Diplomacy in Chile: Implementing Public Diplomacy

Talyn Rahman-Figueroa, CEO of Grassroot Diplomat, offers practices of public diplomacy to the Government of Chile. 

Prince Harry with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet

Prince Harry with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet

Diplomacy in Chile is perceived by the public as an eldery dignified gentleman who is engaged in dark  backroom negotiations with others like him. Diplomacy is much more than negotiations and has certainly moved away from this stereotype, but very little is known about the conduct of diplomacy to ordinary citizens in Latin America.

As part of their public diplomacy agenda, the Chilean government has authorised the Diplomatic Academy of Chile to engage in dialogue with leaders of public diplomacy, and it was a great honour for Grassroot Diplomat to be invited to consult. 

On 2nd September 2011, CEO of Grassroot Diplomat Talyn Rahman-Figueroa was invited to share conducts of public diplomacy in the Western world to the Chilean government. This interview was conducted by journalist Raimundo Gregoire. Here is the transcript of the interview.

1. What do you think about Public Diplomacy 2.0? Do you think that the government should put more emphasis in this new type of diplomacy?

By public diplomacy 2.0, I believe you mean the use of diplomacy in the internet and social media age. Well, in the traditional sense, diplomacy has actively engaged one government with another. In traditional diplomacy, embassy officials will represent their government in a host country by maintaining relations and conducting business with the officials of the host government. 

Public diplomacy, from my point of view, engages many diverse non-government elements of society, which brings the concept of diplomacy to a wider arena that is transparent and has better reach to the wider public. 

I know diplomacy has a stereotype of being clandestine and highly elite, but public diplomacy will help to change the image of diplomacy in being more open about its engagements to the wider public and actually liaising with ordinary citizens. I do think governments need to try harder in engaging actively with the citizens they represent – but how much public diplomacy can do in reaching that objective, hmmmm - that’s questionable, but a good start nonetheless!

2. Are diplomats and governments well prepared in order to work in Public Diplomacy 2.0? Do you think that diplomats, politicians and governments really know what Public Diplomacy 2.0 is?

I’ll answer the second question first. A colleague of mine from the Diplomatic Academy of London did a study on the image of public diplomacy in Germany, and I remember her telling me that the diplomats in her country seemed unaware of what public diplomacy was. If diplomats don’t know what public diplomacy is, then how are embassies supposed to drive the concept of public diplomacy without guidance? It’s not going to work. There is a possibility that the term ‘public diplomacy’ will remain a buzz word unless diplomats and governments define exactly what public diplomacy is and how to utilise it. 

Of course technology has helped to shape the modern world and in order for diplomats to be effective in a society where information is opulent, the practice of diplomacy must also embrace new media for the purpose of public diplomacy. However, I have noticed that governments are very awkwardly moving into the public diplomacy realm, sometimes unsure of how to use technology to support objectives of national interest for many reasons. Perhaps one way is for government officials to be fully informed of technological change and know-how so that they are prepared to work in public diplomacy. If governments are the last group to pick up Twitter and social media, then they won’t be very effective in influencing policy and shaping our future.

3. What about the mass audience, do they really know about Public Diplomacy 2.0? Is it important that they can know what it means or it's just an issue for diplomats, politicians and governments?

I think it’s fair to say that the general audience don’t even know what diplomacy is, which is why the very concept of ‘public diplomacy’ should be considered important. If embassies and governments are more open with what diplomats are doing for the good of the nation, people will become more aware of how our countries are being represented abroad and how ordinary citizens can rely on embassy officials when they are in a foreign country. 

The only time a citizen will ever consider going to an embassy is if they are in some sort of legal trouble in a foreign country. Personally, I would go to a foreign embassy in London to learn more about another country that I have never visited before simply because I view these diplomats as experts of their country and it is important to acknowledge that. We need to ensure that diplomacy is much more than just national representation – it is about sharing culture, languages, cuisines, history – every country in the world have these things in common. Public diplomacy is that key to exploring the world of diplomacy from an accessible medium for everyone to enjoy.

4. Would you like to talk about good and bad examples about the use of Public Diplomacy 2.0 in governments and diplomatic bodies?

I think that public diplomacy is a new concept that many governments and diplomatic bodies are struggling to define, so it would be difficult to provide a solid example, good or bad. To accommodate the popular shift of social media, governments are now trying to shift their outreach campaigns to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, but I’m unsure as to how much this is changing the image of diplomacy. I guess it’s too early to tell. But I’ve noticed that the British government is becoming much more open about exemplifying how the UK is operating in countries like Afghanistan, Libya, and other parts of the Middle East through Twitter feeds and interactive web features such as YouTube, often posting comments from our Foreign Secretary on current political issues that everyone seems to be talking about. Constant Tweets from the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office shows that the UK is active in hot spot areas and are actively working with other countries to reduce tension. This is a good first step because public diplomacy opens up to non-governmental organisations and individuals that have traditionally been left out of the conversation. 

