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The Royal Institute of International Affairs
June 21, 1994

by Walter R. Roberts

It is a great pleasure to be here today and to share with you some thoughts on how the conduct of foreign affairs has changed in the wake of the communications revolution—a revolution that has altered our lives as decisively as the industrial revolution of the last century. We experience it in all our activities. Instantaneous communication has become the order of the day. Nowhere has its impact been more profound than in the conduct of foreign policy.

When Benjamin Franklin represented the new American government at the court of Louis XVI, he received his instructions by sailing ship. One story has it that after not hearing from Ambassador Franklin for a year, President George Washington mused: “Perhaps we should send him a letter.” There is no doubt that in his negotiations with the French government, Franklin actually exercised, in that now archaic phrase, “extraordinary and plenipotentiary powers.”

As sail gave way to steam and then to internal combustion and jet engines, the time required to carry the written and printed word physically from place to place was progressively shortened. Franklin, as a pioneer scientist, would have appreciated even more the use of electricity to transmit messages via telegraph and telephone. But neither he, nor most of my generation, just a few short decades ago could have foreseen how electronics, satellite television, fax, email, fiber optics, the Internet, and other digital technologies would transform diplomacy.

Those in charge of foreign policy, be they the president of the United States or the prime minister of Great Britain, face situations their predecessors never experienced. Literally every important event around the globe is instantaneously reported, most of the time on television, and reporters, whose numbers have increased enormously in recent years, expect immediate reactions from policy makers, who in turn often feel it necessary to comment when silence and quiet consideration would be preferable.

I am very much aware that in the United States this problem has reached wider proportions than in other parts of the world, including here in Britain. But the difference is only one of degree, and since the world is so closely interconnected, foreign policy statements in Washington have immediate policy and media ramifications here in London, and for that matter anywhere else around the globe.

When I started working in the State Department some forty years ago, the press office was basically a one-man operation. Cigar-smoking Mike McDermott, a former newspaperman, was the press secretary. His door was always open. The few reporters who covered the State Department would wander in once a day to inquire whether any press releases could be expected and whether there was anything worth reporting. What was the Secretary of State up to? Was he in town? Or on a trip?

The communications revolution has changed all this dramatically.

Three aspects in the changed conduct of foreign policy are worthy of examination.

The first concerns the actual organization and functioning of a foreign ministry in the information age. I won’t dwell on this at length, because it has been excellently described by Steward Eldon, a British Foreign Service officer. In a recent paper written while detached to Harvard University, he assesses the belated response of many foreign ministries, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the State Department, to the information revolution. Eldon describes the information systems policy makers now use to respond as quickly as possible to news as it becomes immediately available from anywhere in the world. These days, foreign ministries are equipped with two-way video, fax machines, email, computerized retrieval systems, etc. They face a more formidable task than do most other government agencies, and indeed many non-governmental organizations, in that the security of their far-flung communications must be considered. Fortunately, new technologies have overcome this problem to a large extent. Today, secure instantaneous communication exists between a foreign office and practically every Foreign Service post abroad.

The second aspect of the changed conduct of foreign policy is how the decision-making process itself has been altered, particularly by the pervasive impact of satellite television.

Pictures undeniably are more powerful than sounds and the printed word. If you see something, be it a flood or a massacre, you are more involved than when you hear or read about it even if the reporter’s description is graphic. Television, in a very short time, has changed the conduct of domestic and foreign policy. Internal politics are overwhelmingly shaped by television. In the United States, for instance, candidates often are selected on the basis of their television image; important speeches are given during prime time; bad news is held if possible until late Friday afternoon; and politicians jockey for invitations to the Sunday talk shows.

In international affairs, too, policy makers are adjusting to the consequences of the information revolution. Gone are the days when a government routinely could think a problem through and arrive at a decision after careful review of all possible implications. With instantaneous communication, with pictures flashing on television screens, policy makers feel impelled to comment, because if they do not, others who have their own agenda will fill the void. As a result, their comments often are not as well considered and developed as they should be, and the conduct of foreign policy, never easy, has become enormously more complicated.

A great deal has been said and written about the profound impact of television on foreign policy. As the 1993 report of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy put it, “Television pictures—instantaneous, compelling, pervasive, unpredictable—shape history and directly affect the thoughts and actions of policymakers: Chinese students in Tiananmen Square; starving children in Somalia; prison camps in Bosnia; American hostages in the Middle East; Germans on the Berlin Wall; President Bush and Saddam Hussein on CNN; missiles streaking through the skies of Israel and Iraq; Russian President Boris Yeltsin on a tank opposing an attempted coup; or the same coup plotters, uncomfortable and failing to persuade, in a news conference watched around the world.”

