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Is it “public diplomacy”?

Published on 29 August 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

On 3 February 2007 six Ambassadors accredited to Italy wrote a letter to the newspaper “La Repubblica” on the subject of Afghanistan. They urged “unity of purpose”. The Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs called it “irrituale” – which roughly translates as “unprotocollary” and tartly mentioned that it was a minority view – the ambassadors represented only six of the 36 members of the NATO coalition. He argued that “the letter could be interpreted as inopportune external interference in a matter that is the sole responsibility of the Italian government and Parliament”. Washington replied that the ambassadors only wanted publicly to state their countries’ position .

Was it “interference” or was it “public diplomacy” – an exercise in dialogue and communication with civil society (writ large)?

I had a look at the text. Its structure and style resembles very much that of a “verbal note” – a communication among insiders. The letter begins with recalling the antecedents; it proceeds to paint a rather conventional view of what was happening in Afghanistan at the time, and then goes on to praise the Italian constructive position, as expressed by its Foreign Minister. At this point they state the obvious: “We must stay united”; “We praise Italy’s efforts”, and “We stand by Italy”.

There is not a word criticizing Italy’s policies in Afghanistan – so what was the beef all about? Well, in the overheated political situation of the time (the government’s majority was minimal) the letter for a moment threatened to bring the doddering government down.

I’ll revert to “public diplomacy” in general in a later blog entry. This piece, however, justifies a few remarks. They can help set the stage for the later principle discussion.

First – the choice of communication channel. “Letters to the editor” seldom lead to a meaningful “dialogue”. The tat trails the tit by days, and only individuals are involved – at the discretion of the editor. Such exchanges are usually limited to public figures and their vanities. If the ambassadors had wanted to precipitate or participate in a discussion of the NATO strategy, a forum would have been much better.

Second – the choice of language and style of the letter. Attention span of readers is very limited – usually no more than title, subtitle, and the first couple of paragraphs. Notionally title and subtitle are the purview of the paper, so the ambassadors only had a shot at making their points in the first couple of paragraphs of their text. Recalling a NATO meeting that had just been concluded is not a great attention catcher – even if it included “appreciation” for “Italy’s solidarity”. The next few paragraphs are as ponderous as the first. I wonder how many readers went through the full letter – particularly considering the fact that the editors of the paper(as usual for the sheet)  scattered the text over several pages. From the communication point of view I’d rate the text as “poor”.

Third – the message. At first degree it is unassailable. Fulsome praise for Italy drips from key paragraphs. Read at second degree – it’s praise that kills. Some call it “dog whistle communication”. And it did about kill the government. (Praise meant to be criticism is an age-old diplomatic technique of indirect communication, BTW. It saves face all around). Public dialogue, however, needs to be direct.

In Italy foreign praise is deadly in a subliminal way. In both world wars the country has changed sides, so it has a reputation for, let’s say, shallow loyalty. Praise is meant to encourage the slacker, we all know that. So such praise may be construed as blame on the character – which goes well beyond the specifics of the situation.

Wrong choice of media, wrong style, and wrong message – I’d use this as an exemplary case of how not to do “public diplomacy”.

Was it interference? It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I leave it to the judgment of each reader.

My opinion? For what’s worth: Italy has been subject to gross foreign interference for well over thousand years. It owes unity to foreign interference. It could only hope to fulfill its ambition to become a “great power” through support from abroad. After WWII it became the playground of foreign interference, which it deftly exploited in turn. Ongoing political interference is justified on moral grounds. A country used to be treated at means to foreign ends treats everything as means. Corruption is the long term legacy. It has brought the country to the edge of disaster.

Dialogue is only genuine if based on mutual respect. I just wonder whether publishing such a letter, knowing its likely impact on the political process, was sign of respect for the country. A true diplomat would know.

-See Antonio DERUDA (2012): Diplomazia digitale. La politica estera e i social media. Apogeo, Milano.

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