The Role of Public Diplomacy in a Post-Covid World
By David Gibbs, Consul, Consulate General of Barbados at Toronto
Nature, Concept & Goals
Public diplomacy is the processes by which international actors advance their ends abroad through engagement of publics. It consists of political actors engaging in strategic communication with foreign audiences in an image and reputation management capacity to further their foreign policy and security interests.
Robert H. Gass and John S. Seiter sees Public diplomacy as a form of national image management, which includes efforts to capture the hearts and minds of others, through official or unofficial means.
Youmans and Powers adopt a theoretical lens in which one actor uses a narrative that nudges the receiving audience to a worldview of the sending government. Public diplomacy seeks to generate positive outcomes in trade and investment, export promotion, tourism promotion and talent attraction.
Impact of Covid-19
The global impact of Covid-19 can be easily shown from looking at a range of measurements:
- 3.3 million deaths and 163 million cases.
- Bloomberg News estimates a $19.5 trillion increase to global debt
- US $3.9 trillion in lost economic output
- The International Labour Organization estimates Global unemployment could increase by $25 million
- The World Trade Organization states that trade fell by 5. 3 percent.
A Climate of Distrust
Even more debilitating is the climate of distrust and suspicion that has overtaken the global narrative.
The World Economic Forum noted in January 2021 that the Edelman Trust barometer reflected that the earlier trust surge has given way to deep disappointment and a reshuffling of institutional trust. The disparate impact of the COVID-19 recession has prompted a record mass-class divide of 16 points with 25 of 28 markets showing double-digit trust gaps, triple the number of a decade ago.
There is brutal judgment accorded by other nations to the world’s two largest economies. China has endured the most precipitous decline (18 points) in trust from its citizens (from 90% trust to 72% in the past six months). The US, in the bottom quartile of countries as of November 2020, dropped a further five points post-election (43%).
Small States: Debt and Vulnerability index
COVID-19 has had an especially severe economic impact on small states — these are 50 countries that comprise the Small States Forum and they face unique development challenges due to their small population and economic base. These countries are particularly vulnerable to external shocks, natural disasters and climate change.
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Minister for Economy and Climate Change of Fiji; and Chair, Small States Forum states, “The COVID-19 pandemic shows how important concessional financing is for small states and other countries vulnerable to shocks.”
The World Bank has been the leading multilateral provider of concessional resources to small economies which have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the Bank’s emergency COVID-19 response has reached more than 100 countries. Since the start of the outbreak, overall financial support to 30 small states has exceeded $1 billion of which $600 million has been geared toward the COVID-19 response.
Public Diplomacy the Rescue
We are witnessing the emergence of two categories of countries.
On one hand, there are those countries whose public image has taken a battering as a result of their actions. Russia, China, Brazil, the United States and India are examples of countries whose leaders denied the consensus of the scientific community. Instead they traded in conspiracies theories and/or peddled disinformation to sully the reputations of their main international rivals.
On the other hand, are the smaller countries whose socio-economic circumstances have been pummelled almost to the precipice of collapse. They will need economic concessions and assistance of mammoth proportions from the international community. They success in extracting that level of assistance will in part depend on their ability to persuade the international community that they are making a credible case and that they have the political leadership, institutional capacity and national consensus to effectively manage the resources provided.
In both of these cases public diplomacy can play a critical role in repairing, restoring and retrofitting the national image and reputation thus making the international community more willing to respond favourably. Under these circumstances public diplomacy should promote an image of willingness to mend fences, build bridges, engender transparency and adhere to good governance.
This will make it much easier for diplomats and political leaders to enter into economic cooperation, trade agreements, debt forgiveness, provision of concessionary financing, technical assistance and other forms of bilateral and multilateral cooperation without fear of a domestic political backlash in national parliaments or at the ballot box.
Youngman and Powers point to five goals of public diplomacy:
- Support foreign policy priorities
- Provide economic benefit
- Build relationships and mutual understanding
- Project values and enhance image
- Manage crises
On this basis the Covid-19 pandemic may provide a useful test case for the efficacy of public diplomacy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a diminishing of the national image of many countries. It has also resulted in smaller counties in dire need of unprecedented economic assistance. Both of these scenarios can best be fixed by the use of coordinated and well-crafted public diplomacy initiatives.
Even though traditional bilateral and multilateral forms of diplomacy will undoubtedly be the main methods used to restore relationships and provide economic assistance in a post Covid-19 world, public diplomacy will provide an enabling environment and nurturing climate to return both damaged international relationships and gloomy economic prospects to some form of equilibrium.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.