On the other hand, a recent study by Nik Gowing, the diplomatic editor for ITN’s Channel 4 news here in London, challenges the assumption that television pictures drive foreign policy making. Yet his paper, which he wrote while a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Barone Center, admits that television pictures can have a great impact, especially when it comes to responding with humanitarian aid. Indeed, it is undeniable that live pictures of starving children led to UN intervention in Somalia. But it is also a fact that live pictures of mangled bodies in Sarajevo in 1992 led to UN sanctions against Belgrade. Had it not been for television, it is unlikely these UN actions would have taken place, or at least their nature and timing would have been quite different.

As an aside, while watching the ceremonies commemorating D-day, I wondered what impact television, had it existed fifty years ago, would have had on the further conduct of operations. Of course, General Eisenhower could have banned television coverage, but what if the Germans, conscious of the psychological warfare impact of floating bodies and of beaches covered with dead British, American, and Canadian soldiers, had made these clips available to Western TV stations? We will never know the answer, but at least the possibility exists that such television pictures might have affected the conduct of the war.

When the impact of television on the conduct of foreign affairs is discussed, the question is often raised whether, and if so what, limits should be placed on television producers and reporters to avoid their undue influence on foreign policy. I believe this is a non-starter. While TV producers and reporters, of course, carry a heavy responsibility, freedom of the press in a democracy is a given, and there is very little policy makers can do except stress from time to time the importance of responsible journalism. Moreover, while television is a “real-time” medium, newspapers have had great influence on international affairs for centuries. And many instances can be cited where the impact of the press was decisive, even in declarations of war.

More important is the question: what should foreign policy makers do to forestall TV from controlling their decisions? This is a tall order but not insolvable.

First, it is axiomatic that today’s foreign policy makers must be completely at ease with the medium of television. In other words, they must not only be foreign policy experts like their predecessors, they must also be polished articulators.

Second, they must be quick and decisive thinkers. More often than not, they do not have the luxury of extensive deliberations with advisors, and they are forced to state their views earlier rather than later. But whenever possible they should leave room for reconsideration as circumstances may require, to avert embarrassment should later reformulation or actual policy revisions become necessary.

Third, they must resist letting television become what U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has called the north star of foreign policy. Television should not impel foreign policy makers to react to every gruesome picture from anywhere in the world. “No comment” and “I take your question” are still perfectly acceptable options if handled astutely.

Fourth, television also offers today’s policy makers enormous opportunities, which their predecessors did not have. Through television they can address and seek to influence their own citizens directly, and indeed the citizens of other countries.

All this brings me to the third aspect of foreign policy in the information age: diplomacy.

Not so long ago, indeed during my own diplomatic career, the concept of diplomacy was clearly delineated as a relationship between governments. Diplomats presented their government’s point of view to representatives of other governments. The idea that a government would try to reach the people of another country was anathema in peacetime.

In war time, of course, when ordinary diplomatic relations are broken, the attempt to reach the hearts and minds of the adversary goes far back in history. Many instances can be cited in which the messages of one warring party had decisive influence on the adversary’s will to fight.

Two events led eventually to the changed nature of diplomacy: the invention of radio and the Bolshevik revolution. When Marconi made it possible for one government to reach the people of another country directly without going through customs and immigration control so that its messages entered the living rooms of homes abroad, a new era had arrived. And when the Soviet government used radio to send political messages in peacetime to citizens of foreign countries, urging them to rise up against their own governments, the old concept of diplomacy received a major jolt.

At first, democracies rejected the idea of reaching the people of another country in peacetime, but slowly it dawned on them that this field could not be left entirely to authoritarian countries, particularly when Nazi Germany not only copied the Soviets but greatly improved their methods. Even before World War II, democracies began to transmit governmental messages to other peoples, mainly through shortwave broadcasts but also through governmentally sponsored cultural contacts. But the foreign offices of the world, while viewing these efforts as benefiting diplomacy, were insistent that a firewall be established between diplomacy and informational and cultural programs.

The information revolution, however, has for all intents and purposes, removed the firewall. In today’s world, diplomatic relations can no longer be conducted by diplomats talking exclusively with officials of foreign governments. Diplomacy now involves not only government-to-government relations but also relations with the people of other countries. It is not enough to explain one’s policy to the various foreign offices. In today’s information age, it is equally important to explain and advocate one’s policy to the people of other countries, because their influence on government decision-making processes is increasingly decisive as the world becomes more democratic and media environments more open.

In a remarkable but surprisingly underreported speech before the United Nations in 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev said that, due to the communications revolution, “the preservation of any kind of closed society is hardly possible.” The subsequent emergence of democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union proved how right he was, and there is no doubt in my mind that his observation will eventually be borne out everywhere in the world.

Communicating with foreign publics about one’s policy, then, is not just a matter of public relations or getting a “good press.” It is a political necessity. Unless we communicate effectively with the people in foreign countries about our policies, we will be unable to cope adequately with the problems of our age, problems that are increasingly international in scope, requiring the concerted action of diverse national governments and the rallying of public support across national boundaries.

