Saturday, March 26, 2016

[guest post] Evaluating public participation in diplomacy - part two

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The complexity of international relations has forced states to change how they conduct diplomacy institutionally. There has been growing debate about the proliferation of a kind of diplomacy that occurs through the activities of civil society. To the extent that this engagement expands conceptions of diplomacy beyond the traditional state-to-state interactions, it promises a new way of conducting international affairs that can empower public involvement in this complex arena.

The proliferation of a sort of diplomacy that occurs not only within the confines of foreign offices exists thanks to the use of new communication technologies, which broaden the set of actions and the practice of stakeholder engagement and/or popular participation. On one hand, diplomats are increasingly using new social networking platforms such as blogs and Facebook; on the other, the public relies on the Internet to find information and to check out diplomatic activities. Citizens are more aware than ever before of events beyond the borders of their country. These changes raise questions about how foreign policy is formulated and conducted and by whom – and are already influencing the way some governments act internationally.

Recently, as part of my research with an emphasis on foreign policy, diplomacy, and public participation, I conducted an online questionnaire that tested the feelings and beliefs diplomats have towards public participation. Although I’ve not yet completed my studies I’d like to share with Diplo’s alumni network a summary of my results.

There is, in fact, a commonplace belief that public participation may help to increase debates over foreign policy formulation to ensure there is greater support for the work of diplomatsFor some diplomats who answered the survey, ‘public participation enhances democracy and open governance’. Diplomats from developing countries also highlighted that public participation allows people ‘to feel part of the process of development’. Furthermore, all of them agreed that people are, indeed, ‘the main affected group as a result of foreign policy decisions’. Sceptical diplomats, conversely, challenge this claim, asserting that ‘these actors cannot be held to account in terms of international politics and foreign affairs’.

Some also argued that we have not democratised foreign affairs, which remains ‘the business of technicians’. From their point of view, there is a kind of interaction ‘but with a narrow scope only’. As some highlighted, in countries which have official institutionalised channels to engage with initiatives from civil society associations, ‘they have remained relatively modest to date’.

Another critique is that rather than involving all citizens in decision-making, ‘governments may prioritize informed participants or those with expert knowledge on the issue’, showing that public participation in diplomacy is still elitist in the sense that small groups of decision-makers are consulted prior to policy decisions being taken.

Rather than seeing public participation as an undermining of sovereignty, we can view it as heralding the emergence of a new political configuration. This theory is corroborated by diplomats who answered the survey: all respondents mentioned the issue of ‘negative public reaction’ before a tradition of not informing society on international issues. Just a few of them, though, still romanticise the confidential character of diplomacy.

As my studies have pointed out, there is a new way of conducting diplomacy which includes the public domain. This contemporary scenario highlights the need for more nimble, adaptable diplomatic and foreign policy structures. A decentralized diplomacy has emerged, and transparency and participation are elements associated with it. Here transparency is not only used to refer to openness and the right to participation but is also intended to make it easier for citizens and stakeholders to collaborate without technical, legal, economic or political restrictions in order to subject foreign policy to greater democratic participation and accountability. 

Blog post by Marina Neves
Marina Neves is a Commmunication Specialist currently completing her MA in International Politics at City University London. She has been studying public participation, public diplomacy or people's diplomacy, and e-governance since 2013. She appreciates the generous support from DiploFoundation for her research process.

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