The Short-Sightedness of “Unshackling” British Diplomacy from Brussels

Once again I’m finding news to be very distracting–between Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to focus (I feel like I’ve been saying that since 2016, though…). But I noticed something in the news today that actually is relevant to public diplomacy scholars–British diplomats are leaving Brussels now, before Brexit even happens.

British diplomats will pull out from the EU’s institutional structures of power in Brussels within days, under plans being drawn up by Downing Street.

In an attempt to reinforce the message that the UK is leaving the EU by 31 October, “do or die”, the UK will stop attending the day-to-day meetings that inform the bloc’s decision-making.

The move under discussion is said by UK officials to be in line with Boris Johnson’s first statement in the House of Commons, in which he said he would “unshackle” British diplomacy from EU affairs.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Admittedly, I didn’t watch Boris Johnson’s statement, but it’s not surprising and it sounds just like him. It’s a symbolic move, as the article says, and would just end up hurting UK interests in the end because we’re removing ourselves from discussions that impact us. “Do or die” is the most undiplomatic language to describe foreign affairs–but Boris is a very undiplomatic figure, too.

In dealing with this hot mess of foreign policy, one expert was quoted as saying that the UK would need to invest heavily in public diplomacy, including involvement from the private sector:

Paul Adamson, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said the UK government would need to build up its embassy in Brussels after Brexit.

He said: “One of the many ironies of Brexit is that the UK government will have to significantly increase its diplomatic presence in Brussels – as well as in key EU capitals – both to find out what is going on in meetings from which it will be excluded but also to try to influence the direction of EU policy making. Brussels decisions will continue to impact the UK.

“[The government] and its agencies will have to invest heavily in public diplomacy to repair alliances and to forge new ones. The private sector, whether its business, civil society, the think-tank world and the like, will very much need to be part of this exercise”.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Although it definitely makes some good points, this statement reminded me of a key takeaway from Phil Taylor’s Masters class in public diplomacy:

No amount of public diplomacy can make up for bad policy.

It is not a solution for the inevitable problems that will arise if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It’s not an alternative form of international relations, or a consolation prize. Public diplomacy works best as an adjunct, supporting traditional diplomatic relations between states by offering additional (not alternative) forms of engagement. It also includes listening, something that the current UK government doesn’t seem interested in, given this premature disengagement in Brussels.

To illustrate the concept of PD not being a cure-all, Phil Taylor used to use the example of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers’ failed efforts in the Middle East during the Iraq War. The “Shared Values” campaign was a particularly memorable disaster–a commercial-length TV program showing Muslim Americans talking about their life in America.

“Actors in the program talked of tolerance and religious freedom in lines including, ‘In my neighborhood all the non-Muslims, I see that they care a lot about family values just as much as I do. I didn’t quite see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after September 11.’ Several countries in the Middle East refused to air the programs entirely.”

Anna Tiedeman, p. 22

Phil used to point out a major flaw in the “Shared Values” strategy: Middle East audiences didn’t want to hear “how good life was for Muslim Americans” while at the same time their country was being invaded by US and coalition troops, homes were being bombed, and innocent civilians were dying. “Good for them,” he’d shrug, “but what about us?”

These international broadcasting and information campaigns weren’t the only efforts–the US also re-established the Iraq Fulbright Program in 2003, and included other exchange initiatives in its public diplomacy efforts. Teresa Brawner Bevis’s book on post-9/11 US-Middle East educational exchange noted a dramatic rise in Americans studying Arabic and Middle East area studies, as well as studying abroad in the region–but this may have been too little, too late:

“The increase in numbers of Americans studying abroad was good news for policy makers, who for decades had lamented how few people in the United States studied the Middle East, a situation that created shortages of expertise in the military, intelligence services, and diplomatic corps.”

Bevis, 2016, Higher Education Exchange between America and the Middle East in the Twenty-First Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 87

The long-standing, systemic problems in US-Middle East relations, combined with the context of the Iraq War, meant that public diplomacy efforts could never repair Middle Eastern audiences’ negative perception of America. US foreign policy would always nullify any amount of public diplomacy.

Boris Johnson doesn’t care about that, of course, but it’s something the British people and officials should take notice of–crashing out of the EU with a “do or die” attitude will be remembered, and it will matter far more to global perceptions of the UK than any version of a British ‘Shared Values’ campaign.

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