The information revolution has compressed the time and distance that once separated countries in all parts of the globe. More importantly, it has changed the character and dimension of the problems governments must confront. Increasingly, these problems cannot be confined within the borders of a single country nor adequately dealt with by a single government acting alone. In defense and security, trade and investment, industrial and immigration policies, human rights, protection of the environment, and science and technology, governments today must cope with issues that arouse the concerns, impinge on the interests, and even threaten the goals and values not just of their own country, but of individuals and constituencies across national lines.

Thus the information revolution poses a double challenge to the traditional diplomacy whereby elite groups within national governments customarily communicated about international problems only with each other and largely behind closed doors. The first challenge is to make sure that foreign policies have support at home. But with the growing impact of one country’s action on other countries, the second challenge is to make certain, as far as possible, that foreign publics also are correctly informed about, and supportive of, one’s foreign policies. Otherwise, foreign governments will be less inclined to lend their support.

Since what we say at home will be instantly reported abroad, policy explanations must be consistent to both domestic and foreign publics.

At embassies abroad, the communications revolution has significantly altered the role of the ambassador and indeed of all embassy personnel. Instructions are obtained instantaneously, not only by telegram, but also by telephone, fax, and email. As a result, ambassadors have less and less influence and leeway in policy matters. Modern transport and communication allow heads of government and foreign ministers to speak or meet together without the use of ambassadorial intermediaries. Detailed negotiations usually are conducted by specialists and technicians. It is not uncommon to hear ambassadors complain that they have become little more than glorified innkeepers for large numbers of visiting firemen who expect to be put up at the ambassador’s residence.

They need not be so self-deprecating. While the information age has greatly changed the role of the ambassador, it has not necessarily diminished it; in many respects it has increased in importance. In particular, articulation of policy to local media and publics is becoming central to this role. Ambassadors are their government’s principal spokesmen in the countries to which they are assigned, and with their titles and positions they should speak with authority and persuasiveness about their country’s policies. If they are fluent in the language of the country and experienced in the use of communications media, especially television, they can reach a wide range of people whose opinions can influence their government.

Most foreign ambassadors accredited to Washington have by now become adept in their efforts to reach the American people directly through television, public speeches, and appearances with editorial boards of major newspapers. Indeed, other countries often select their ambassadors to Washington primarily on the basis of their communication skills. As soon as an issue concerning a given country emerges, the ambassador from that country becomes available to the American media. For example, official spokesmen from Bosnia, speaking fluent English, have had a major influence on many Americans, including opinion molders who in turn have affected American policy. The British ambassador in Washington, Sir Robin Renwick, used a farewell dinner for the departing American ambassador to Britain, Admiral William Crowe, at a foreign policy think tank as a forum to articulate British policy on Bosnia, a policy somewhat at variance with the views of some leading American foreign affairs specialists who attended the occasion.

Another aspect of government-to-people diplomacy, which has taken on new scope and importance in the information age, is cultural relations. This involves not the transmission of political messages, but rather the creation of a positive image for the purpose of enhancing foreign policy objectives.

For years, the cultural directorate in the French foreign office has been the largest and in many respects one of the most influential sections of the Quai d’Orsay. The French believe that there is a need to present France to the world; that such activity will enhance French prestige and power, thereby facilitating accomplishment of the more specific and immediate purposes of French foreign policy; and that France’s cultural accomplishments have given her a special world eminence and role—la mission civilisatrice.

Austria, as another example, undertook a sophisticated campaign after the Second World War to minimize the then prevalent impression in the allied world that the Austrians, having welcomed Hitler in 1938, had participated actively in fighting the Allies, and had played a significant role in the persecution of Jews. Through cultural attractions—the Vienna Opera, Vienna Boys Choir, Lipizzaner horses—Austria was largely successful in changing that overall impression.

Indeed, not so many years ago, I sat at a dinner in Vienna next to a Polish delegate who, upon my question whether he liked Austria, answered in the negative. When I asked him why he felt that way, he pointed to Austria’s subtle propaganda campaign, which he said made the world believe that Hitler was a German and Beethoven an Austrian.

Prior to the communications revolution, information and cultural programs were regarded as something apart from the formulation and articulation of foreign policy. But these views have lost what relevance they may have had. Today’s diplomats must adjust to the new information age by reaching out not only to policy makers but importantly to the people of other countries.

Thus, the conduct of foreign policy has drastically changed. First, foreign offices must function differently with all the new technological tools at their disposal. Second, the decision making process has become more accelerated, wider in scope, and thus more complicated in the wake of television and the entry into one’s living room of the most graphic video clips. Finally, diplomacy is no longer a cozy relationship between governments but rather a much wider relationship among nations. Only if today’s foreign policy makers accept these new realities can their foreign policies be successful.bluestar




Author Dr. Walter R. Roberts started his government career with the Voice of America. He retired from the government after serving as Associate Director of the U.S. Information Agency. President George H. W. Bush appointed and President Bill Clinton reappointed him as member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.  He is the author of Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941-1945 and numerous articles on foreign policy.


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