Elizabeth C. Hanson
The intellectual impetus for international communication research has come from a variety of disciplines, notably political science, sociology, psychology, social psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and, of course, communication science and international relations. Although highly diverse in content, international communication scholarship, past and current, falls into distinct research traditions or areas of inquiry. The content and focus of these have changed over time in response to innovations in communication technologies and to the political environment.
The development and spread of radio and film in the 1920s and 1930s increased public awareness and scholarly interest in the phenomenon of the mass media and in issues regarding the impact on public opinion. The extensive use of propaganda as an instrument of policy by all sides in World War I, and the participation of social scientists in the development of this instrument, provided an impetus for the development of both mass communication and international communication studies. There was a heavy emphasis on the micro level effects, the process of persuasion. Strategic considerations prior to and during World War II reinforced this emphasis.
World War II became an important catalyst for research in mass communication. Analytical tools of communication research were applied to the tasks of mobilizing domestic public support for the war, understanding enemy propaganda, and developing psychological warfare techniques to influence the morale and opinion of allied and enemy populations.
During the Cold War, U.S foreign policy goals continued to shape the direction of much research in international communication, notably “winning hearts and minds” of strategically important populations in the context of the East-West conflict. As new states began to emerge from colonial empires, communication became an important component of research on development. “Development research” emphasized the role of the mass media in guiding and accelerating development. This paradigm shaped both national and international development programs throughout the 1960’s. It resurfaced in the 1980s with a focus on telecommunication, and again in the 1990s, in modified form under the comprehensive label “information and communication technologies for development.” Development communication met serious criticism in the 1970s as the more general modernization paradigm was challenged.
The emergence of new information and communication technologies in the 1990s inspired a vast literature on their impact on the global economy, foreign policy, the nation state and, more broadly, on their impact on power structures and social change. The beginning of the 21st century marks a transition point as the scholarship begins to respond to multiple new forms of communication and to new directions taken by the technologies that developed and spread in the latter part of the previous century
Public diplomacy is a subfield of political science and international relations that involves study of the process and practice by which nation-states and other international actors engage global publics to serve their interests. It developed during the Cold War as an outgrowth of the rise of mass media and public opinion drivers in foreign policy management. The United States, in a bipolar ideological struggle with the Soviet Union, recognized that gaining public support for policy goals among foreign populations worked better at times through direct engagement than traditional, often closed-door, government-to-government contact. Public diplomacy is still not a defined academic field with an underlying theory, although its proximity to the originator of soft power, Joseph Nye, places it closer to the neoliberal school that emphasizes multilateral pluralistic approaches in international relations. The term is a normative replacement for the more pejorative-laden propaganda, centralizes the role of the civilian in international relations to elevate public engagement above the level of manipulation associated with government or corporate propaganda. Building mutual understanding among the actors involved is the value commonly associated with public diplomacy outcomes of an exchange or cultural nature, along with information activities that prioritize the foreign policy goals and national interests of a particular state. In the mid-20th century, public diplomacy’s emphasis was less scholarly and more practical—to influence foreign opinion in competition with nation-state rivals. In the post-Cold War period, the United States in particular pursued market democracy expansion in the newly industrializing countries of the East. Soft power, the negative and positive attraction that flows from an international actor’s culture and behavior, became the favored term associated with public diplomacy. After 9/11, messaging and making a case for one’s agenda to win the hearts and minds of a Muslim-majority public became predominant against the backdrop of a U.S.-led global war on terrorism and two active interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Public diplomacy was utilized in one-way communication campaigns such as the Shared Values Initiative of the U.S. Department of State, which backfired when its target-country audiences rejected the embedded messages as self-serving propaganda. In the 21st century, global civil society and its enemies are on the level of any diplomat or culture minister in matters of public diplomacy. Narrative competition in a digital and networked era is much deeper, broader, and adversarial while the mainstream news media, which formerly set how and what we think about, no longer holds dominance over national and international narratives. Interstate competition has shifted to competition from nonstate actors who use social media as a form of information and influence warfare in international relations. As disparate scholars and practitioners continue to acknowledge public diplomacy approaches, the research agenda will remain case-driven, corporate-centric (with the infusion of public relations), less theoretical, and more global than its Anglo-American roots.