Sunday, November 11, 2007

Protecting national image against unpopular foreign policy

When states are engaged in foreign policy directions which create widespread international ill-feeling, it is important that the population of the country is given an international voice, and permission to broadcast a different point of view. Otherwise, if the policies are deeply unpopular and prolonged, there is a risk that international disapproval can eventually contaminate other more precious (and innocent) aspects of national life. The Nation Brands Index shows, for example, that disapproval of the American invasion of Iraq is starting to affect the world's view of the American population, American products, American culture and even the American landscape itself (people rate it as less beautiful than they did when I started running the survey two years ago).

In such times, it is important to remind the world of the distinction between State and Nation. The traditional view of governments is that in times of conflict, it is important to create a picture of domestic solidarity and support for foreign policy: in fact, it is probably wiser to do exactly the opposite, if the government truly has the long-term interests of the country at heart. The more a government allows and encourages dissenting voices to emerge from its own citizens, the more principled actions that are carried out - even or especially if they are politically opposed to the foreign policy - the more emphasis that is placed on cultural values, and so forth, the more effectively the core 'nation brand' is protected against the damaging effect of the government's overseas adventures. And this act of protection is essential, because a strong and positive 'nation brand' is fundamental to doing business, attracting talent and capital and visitors, supporting the government's other international engagements, and eventually to recovering the esteem in which the nation is held once the foreign policy has run its course.

This does not mean that business, or culture, or society have to become apologists for their government's foreign policy: quite the contrary. They should be allowed to express dissent, encouraged to 'defend the honour of the population', and helped to speak more loudly about other aspects of national life. This is why, in the United States, the work of Business for Diplomatic Action is so important: by encouraging good 'commercial diplomacy' amongst American businesses operating abroad, it is helping to protect the 'brand' of America against further damage, and ensuring a quicker recovery of the national reputation once the policy direction changes.

This argument suggests that in times of unpopular overseas engagements, it might be more productive for a government to invest heavily in areas such as tourism promotion, cultural relations and export promotion than in overtly political public diplomacy: dropping bombs out of one plane and leaflets out of the next is patently futile, and trying to persuade people who feel they have good reason to hate you that they should love you is likely to be counter-productive. You can't argue with public opinion, and it is very difficult to change the subject. But strong reminders of the reasons why perhaps people liked your country in the first place is likely to do less harm and might even do some good.

Philanthropy (when it's international in scope) is also important in shaping national image because it's one of the few ways in which the people of the country can "speak" directly and unofficially to the rest of the world, and thereby remind us that we shouldn't deduce too much about the character and values of the whole nation from the policies of its government. The act of giving away large sums of money makes news on its own account, and is thus a self-amplifying and self-promoting means of demonstrating that the values and morals of the population are still in good shape.

And, increasingly, sub-national actors such as states, regions and cities can, by acting on moral principles that differ from those of the national government, help to prove that it might make sense for people in other countries to be against the government, but not against the nation. Such players have the advantage that their images are not usually associated with any particular politics, and that they can 'do' international relations without being held responsible for foreign policy. California's stance on climate change is a good example of this: and with the increasing political and economic power of cities, it is clear that city diplomacy is likely to play a significant role in international relations in the coming years.

There is, alas, no such thing as international democracy, and no matter how deeply people in other countries might be affected by the decisions of the US President, they have no say in his or her election. In the absence of such mechanisms, it is all the more important that the people of the country, its businesses and culture, have the means to separate their 'civil' reputation from the 'statal' one which is both the responsibility and the dessert of their government.

National governments will find, no matter how moral their foreign policies, that from time to time it is difficult to avoid making enemies. It is at such times that being able to call on different voices is the best insurance policy against longer term reputational damage. A prudent government will see the sense of investing constantly in longer-term cultural, commercial and social relations with other states, and building up a substantial international store of goodwill, respect and mutual understanding, at least partly in the expectation that such events will, sooner or later, probably occur.