Africa's Public Diplomacy and Soft Power Deficit as Potential

Published on 23rd September 2016

Africa is undergoing an unrelenting scramble for its body, soul and spirit by marauding established and emerging powers. The neo-colonial school in the social science fields has long concluded that national independence across the continent was largely cosmetic, as the so-called centre nations advertently and inadvertently found themselves back at the helm of their erstwhile colonies. It is no longer a question of whether external forces are in charge of Africa, but a question of who among the resources-hungry global powers wields more control than the other in Africa. The US, Western Europe (especially UK, France, Germany, Belgium and Italy), Australia, Russia, Japan, emerging powers notably China, India, Turkey, Brazil and Israel are all stampeding in a version similar to the Maasai Mara wildebeest migration, towards an increasingly starry eyed Africa. The most recent exemplification of African safaris by powerful nations is the recent Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD) in Nairobi. It has been framed as geo-competition between Japan and China with Africa as a mere bystander in the same way other jamborees convened by the US, EU and India have been seen.        

The pull factors attracting new and old powers onto the continent are largely economic but couched in political symbolism. A major plank in the geo-strategies being deployed to woo Africans finds expression in the dual terminologies of public diplomacy and soft power. At the very basic, public diplomacy is when one country influences the citizens of another country. Soft power  is the ability of one country to be attractive to the citizens of another country. The common denominators for China, US, Turkey, Italy, China, Japan, Israel, India, South Korea and other symmetrically superior countries that have come courting the continent in recent days is that they have all wrapped their intentions in public diplomacy and soft power narrative. 

African nations have largely swallowed the geo-strategies directed at them, lock, stock and barrel. It is time Africans woke up to the reality of the game of public diplomacy and soft power and became players rather than mere spectators on their own home ground! Just as Africa continues to be a magnet for global powers, the continent – collectively and at individual nation level – must seek to enhance its influence in the global system. A close examination and appropriation of the public diplomacy and soft power resources being deployed by its suitors provides a pathway for Africa to punch its way into relevance. Riding on the fact that it possesses the resources craved by the global hegemonies portends great opportunities for reverse public diplomacy and soft power that emerges from Africa and beams to the rest of the world.       

Public diplomacy and soft power underline strategies used by global powers to achieve their foreign policy goals without resorting to more expensive “forceful” means. In carrot and stick fashion, it is clear that an African country that declines a powerful nation’s entreaties will have to reckon with the hard power of the big brother. Sudan and Zimbabwe are exemplars of countries that declined the carrot of Western soft power – namely Western democracy – and have endured years of the Western stick – namely economic sanctions.  As fate would have it, the relational difficulties between some African countries and the West coincided with the rise of new powers key among them China. Countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe have had no qualms partaking of the Chinese carrot under the so-called Look East Policy. 

Different countries deploy public diplomacy and soft power resources differently. Often, soft power is seen as being part of public diplomacy. By extension, there are key traits that distinguish public diplomacy from its counterpart, traditional or conventional diplomacy. Where public diplomacy is subtle and indirect, conventional diplomacy is explicit as it involves direct negotiations between governments often through the agencies of the presidency and ministries of foreign affairs. Whereas public diplomacy can involve many actors in and out of government, conventional diplomacy is government-government and the preserve of state actors. Where public diplomacy seeks to influence a country indirectly by appealing to general or specific publics, conventional diplomacy seeks direct contact and agreement or disagreement by officials. One can go on and on enumerating the distinctions between public diplomacy and conventional diplomacy. The common denominator for both however is that nations deploy them with an eye on set goals. 

There are examples galore. When Tony Blair and the New Labour took over in the UK in the 1990s, Britain was seen as an old, declining and even spent power. The Cool Britannia campaign was devised as a means of showcasing British new British energy from the arts to economic fields.  As China rose from relative poverty to global economic prominence, it became necessary that media outlets such China Daily, People’s Daily, China Radio International, Xinhua News Agency and StarTimes be revamped to spread the Chinese message. The US does not only remain a hegemon with regards to its public diplomacy but continues to deploy a suit of public diplomacy programs of which academic exchanges such as the Fulbright scholarship stands out. Essentially all powerful nations have public diplomacy initiatives cutting across media, culture and people-to-people interactions. 

The question African intellectuals must ask themselves is: does Africa have public diplomacy and soft power resources? The answer is a resounding yes. There is no nation on earth that does not have pull factors. In fact, a closer look would reveal the immense but latent public diplomacy resources that Africa possesses. The mere fact that the continent is the cradle of human civilization should be a big draw for all humanity. The continent is full  of historical, cultural, natural, economic, intellectual, and human pull factors that wait to be exploited. Take the humane philosophy of Ubuntuism for instance. Advocating the deep and enduring importance of humanity – very unlike most militaristic and individualistic guiding philosophies in much of the world – Ubuntuism constitutes a set of ideas and ideals that can be cultivated among African countries and exported to the rest of the world. In deploying Ubuntusim – what we know in Swahili as Utu or Ungwana – Africa can contribute a philosophy that can heal a world gone awry with life threatening conflicts. 

The seeming public diplomacy and soft power deficit in Africa is therefore an opportunity. The many nations coming knocking on our door can and should leave with knowledge of who Africans are as a starting point for any bargains.  Indeed, Africa is lucky in that others are salivating for its resources and therefore must of necessity, come “begging.” The fact that other nations come to Africa of their own volition portends great public diplomacy capital. Yet, apart from South Africa, no other African country – at least based on my research – has a designated public diplomacy function in the ministries of foreign affairs. While the study and practice of public diplomacy has become an important topic with think tanks established in a numerous countries, the phrase behind this discipline draws blanks in African social science circles! In some countries, “brand” agencies have been established to promote countries abroad. Most have however woefully failed to appreciate the deeper concept of public diplomacy and end narrowly focusing on the promotion of nations as tourism and/or investment destinations. 

Africa’s public diplomacy and soft power failure ought not to be cast as an entirely lost cause. By taking action backed by the motivation that Africa can act rather than being acted on – i.e. – African Agency, public diplomacy initiatives can start taking shape. Perhaps the first step for African nations is to recognise the important of public diplomacy and soft power sufficient enough as to set up departments ideally in the ministries of foreign affairs. On the academic end of things, the many schools of international relations and diplomacy on the continent should purpose to offer public diplomacy courses and thus start growing a pool of experts in the discipline. Seeing as public diplomacy is best played outside of formal institutions, the formation of public diplomacy associations would go provide subtle platforms. And while at it, huge cross-continental plans such as AU’s Agenda 2063 can incorporate intra-Africa public diplomacy initiatives. The sky is the lower limit for Africa in terms of public diplomacy and soft power. But Africa must take the plunge.

By Dr Bob Wekesa

The writer is a postdoctoral fellow at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

job.wekesa@wits.ac.za


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