I guess a bad example of public diplomacy would be the Wikileaks fiasco in November 2010, where many official and private diplomatic cables were unofficially published online. This was a major breach of trust and caused many problems and unnecessary embarrassment between nations. I don’t think it is necessary for everything to be made open to the public domain. We’re currently suffering from information overload, so I do think it is wise to be strategic on what information is shared to the public and leave other information private and between officials only.

5. What do you think about concepts such as e-government and open-government? 

I’m finding it very hard not to say that they aren’t just buzz words. 

E-government is short for electronic government which is a form of digital interaction I guess between a government and its citizens through the use of the internet and the World Wide Web. Open government, in my opinion, is exactly what the title says – the government being open and breaking down the culture of secrecy by sharing information online with the public. These are necessary steps and of course such openness can help analysts, NGOs and academics do their job. 

In the UK we have something called the Freedom of Information Act which means that the public can request any official information from the government to be released to them. This is certainly a form of open-government that the British government had introduced back in the year 2000 and it is something that other governments should perhaps consider. 

6. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using social media in diplomacy, policies and governments?

I think social media is a demon and a blessing for diplomacy. It is a demon because ordinary citizens now have the power to post real time to a worldwide audience even before local or national authorities know about it. 

The London riot is a good example of this. Using social media, disgruntled young people planned areas in which they would start a riot and called upon other young people to join them. Unfortunately local authorities in the UK were slow to pick up on this ‘open’ information and failed to deal with the riots as effectively as those who follow social media. 

Even though social media has opened up dialogue, tracking this vast amount of information has become difficult and many wonder whether diplomats are becoming redundant in their field, considering that diplomats are traditionally relied upon for collecting information and forwarding this to the elite. I don’t think that social media makes diplomacy redundant because diplomacy, and governance for that matter, still operates within an elite garden where ordinary citizens have no access to, and I doubt that Heads of States and royal figures will spend their time Tweeting and reading information from this social media avenue before speaking to their own designated representatives first. 

On the other hand, social media has become an effective tool for officials to use to engage with audiences from around the world. During his president candidacy, Barack Obama used social media to tap into the hidden market to engage voters with his policies and personality. This method of public interaction was truly innovative, particularly in politics and people felt as though Mr Obama was speaking to individuals directly. People who were using social media were – for the first time- able to personally connect with an elite figure and no longer felt alienated from the political discussion. I think that is quite revolutionary. 

7. How do you see Public Diplomacy in the next 10 or 20 years? How do you imagine world diplomacy in the future?

One of two things will happen. Either Public Diplomacy will change the face of diplomacy, or nothing will change at all. If people cared about something, they will get involved, but if they cannot make the connection between issues and how it affects their personal life, people will take no interest in the issue at all. 

I think Public Diplomacy is an area where people take very little interest in because authorities have failed to make a personal connection between the lives of ordinary citizens, and the way in which diplomats operate. You may say that diplomats are essential in driving the economy of our country because they secure international policies and trading agreements with countries who buy goods from our country, but as an ordinary citizen, people cannot see how a diplomat negotiating a treaty helps them bring food to their table. For Public Diplomacy to make an impact on ordinary citizens, there must be a common link between the two, and non-government organisations and charities, such as the Red Cross and Save the Children, are good at doing that because they compare the lives of ordinary citizens, who have clean running water and strong laws, against a country who still does not have a water irrigation system that produces clean water and has weak laws that ensure basic human rights of its citizens. 

In reference to your second question, I imagine world diplomacy to take into consideration the work of grassroots organisations and individuals who dedicate all of their free time to make a world a better place. There isn’t enough knowledge sharing between political leaders and civil society, and as a Grassroot Diplomat, I have made it my mission to close that gap. I believe that NGOs have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in areas that governments are craving for. If there was better communication and interaction between the two, I think the government can save themselves a lot of time and taxpayers money spent on research and development in policy and strategy planning. Great work is being done already by people who have a passion in the area they have dedicated their lives to and I think more needs to be done to acknowledge that. 

8. What can you say about United Kingdom policies in Public Diplomacy, e-government, etc? 

The UK government is quite advanced in its Public Diplomacy policies compared to many other countries. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has its own Digital Diplomacy department as part of its Public Diplomacy initiative and is actively involved in using social media to influence and engage the general public in policy affairs and providing useful travel information as well. 

The FCO understands the 24 hour news culture that our generation has become used to and utilises social media to ensure that there is a constant flow of information and dialogue from audiences around the world. Actually I think the UK is stepping up its game now in its public diplomacy strategy because of the recent Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, the 2012 Olympic Games which will be held in London next year, and the bid to back England’s World Cup tournament for 2018. As you can imagine, sports and culture is a huge part of public diplomacy as it helps to transcend cultural differences and brings people together, and considering Britain’s diverse society, the government recognises Public Diplomacy as an important element of engaging like-minded audiences and bringing people closer together. I think South Africa was very quick to pick up its pace on its Public Diplomacy initiative having hosted the African Cup of Nations in 1996, the Cricket World Cup in 2003, the Rugby World Cup in 2007, and more recently the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Sports diplomacy is a powerful element of Public Diplomacy and diplomats, governments and embassies work very hard to ensure that security is heightened to reduce tension and trouble during such large events.

