The New Public Diplomacy

CAMBRIDGE – The world of traditional power politics was typically about whose military or economy would win. In today’s information age, politics is also about whose “story” wins.

National narratives are, indeed, a type of currency. Governments compete with each other and with other organizations to enhance their own credibility and weaken that of their opponents. Witness the contest between the government and protesters after the Iranian elections in June 2009, in which the Internet and Twitter played crucial roles, or the recent controversy between Google and China.

Reputation has always mattered in world politics, but credibility has become crucial because of a “paradox of plenty.” When information is plentiful, the scarce resource is attention. Under the new conditions, a soft sell may, more than ever, prove more effective than a hard sell.

For example, the relative independence of the BBC, sometimes a source of consternation to British governments, has paid rich dividends in credibility, as illustrated by this account of Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete’s day: “he rises at dawn, listens to the BBC World Service, then scans the Tanzanian press.”