Ryan J. Suto's Blog

25 February 2011

Moral Relativism and Public Diplomacy

To continue my ‘X and Public Diplomacy’ blog series, I wish to discuss the importance of moral relativism—or moral absolutism—in the realm of public diplomacy and foreign policy in general.

For centuries, the European view of indigenous people was paternalistic and ethnocentric—to not be Europeans and Christian instantly diminished the worth of a person or a value. Recently (relatively speaking), many in the West have shifted, as if to make up for past injustices, toward a more judgment-free approach toward the moral values of other cultures. This view, moral relativism, is ubiquitous in anthropological and sociological literature. As a modern, accepting people, so the argument goes, we shall not narrow-mindedly impose our morals on others.

The question, of course, is this: is there an objective measure by which one can judge the morals of a people? Sam Harris, in his new book The Moral Landscape, seems to think so. Harris holds that the highest moral good is that which promotes the well-being of all sentient creatures. Thus, any act that is counter to promoting general well-being is morally bad. Despite being well versed in philosophy, he glosses over centuries of philosophical discourse on the subject and falls into a form of utilitarianism.

However, Harris makes a key point: unknown is not the same as unknowable. Just because we have yet to coalesce on a singular measure of objective moral judgment does not mean that we will not be able to do so in the future. On this point I agree. In light of the history of scientific and rational progress, we cannot say that the fields of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and anthropology will never advance and be able to determine that certain actions, beliefs, and principles are clearly counter to human well-being.

In light of recent events, are the rights that the Tunisians, Egyptians, and others fought for objectively morally good?  Can one say that deploring despotic rule is merely a subjective preference, based on little more than culturally arbitrary preferences? One’s answer to these questions is vital to one’s view of public diplomacy. If the answer is that there is no objective truth on such moral questions, then why should the American people try to influence other cultures with portraying our values of democracy and human rights? If public diplomacy is only to serve our subjectivity to the ends of our national trade or diplomacy interests, should it be valued as a legitimate field, or simply method of propaganda?

I view public diplomacy more expansively. I ask not (and promote not) what values best serves my country or my people in the economic and diplomatic sphere, I ask (and promote) what values I feel are objectively aligned with the promotion of human well-being. Anything less would relegate the validation of public diplomacy to a role morality.

When science catches up to society and we begin to get more answers to our most basic questions (and once it does, one cannot assume that any of our Western morals would prove to be best), I will be waiting—ready to view the evidence and improve my own public diplomacy. What right do I have to tell a conservative Muslim that women should not wear the veil? Someday, perhaps as much right as I have to tell a conservative Christian that the Earth is four and a half billion years old.

03 February 2011

Diagramming Public Diplomacy, ver. 2.0

My previous post on this concept was almost purposely not thought-out. After I ran the idea by a few professors, colleagues, and fellow bloggers, I feel better that this diagram is an elegant way to represent the basic relationships which involve public diplomacy.

Below the important institutions are represented by boxes; governments and non-governments. The first group is limited to Westphalian states, where I will ignore federal systems for simplicity. The second includes pretty much anything that isn’t a Westphalian state. That includes individual people, NGOs, corporations, interest groups, etc. We’ll call them publics for short.

(It is worth noting that is diagram is unintentionally similar to one discussed in: McDowell, Mark. "Public Diplomacy at the Crossroads: Definitions and Challenges in and 'Open Source' Era". The Flectcher Forum of World Affairs. Vol. 32:3 Special Edition 2008. Great minds think alike!)

            Communication between these institutions is shown by double-sided arrows. This is showing the two-way symmetrical communication that—in theory—occurs. Thus, the communication between governments is traditional diplomacy. This usually consists of state visits, summits, and diplomats communicating to each other. The arrows from a government to its people is called public affairs in the U.S. federal system (as well as many state systems), and simply is how publics communicate with their government, and vice versa.

Finally, we get to the good stuff: public diplomacy. The three remaining arrows are under the label of public diplomacy.
The diagonal arrows show the communication that occurs between governments and foreign publics. This occurs through official educational and professional exchange programs, cultural and tourism promotion, etc. from the government end. But, as this is a two-way model, how do publics communicate with a foreign government? I suppose by expressing opinions on the internet and demonstrations when foreign heads of state visit.
The last arrow shows the communication that occurs between publics of different Westphalian states. This occurs with private-funded exchanges, tourism, popular culture, commerce, migration, etc. In public diplomacy, much of this communication is not direct; it goes through the news media. Things such as the ‘CNN Effect’ or now the ‘Al Jazeera Effect’ influence these relationships by providing more indirect communication between publics and foreign governments or publics than there would likely be direct communication otherwise.

Now, it must be admitted that relying on the Westphalian state is a Euro-centric approach. Note that whether the communication is between a Westphalian state and foreign publics, or just two foreign (to each other) publics, it still is considered public diplomacy. There remains, however, an actual question of Euro-centricity: If two groups communicate—which do not qualify as Westphalian states, but nonetheless traditionally hold themselves as traditional sovereign nations—is that considered public diplomacy? For example, we have two tribes whose laws, traditions, values, etc. are quite different from one another and both consider their tribal leaders as their only source of civil authority. These tribes could either both be in places like eastern Sudan, Afghanistan, Oceania, or the Americas. Assuming neither tribe qualifies as a Westphalian state and both exist within the same Westphalian state, would communications between tribal leaders be considered traditional diplomacy? Would communication between a tribal leader and the people of the other tribe, or communication between the people of both tribes, be considered public diplomacy? While a strict application of my graph would answer in the negative, I feel this is a grey area. As many concepts are necessarily fluid, I feel this presents the middle ground between intrastate cultural relations and public diplomacy.

This diagram does not aim to describe the tactics, goals, or effectiveness of any particular public diplomacy organization or objective. By creating it, I simply wish to communicate an easily understandable framework for the field, so as to avoid an overly lengthy piece which drones on about the boundaries of the field and the implications of those boundaries. Seeing that this blog post clearly failed in avoiding that, I only hope that the diagram helps to orient those foreign to the concept as well as clarify the goals of those most familiar with it.