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by Dr. Abeer Bassiouny Arafa Ali Radwan

In this opinion piece, an Egyptian diplomat posits that the Turkish “flotilla” was a public diplomacy tool with some short-term success in damaging Israel’s standing in the world.   –Ed.

The Rise of Public Diplomacy
In a “knowledge society” as the world in which we live, culture and communication are the keys not only to technological progress and economic prosperity, but also to social cohesion and sustainable development.   Public Diplomacy is becoming an increasingly important asset in a globalized world. Public Diplomacy deals with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies.  It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy including the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another; the reporting of foreign affairs and its impact on policy; the communication between diplomats and foreign correspondents; and the processes of inter-cultural communications.

Public Diplomacy—that is the open exchange of ideas and information—is an inherent characteristic of democratic societies.  Its global mission is central to foreign policy and it remains indispensable to national interests, ideals, and leadership roles in the world.  Simply put, Public Diplomacy is the effort by the government of one nation to influence public or elite opinion of another nation for the purpose of turning the policy of the target nation to some advantage.1
Public Diplomacy includes:

  • Government to foreign publics (elite versus mass)
  • Professional media practitioners
  • Publicity justified in terms of democratic accountability and/or open government
  • Public scrutiny, thus bound by telling “the truth”

Public Diplomacy hopefully “leads to greater mutual understanding and peace” by using soft power—the ability to get one’s desired outcomes because others want what you want.  This is the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion and it works by convincing others to follow or getting them to agree to norms and institutions that produce the desired behavior.2

Public Diplomacy as a new diplomacy requires different skills, techniques, and attitudes than those found in traditional diplomacy.  This specific nature of public diplomacy makes it useful for non-state actors too. Moreover, a number of over-arching trends have increased the importance of both public affairs and Public Diplomacy in contemporary diplomacy, which makes these qualities available to several actors. These include: the increased importance of public opinion; the rise of a more intrusive and global media; the increase in global transparency brought about by advances in communication; the related phenomenon of a more activist civil society; and the rise of a global culture adhering to a desire to protect culture diversity.  In a globalized world, public opinion matters more than ever. With publics more distrustful of governments, demanding greater transparency and input into policy making, governments can no longer count on “spin” to overcome communication challenges.  States are not just witnessing a qualitative change in the relationship between the state and its citizens but also one that is spreading across the globe.  Of globalization’s many effects, one of the most profound for diplomatic practice is the ability of citizens to access, use, and disseminate information.  This new reality creates competencies for citizen activism on a global scale.3  Non-governmental organizations working globally certainly can and do use this “new” type of diplomacy.

The case of “Flotillas”
In the Middle East, with its vast range of war and peace situations, new diplomatic methods, as well as new weapons, are tested.  For example, one of the biggest events of Public Diplomacy happened in Cairo last year when President Obama made his speech to the Islamic world from Egypt.  This speech was a classic case of pure traditional Public Diplomacy.  Afterwards a larger and more vivid example of Public Diplomacy was that provided by the Flotillas.

By the end of May and the beginning of June 2010, Israeli naval forces intercepted Turkish and Irish vessels carrying both state and NGO-sponsored humanitarian aid going to Gaza. The Israelis ordered these ships to dock in Israeli ports. The Turkish NGO vessel refused and Israeli naval personnel boarded by force, which  resulted in ten personnel killed and others injured from the Turkish side. On the other hand the Irish vessel complied completely with the Israeli orders and thus never went to Gaza. The mission of these “flotillas” was certainly achieved in the eyes of the flotilla participants when the majority of the world condemned Israel and used the naval boarding as an example of Israeli unreasonableness and brutality.  These same flotilla participants hope such incidents will lead to the further alienation of Israel from the global community forcing Israel to return to the peace process and to lift the blockade on Gaza.4

Beyond the virtue of Israel’s raid on the flotillas or the flotillas attempts themselves, this incident has revealed several important arguments concerning how the use of Public Diplomacy could help end the blockade of Gaza and also motivate the stalled Israel-Palestine peace process as follows:

