Three Suggestions for Latvian Public Diplomacy

While my previous article of this series discussed three challenges that the Latvian public diplomacy is facing – structural issues, low level of NGO-engagement and image problems – this article aims to offer three conceptual approaches suitable for the Latvian public diplomacy. It is obvious that the problems mentioned previously need to be addressed. However, all the efforts would be in vain unless they all form a strategy based on an academic foundation.

There are in total six approaches to public diplomacy[1]: listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, international broadcasting and psychological warfare (the most controversial of all, thus is often put aside). The argument put forward is that Latvian public diplomacy should start with listening, followed by cultural and exchange diplomacy.

Nicholas Cull, one of the leading researchers in the field, argues that a good public diplomacy always starts with listening.[2] It helps to adjust and reformulate the public diplomacy strategy based on the perceptions and opinions of the public, local and foreign, as well as to assess the results of the previous actions. In case of Latvia, listening is decisive. There has been little attempt to ask both Latvians and the foreigners what they think about Latvia, how they view it, what are their associations, stereotypes, and beliefs. Yet, public diplomacy strategy cannot be formulated from nothing, there should necessarily be “input data”, which is exactly what listening helps to get. As a successful example of listening, Cull offers the story of Switzerland: in 2000, there was a unit called “Presence Switzerland” established within the structure of the Federal Department for Foreign Affairs, the task of which was to adjust country’s international image – and which it did through image surveys in various countries across the globe.[3] It is not an easy task to give another example because it usually remains unclear whether a decision was influenced solely by the results of listening or in combination with others.

Cultural diplomacy is another component. This is what Cull calls “facilitating cultural transmission abroad.”[4] Put simply, the purpose is to make Latvian culture known abroad through exhibitions, popularizing the language, organizing and participating in artistic and other cultural events, etc. The idea is to highlight the achievements of the Latvian culture, emphasize its unique features and make it attractive. The best time to do it would be right now: because of the rising interest in eco-tourism and conscious attitude towards nature, Latvia could easily use this trend in its favor. On the positive side, cultural diplomacy has already been used in Latvian history: the Baltic Way with around two million people forming an endless chain and singing was a successful attempt to drive the world’s attention to the Baltic States’ discontent with the Soviet regime.

The third approach to focus at is exchange diplomacy. As derives from the name, it refers to a usually reciprocal exchange of citizens. While reciprocity is not obligatory, two-sided exchange would bring mutual benefit. World famous Fulbright program proves that exchange diplomacy is a powerful tool capable of changing country’s image. This approach has already been implemented: Latvian students participate in the exchange programmes, such as Erasmus, so do professionals. This ensures both broadening and deepening the ties with other countries, this is why exchange is crucial.  

A fair question could arise: why these? There are substantial reasons to prefer these three approaches to the others.

Advocacy refers to active policy promotion. Best illustrated with an example, advocacy is a key approach of the American public diplomacy. Although certain elements of advocacy might be present, making an emphasis on it would decrease the level of flexibility. Being flexible, in turn, for Latvia, as a small state, is mandatory. International Broadcasting refers to an attempt to shape the views of the foreign audience through modern technologies. It would be unrealistic, at least today, to assume that Latvian media could compete with such major players as CNN or BBC. Moreover, Cull suggests considering International Broadcasting as a parallel activity to public diplomacy anyway. Finally, Psychological Warfare does not fit for at least three reasons. First, it lies outside of classical public diplomacy because of its controversial character. Second, using a de facto propaganda (which psychological warfare essentially is) hardly suits the needs and interests of a democratic state.  Finally – and most importantly – it is a wartime instrument.

Thus, in order for the Latvian public diplomacy strategy to work, agenda should include the three approaches outlined earlier. Nation-branding activities, marketing campaigns and other tools borrowed from the world of advertising and PR may come in handy. The agenda-setters might also consider an option to copy success stories of the Nordic countries or Estonia. Yet, before doing that, policymakers should have an elaborate story of Latvia, which they are going to tell to the world. A proper story should not impose but reflect the opinions of the public. This is why a good public diplomacy always starts with listening.

[1] Cull, Nicholas J. Public Diplomacy: Lessons from the Past (Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2009), p.24.

[2] Ibid., p.18.

[3] Ibid., p.29

[4] Ibid., p.19

Published 11 October 2017

Author Anastasija Aleksejeva