9. In few words, could you describe how has been the diplomacy of: EU, Israel, Palestine, Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America?

That’s a lot of countries to describe in a few words and in this short time, I will only mention a few that I am aware of. 

Even though diplomacy is about representing one's country and interest abroad, what exactly that national interest is can define the way in which diplomacy is practiced by different countries. In countries like China, India and Japan, trade and economics is the most influential diplomatic route for them to build relationships with other countries. For example, countries like the US and the UK will want remain good allies with Japan and China because of export and trading links developed between them. 

In regards to Latin America, I think there is now a high level of consciousness and awareness of how important the issue of environmental diplomacy is, both nationally and internationally for Latin America, especially after the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and more recently the Climate Change COP16 summit held in Mexico last year. Such events has served as a benchmark for great climate diplomacy between Latin America and global partners like South Africa, the US and Japan in conveying the urgency of the environmental issue. 

I know that the African Union as a continental diplomatic body is very vocal in issues that directly affects African nations and has strong solidarity in international summits and meetings which make them a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, I have not seen the same for groups like ASEAN, which is the Association of Southeast Asian Networks. They have been quiet during climate change negotiations, have not been vocal to protect neighbours like Burma and need to work harder in implementing human rights policies. 

10. And what about the diplomacy in the actual changes in the Arab countries?

I don’t have much knowledge about the diplomacy in Arab countries but I know that the US and the UK have actively been trying very hard to use Public Diplomacy as a means to win the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim World through 2.0 medium, particularly after the war on Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. Western powers believe that public diplomacy has the potential to win over the war on terror and is necessary to breakdown stereotypes often created and spiralled out of control by the media. So, public diplomacy is good for both Western and Arab nations. Open communication can show that Americans are tolerant to the governance of Arab nations and are willing to listen and co-operate with non-Israeli allies, just as Arab nations can demystify  the ugly view that Muslims are terrorists and believe in the Holy War. 

11. What about the issue with Turkey?

Well, when I think of Turkey, I think of its membership candidacy with the European Union. As you may know, the European Union is an influential diplomatic body which has great authority in influencing international policies of its member states. Turkey has been a candidate to the join the EU for quite some time now, but the membership bid has been a controversial issue for them. A criterion that all member states must satisfy in order to be admitted into the EU is that the country must be in a position to implement all of the EU’s laws and regulations. This includes opening up trading routes such as air and naval passages to other EU members.

The problem with Turkey is that it refuses to officially recognise Cyprus as a nation and I would like to remind you that Cyprus has been a member of the EU since 2004. Turkey's non-recognition of Cyprus has led to complications within the Customs Union because under this agreement which Turkey has already signed, Turkey is obliged to open its ports to Cypriot planes and vessels. I think the European Union will certainly benefit from Turkey as a member especially in light of the economic crisis - Turkey has an accelerated rate of economic development and can drive economic growth for the EU in whole, particularly after the financial crash of Ireland and Greece, but the EU cannot and will not accept Turkey if it continues to ignore Cyprus. 

12. Finally, I would like that you explain what is Grassroot? 

Grassroot is a movement and solidarity of people joined for political causes. This movement exists because there is a wide gap between ordinary citizens and political leaders which is the result of many demonstrations, revolts and unrest in countries across the world. The lack of understanding of the needs of citizens from government is a root cause of several key social problems that are current in the UK. The government insist that they are listening to its people, but as the London riots have proven, young people feel marginalised and invisible in British society and felt they had no other way to divulge their frustration to a lack of job, education and poverty alleviation other than to violently revolt and participate in appalling criminal acts. 

My company, Grassroot Diplomat, recognises and understands the gap between civil society and its governments, and as a diplomatic consultancy we provide practical actions for diplomats, governments, non-government organisations and individuals on how to strengthen their mission, better reach their target audience and build partnerships in closing the communication gap. We help groups and individuals who are looking to reach high-level decision-makers and institutions like the United Nations to develop their project, break national stereotypes, and be a positive representation of their countries. 

13. Which are the main goals and risks of your project?

We don't usually work on a specific area of policy but work around issues on the basis that it is a positive form of communication between governments and its stakeholders. Not projects taken on by Grassroot Diplomat can be prioritised by leading multilateral organisations because not all issues make it to the top of their agendas. One day, climate change may be the most important political agenda, which will be great for an organisation looking to grow its project on algae biodiversity for example, but if the political agenda should suddenly shift to the economic crisis this will threaten the relevance of the biodiversity project. The way I like to tackle such risks is to find direct links to current international affairs agendas to ensure that the projects we work on for clients are as close to being relevant to the current political climate so that we are moving forward at all times. 

I understand that there is always going to be conflicts of interests in what we do, and I am not going to pretend that it is easy to bridge the gap between governments and their people, but so long as we try hard in making this a reality, we will continue to achieve our mission in bridging that communication gap.