  • Israel, in the eyes of many, is making itself a “Pariah” in the international community.5  The operation triggered a political debate inside Israel between those who believe that Israel’s increasing isolation over the Gaza issue is dangerous versus those who think any weakening of resolve is dangerous.  It has shown that Israel is locked on a course that gives it freedom of action in military domain; that is, the Israeli response as a show of force.  Israel is far less dependent economically on the United States or on Europe. The quantity of aid supplied to it has lessened considerably as the Israeli economy has grown.  Israel is now a member of OECD and, as such, this incident strengthens the Netanyahu government since he came to power by campaigning against what he saw as dangerous concessions by the previous government.
  • Public sympathy does not make policies. The flotillas’ wars of public opinion have succeeded but with limited effect on changing the situation in the Middle East.  The Western public opinion shifted for a time against Israel, and perhaps Western political leaders will track with this shift, despite Israeli’s attempt to portray the flotilla as a probable extremist plot.  Public opinion matters where issues are not of fundamental interest to a nation.  Other than to the U.S., it seems that Israel is not a fundamental interest to other nations. The shift in public opinion may open the way to a disadvantaged US-Israeli relationship. The Israelis will argue that this is all unfair since they were provoked and that position will receive support from Western states.6  Moreover, the White House does not want to do anything drastic that will affect President Obama’s chances of a second term and too much pressure on Israel could cost him in the polls.7 Therefore, world opinion, which is often indecisive, has limited effect on the course of action of the Middle East peace process.
  • America’s despair on any Middle East peace progress demonstrates the limits of US leverage on Israel.  Israel has just demonstrated that the US cannot control Israel and this fact undermines any confidence Arab countries might place in US promises relating to Israeli behaviors.  Israel refuses to be bound by US promises relating to the peace process.8 It is important to remember here that Israel would be able to function quite effectively in the short run without the US but in the long run a split with the US would be significant. The strategic problem9 is that the Israel freedom of action in the short run could change the strategic framework in which it operates over the long run.  Israel’s vulnerability in the long run comes from forces that could be generated in the Arab world that eventually change the balance of power.
  • The imbalance of power in the region is self-evident. Where there is no balance of power, the dominant nation can act freely. This realistic point of view tends to force neighbors to try to create a balance of power. The Israeli have the upper hand in the short term but what they must calculate is whether they will retain the upper hand if they continue on their course. Division in the Arab world, including among the Palestinians, cannot disappear overnight, nor can it quickly generate a strategic military threat, but the current configuration of the Arab world is not fixed. Therefore, defusing the current crisis would seem to be a long-term strategic necessity for Israel.  In the mean time, the profound divisions in the Arab world both protect Israel and make diplomatic solutions to its challenge almost impossible.  The Palestinian division between Fatah and Hamas is only one element that hinders the peace process. The most important change for Israel would not be unity among the Palestinians, but a shift in Egypt’s policy and in its military capability.  If for example Turkey aligned with Egypt, which could speed Egypt’s military recovery, this alliance would create a significant threat to Israel. Turkey’s emerging power combined with a political shift in the Arab world could represent a profound danger to Israel.  The politico-military consequence of public opinion is the key question and it is in this context that Israel must evaluate its current disagreement with Turkey.10

Flotillas have helped develop the concept of Public Diplomacy and have taken it from the state domain to the non-state domain; however, the success of the flotillas does not mean their continued success in using Public Diplomacy as a tool.  Public Diplomacy, either traditional state or non-state aspects, is not able to target long-term goals.  Non-state factors have wide ranges of space to use Public Diplomacy through their various effects on mass media.  The positive result of using the Public Diplomacy tool depends on the capacity of mixing hard power with soft power in the Joseph Nye formula of “smart power.” Attracting and persuading public opinion usually has a short term effect as the public changes opinions fast and often is not ready to be mobilized for foreign policy issues.  Turkish NGOs proved their ability to mobilize public opinion in the short term but they could not go further to achieve diplomatic solutions.  This problem lies within a domain that requires work by future acts of non-state public diplomacy.bluestar

1. Evan H. Potter, Discussion Papers in Diplomacy: Canada and the New Public Diplomacy, Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, ISSN 1569-2981, p3.

2. Philip M. Taylor,Propaganda, Public Diplomacy & Psychological Operations, Lecture 2 retrieved from:

3. Evan H. Potter, Op. cit., p10.

4.George Friedman, “Flotillas and the Wars of Public Opinion,” STRATFOR, created May 31, 2101, retrieved from

5.  Max Fisher, “How Israel Flotilla Crisis May Change the Peace Process,” June 1, 2010, The Atlantic Wire, retrieved from

6. George Friedman, Op. cit.

7. David Harris, “Optimism After Gaza Flotilla Episode,” June 3, 2010, Xinhuanet News Agency,

8.  Max Fisher, Op. cit.

9. George Friedman, Op. cit.

10. Loc. Cit.

This article represents the academic view of the author and does not reflect in any way the opinion of her country or her employer.

Abeer Bassiouny Arafa Ali Radwan is a diplomat, working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Cairo, EgyptShe holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Political Science from the Cairo University, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus on Information Technology and Management from the Maastricht School of Management, Netherlands, a second Master’s Degree in Political Science with a focus on International Relations and Humanitarian Intervention from Cairo University, and a doctorate from Cairo University in International Relations with a focus on International Organizations.


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