In search of common ground: public and social diplomacy in the 21st century

Forum Conference

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here at the opening of this conference. While preparing for tonight’s speech, I was reminded of the Ambassadors’ conferences that my ministry hosts. Roughly once a year, all Dutch ambassadors return to The Hague to discuss global and local developments and to expand their domestic networks. These conferences are a useful opportunity for me to catch up with the top diplomats of the Dutch Foreign Service, who are managing our country’s affairs and shaping public opinion abroad. And our host today, Mr Sadik Harchaoui, exchanged views with them at the last such event, in January.

Tonight, I am addressing another group of diplomats. You are all social ambassadors. Yours is a different group of people, both in composition and appearance: there are far more women present here tonight and I don’t see as many dark grey suits. Yet you may have more in common with the ambassadors of the Foreign Service than you may think. You, too, are involved in managing your country’s affairs and shaping public opinion abroad. How exactly you are involved, is the topic of this conference on social diplomacy.

So, ‘Your Excellencies’, thank you for having me here tonight.

I would like first to talk about the context of diplomacy in the 21st century. What kind of world are we dealing with? And in what spirit should we go about managing our affairs? I will then move on to the Netherlands’ reputation abroad, and specifically in the Arab world. I will touch on the ways in which the Dutch government uses public diplomacy to increase awareness about our country and our policies abroad and how we engage with ordinary people in foreign countries in an effort to build a positive relationship, based on common principles and common interests. I will conclude by pointing to the added value of social diplomacy from a government perspective.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We live in uncertain times. Globalisation may not be a new phenomenon, but the speed, inevitability and totality of the process as we now know it, are unprecedented. Never before has commerce been so intensive in its practice and so global in its scope. Never before have so many people and so much money crisscrossed the world with such speed or in such numbers. Helping this entire process along has been the radical transformation of communication technology known as the IT revolution.

In itself, globalisation is neither good nor bad. It is morally neutral. It is happening and you can’t get away from it. Our interconnectedness, or interdependence, has of course brought us many benefits: trade and investment, for one. As a trading nation with an open economy, the Netherlands certainly gains from the fact that the world has grown smaller. About three-quarters of our GDP is earned abroad, through trade and investment. But the impact of globalisation goes far beyond economics: think of the opportunities that rapid communication and the democratisation of access to information provide to hundreds of millions of people around the world. This is the age of connectivity. The World Wide Web provides countless ways to access information and connect with like-minded people all over the world. Thanks to the internet, ‘local’ and ‘global’ have become two sides of the same coin. This can be good and it can be bad. Just as you can spend hours surfing the net, to find all manner of information and to contact people, so can terrorists. Instructions for a would-be suicide bomber can be sent around the globe just as easily as a recipe for apple pie.

A smaller world means that some of our problems have become bigger. We can no longer escape the world at large: the challenges facing us in the 21st century all transcend national boundaries. And these are not trivial matters, they are extremely serious issues. There is the financial and economic crisis, which the world has yet to resolve. There is climate change. International terrorism. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear technologies and nuclear materials. Pandemics. No country in the world is immune to these problems: they can potentially affect people in all corners of the globe.

Uncertainty has thus become our ‘insistent 21st-century companion’. And with uncertainty comes unease. People worry about their position in the world. Here and elsewhere. We wonder how much control we still have over our own lives. Our jobs, our security, our environment and our identity all seem to be under pressure. The world is changing, we are losing our grip on what is near and dear to us, and that makes us insecure and anxious. The Dutch are not the only ones plagued by doubts and searching for identity. According to the French philosopher, Dominique Moïsi, three emotions define the times we live in. Hope, in Asia. Humiliation, in the Middle East. And fear, in Europe and North America.

In the Netherlands, as elsewhere, diversity has come to be viewed not so much as a source of cultural enrichment, but as a threat. Many Dutch people fear radicalisation, and their fears are fuelled by international terrorist attacks in the name of Islam. This, together with a general feeling of unease caused by globalisation, has resulted in rising tensions between groups of people with different cultures, customs and beliefs.

These tensions are disguised or denied by some and fuelled by others. I believe both responses are wrong. Downplaying tensions does not do justice to people’s legitimate concerns. Fuelling conflict, on the other hand, is equally irresponsible.

Look at how Geert Wilders has influenced the public debate in the Netherlands over the past few years. Look at what he’s doing in the run-up to the June 9 elections. His method is simple: he plays people off against one another – in a highly distasteful fashion, I might add. He is not looking to find common ground, uphold shared values or work toward constructive solutions based on these shared values. In fact, his approach is the opposite of constructive: by spreading fear and hatred, he is only destroying, not building. And in the process, he is damaging the interests of the Dutch people and the reputation of the Netherlands in the wider world. If we allow discrimination and hatred to spread, this will only lead to segregation, polarisation, escalation and eventually, confrontation.

We should condemn not religions, but rather people and groups who abuse religion to achieve their ends through violence. Islam is not the problem. There are more than 800,000 people in the Netherlands with roots in the Islamic world, about 5.3% of our population. The overwhelming majority of them adheres to the values and rules of Dutch society and participates in Dutch society. The problem is not their religion, but the fact that some abuse religion to spread hatred and intolerance. I have no patience for radical elements that place themselves outside our society. These radical elements should be penalised heavily as they are disrupting our social fabric.

This is the path I propose we take: we should acknowledge that there are tensions, both within societies and between societies, and quickly move on to asking ourselves: how can we deal with these tensions? How can we bridge our differences? Where can we find common ground?

Let us take to heart what President Obama said in Cairo: ‘So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity’.

