Cultural Diplomacy, public diplomacy

Cultural Diplomacy and non-government organizations: Who is a diplomat?


As J. Michael Waller (editor) notes in The Public Diplomacy Reader, the definition of public diplomacy has evolved over time and people view it in different ways.  The link between all these definitions is that the audiences involved come from different cultures and backgrounds. Cultural diplomacy, by the very nature of the work, is done by many different organizations in many different sectors of a given country.  Because cultural diplomacy encompasses so many different subcategories of diplomacy- arts diplomacy, educational exchanges, speaker series, etc.- there is a wide open field for those that can and do conduct these programs.  This brings up a larger question of exactly who is considered a diplomat.

Like the definition of public diplomacy, the definition of who is a diplomat has also evolved over time. Of course everyone is going to have an opinion on where to draw the line between diplomat and non-diplomat, but I’d like to propose some questions in order to draw some rough boundaries. With the increase in the amount of people that can do and are doing diplomacy, there is the possibility, as Robert Albro suggests, of “interest-free cultural diplomacy”.  People are more likely to engage if there is not a hidden interest or if the organization conducting the program is not affiliated with the government.  These possibilities exist with the advent of new diplomats other than those belonging to the Foreign Service.

If you, or the organization you work for, represent a country and not a government are you a diplomat?

This question depends on the situation. You, as a singular person travelling abroad for pleasure, do not constitute a diplomat.  If that were the case, then everyone who travels internationally would be considered a diplomat. That would be unproductive because then there would be no point to identifying organizations and people who are part of the Foreign Service as diplomatic representatives for a specific country.  We would no longer need the Foreign Service Officer Test and we would no longer need the Foreign Service Institute.  The sheer ubiquity of international travelers would diminish the value of having that position as a job.  Everybody who travels internationally cannot be considered a diplomat even though each person would be representing a country.

However, as part of an organization, there is a possibility that you could be considered a diplomat depending on the type of organization and the nature of the work you are doing. An Armenian NGO called OST Armenia-Cultural Center of the East, acts as a cultural representative for Armenia with countries of the East according to their website.  Their “About the Organization” section says that they are funded by “membership dues, donations and sponsorship funding.” From their website, it seems that they are not affiliated with the government of Armenia and are truly committed to advancing cultural diplomacy initiatives. In this case, people who work for this organization are doing the same type of work that we traditionally consider diplomats to do; thus I see no reason not to consider them diplomats.   They are representing Armenia without representing the government, but are still conducting diplomatic work.  Of course, there may be something in their operational policies that we are not aware of that links them to the Armenian government, but, for all intents and purposes, they are representing a country without representing a government and are on their way to conducting interest-free cultural diplomacy. .

If your organization is not representing or promoting a country then are you still a diplomat by virtue of working for/ representing this other type of organization internationally?

A related question that needs to be addressed in partnership with the above one is: What kind of organization does not represent/ promote a country? Many people will argue, and correctly so, that even if the organization is a true NGO, the country that the organization is based in is still going to be somehow represented.  The challenge in this question is finding a truly international organization.  For purposes of this discussion, I have chosen Greenpeace.  According to their website, Greenpeace was founded by a group of Canadian citizens, is currently headquartered in Amsterdam, and has 2.8 million supporters worldwide and regional offices in 41 countries.  In this case, Greenpeace is promoting a cause, not a country, and does not represent a government.  Having its headquarters in a different country than where it was founded takes away that problem of the country still being reflected within the organization.  So here is an organization that has essentially no ties to government or country, yet they are doing international work.  Does this make the organization and its members diplomats? Due to the lack of ties to a country or government, they come even closer to Albro’s interest-free diplomacy idea, but is their work really diplomacy?

To me, the crux of public diplomacy is creating the space for dialogues which hopefully lead to relationship building. Greenpeace’s website says that their “solutions work promotes open, informed debate about society’s environmental choices, and involves industries, communities and individuals in making change happen.” I think they reach the dialogue state of public diplomacy, but I don’t know whether or not they reach they state of building partnerships.

 Where do non-government organizations that are contracted by the government or partially funded by the government fit into this?

There are many examples of organizations doing diplomacy that are not government entities but are still funded, at least partially, by a government.  These organizations do not really reach the notion of interest-free diplomacy and are not really NGOs, but fall somewhere in between.  They do diplomacy such as exchanges, arts diplomacy tours, and more, and so the people of these organizations are diplomats by the nature of their work.

To reach Albro’s interest-free diplomacy, do you have to be independent or just come across as independent?

L’Alliance Française purports to be independent even though it really isn’t (see the official charter, in French but translatable) but you have to do some serious digging to discover this. The average person is not going to go to through the founding documents and will only see the website for their local chapter such as this one for L’Alliance DC which says that “L’Alliance Française de Washington, D.C. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-governmental organization that is not subsidized by the French government. It is an educational, cultural association headed by a Franco-American Board of directors.” Therefore, the organization comes across as independent without actually being independent.   There is no question that that they are doing cultural diplomacy activities, but it is very much a projection of the French government.  As Albro notes, interest-free cultural diplomacy often engages more people because they do not see it as a government trying to push its views on others. To most people, L’Alliance and other examples, such as the British Council and Goethe Institute, appear to be furthering the goals of their respective nations while being less-affiliated with government than other government organizations such as the Foreign Ministry.  While this is not exactly interest-free, it is getting closer.

In summary, NGOs can be invaluable resources when it comes to public diplomacy measures.  NGOs can range on a sliding scale from interest free to closely associated with a government. Depending on where they fall on this scale, they are free to express alternative views and have more freedom with their online presence, official statements, and programming efforts. This helps to reach a broader audience that may or may not agree with the views of a given country’s government, but may still be interested in that country’s culture. NGOs potentially have the power to reach an audience that may have been absent from the discussion when governments were solely involved in diplomacy. Depending on the context and the work of the organization, people and their organizations can be diplomats without being part of a country’s official government initiatives. However, one must be careful when considering NGOs to be interest-free.


About Jeanette Gaida

I'm a recent graduate of Global Communication program at The George Washington University. In the summer of 2009, I interned for a non-profit doing bilateral cultural exchanging involving rising political leaders during undergrad and fell in love with DC and public diplomacy. During this time, I met an Egyptian girl about my age on the exchange and she said to me, "It's not the people that disagree; it's their governments that can't get along. Why should that stop the people from communicating?" Ever since that night, I have been inspired to find an answer to this question which has led me to where I am now studying and trying to practice diplomacy. I graduated from the University of Iowa in 2011 with a BA in International Studies and Anthropology which helps to explain my research interests which involve how folklore, tradition-bearers, and anthropologists can be involved in diplomacy and how to bridge the gap between members of different cultures. As we all talk about in public diplomacy, it's about getting past those "last three feet." In April 2013, I attended the International Studies Association Annual Conference with a paper entitled "Anthropologists as Foxes, New Diplomats in an Era of Cultural Diplomacy."


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