Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.

Lady Olga Maitland       

President, Defence and Security Forum (1992-). Formerly: Member of Parliament, Conservative, for Sutton and Cheam (1992-97). Writer and Journalist.

Mr Richard Morgan     

Head, Lord Carter's Public Diplomacy Review Team (2005-). HM Diplomatic Service (1984-).

Professor Stewart Purvis 

Professor of Television Journalism, City University, London. Formerly: Chief Executive,  ITN (1995-2003).

Mr Brian Quinn 

Director General, International Institute for Communications (2003-). Formerly: Chief Executive of Visnews Limited (now Reuters Television).

Mr Martin Rose       

Director, Counterpoint, The British Council.

Dr Catherine Wills        

Art Historian. A Governor and Member, Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.


Ms Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu       

Research Assistant to the Rt Hon Lord Patten of Barnes; Doctoral Candidate  (International Relations), Nuffield College, Oxford.


Mr Ahmad Fawzi       

Director, News and Media, UN Department of Public Information.


Mr Richard Behrenhausen 

President and Chief Operating Officer, Robert R McCormick Tribune Foundation (1999-).

The Honourable Catherine Bertini  

Undersecretary-General for Management, United Nations (2003-).

Ambassador J D Bindenagel 

Vice President for Programme, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (2001-).

Dr Marshall Bouton 

President, The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (2001-).

Mr Michael Canning 

President Emeritus, United States Information Agency, Alumni Association.

Professor Doug Cassel Jr 

Clinical Professor and Director, Center for International Human Rights, Northwestern University School of Law; Member, Board of Directors of the Justice Studies Center of the Americas.

Ms Cari Eggspuehler 

Executive Director, Business for Diplomatic Action (2003-). Formerly: Special Assistant to Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers, US State Department (2001-03).

Mr Cameron Findlay 

Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Aon Corporation. Formerly: Deputy Secretary, US Department of Labor (2002-03).

Professor Robin Hambleton        

Dean, College of Urban Policy and Public Affairs, Professor of Public Administration; Professor, Urban Planning and Policy, University of Illinois. 

Mr A. Ross Johnson 

Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; Advisor to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Archive Project.

Mr Steven Kull         

Director, Center on Policy Attitudes, Programme on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland. 

Mr Dick Longworth

Executive Director, The Global Chicago Center, The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (2003-).

Mr John Madigan         

Chairman, McCormick Tribune Foundation. Formerly: Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Tribune Company (1995-2002), President,(1994-2001); Publisher, The Chicago Tribune (1990-1994).

Ms Carol Marin 

Political Columnist, Chicago Sun and Times (2003-); President and Chief Executive Officer, Marin Corporation Productions.

Mr Tim McNulty 

Associate Managing Editor, Foreign, Chicago Tribune (2001-).

Mr Michael Moskow        

President and Chief Executive Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (1994-).

Mr Michael Needham   

Chief of Staff to the President, The Heritage Foundation.

Mr Theodore Pincus   

Columnist, Chicago SunTimes; Professor, De Paul University, Graduate Programme; Independent Stratigic Communications Consultant and Journalist.

Professor John E Rielly  

Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University. Formerly: President, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (1971-2001). Member, Board of Directors, The American Ditchley Foundation.

Ms Anna Roosevelt 

Director, Community and Education Relations, The Boeing Company.

Mr John Sirek 

Citizenship Programme Director, Robert R McCormick Tribune Foundation.

Mr Barry Zorthian  

Partner, Alcade and Fay. Formerly: President, Public Diplomacy Council (1996-2001).