I prefer to focus on what we share as people and as nations, and how we can live together peacefully, on the basis of a number of universally shared convictions. Human rights are what bind us together in this world. Justice, equality, solidarity, humanity and liberty are the ‘values of the world.’ They are the ground rules for how people should treat one another in a civilised society. I believe it is vital to promote and uphold those values, and I believe it is equally vital that we do so together. Together with other governments, together with civil society, together with local human rights defenders and ordinary citizens abroad.

Naturally, the changing international context, as well as the need to work with others, and not just other governments, has consequences for the way in which foreign services need to operate. Jim Murphy, the British MP and Secretary of State for Scotland, rightly points out that, ‘The challenge of our era is to recognise that we can help achieve our foreign policy goals through engagement with foreign publics and that our success depends on cooperation.’

But engaging with foreign publics in the search for common ground involves much more than merely influencing public opinion. Of course, trying to shape public opinion in other countries has always been important, and its relevance has increased greatly with the rise of communication technologies. The IT revolution has made the world’s citizens better informed and more critical of what is going on in other countries. Within minutes, they can learn about the latest developments in any given country, by running a simple Google search for example. So it’s not only understandable that governments seek to inform public opinion abroad, but also essential as a way of safeguarding the right image. As Jan Melissen, a Dutch researcher who has published on public diplomacy, describes it, ‘It is not new that people matter to diplomats, but this point has now taken on a new meaning. In an international environment where the gap between foreign and domestic policy is gradually closing, reputation management has shifted from elites to a broader mass market.’

But as I said, truly engaging with ordinary people abroad is about more than just broadcasting our core messages to a wider range of people, and using different channels, such as the internet. It also means making a real effort to understand where they are coming from. It means engaging in a two-way dialogue; listening to what people have to say. Not just government officials, at whom traditional diplomacy has always been targeted, but men and women in the street. We need to find out what motivates people and where our common interests lie. This, too, is public diplomacy, and we need to get better at it in order to advance causes close to our heart. Promoting the human rights agenda, for example, which is at the heart of Dutch foreign policy.

Let me give you an example, which is also relevant to trans-Mediterranean relations. There are quite a few misconceptions about freedom of speech as an absolute human right. In the wake of the Danish cartoon crisis and the release of Mr Wilders’ film Fitna, Western governments had to explain to irate Muslim populations, both within their own countries but also and especially abroad, that it is up to the courts, not governments, to exercise control over freedom of speech. Anyone living in the Netherlands is free to publicly express their views without prior permission from the authorities. There is no censorship in the Netherlands. Whoever has criticisms of the doctrines of a specific religion has the right to express them. Only the courts can determine whether the law has been broken after utterances have been made.

I have added, on many occasions, that being free to give offence does not mean that it is wise to give offence. Freedom of expression is not a license to insult other people at will. Everyone has the responsibility to show respect for the rights and reputations of others. It is precisely as The Economist concludes: ‘good manners, please, not censorship.’

The Dutch government has also made it absolutely clear that freedom of religion is a universal human right, which must not be eroded. Naturally, this does not mean that religion can ever be used as an excuse for the violation of human rights. Freedom of religion means freedom to profess one’s own religion, but also the duty to respect other people’s religious or philosophical convictions. It goes without saying that Muslims in the Netherlands enjoy freedom of religion.And Christians in Muslim countries should be equally free to practise their own religion.

So how successful are we in our public diplomacy efforts? Two years ago, my ministry commissioned a survey on the Netherlands’ reputation in fifteen countries. The results varied per country. But what was striking was that we scored lowest in the three Muslim countries that were part of the survey: Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia. In Egypt and Turkey, neither opinion leaders nor the population at large expressed much appreciation for the Netherlands in terms of ‘moral values’ and ‘respect for other religions.’ That is a disappointing result in the sense that it is completely contrary to our self-image. This result goes against the core values we embrace: human rights and tolerance. We will thus have to learn and adapt our strategy. To help us better understand our interlocutors, more qualitative, in-depth research will be carried out in the Arab world.

We will continue to rely heavily on public diplomacy to get our message across and improve our image abroad, including in the Arab world. In a new pilot, the Ministry has established three public diplomacy hubs – in Washington, Beijing and Cairo – which are responsible for shaping a regional approach to public diplomacy. Our primary, short-term goal is to respond to incidents and crises: damage control, if you will. Our secondary goal is to put our policies in context, with a view to building support. And our wider goal is to develop a long-term relationship with opinion makers, with a view to promoting a solid and positive image of the Netherlands. An image that lasts longer than the most recent crisis.

These three goals require different instruments, which our diplomats already use in combination with each other. Media analysis, networking activities and visitors’ programmes – both for influentials and high-potentials – as well as exchanges and cultural relations, are all used to this effect. Last year, fourteen journalists from the Arab world visited the Netherlands as part of the influential visitors’ programme. This coming Saturday, eight bloggers from Egypt will arrive in the Netherlands. Their programme is such that they will be able to obtain plenty of independent information on the Netherlands, which should lead to a better understanding of the way we do things here. By applying these various instruments, usually through our embassies, we hope to create a more balanced picture of our country. Having said that, I’ll be the first to admit that we are quite new to this area – we have never invested in public diplomacy in the same way that the Americans have done, for example. But I agree with former US Assistant Secretary of Defence Joseph Nye, who observes that in today’s information age, politics is not just about whose military or economy wins, but also about whose ‘story’ wins. Public diplomacy is thus likely to play an increasing role overall in Dutch diplomatic efforts abroad.

Melissen rightly notes that engaging with foreign societies requires a totally different mind-set, and that working with ordinary people is testing diplomats’ flexibility. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has realised this, and is now paying greater attention to its representatives’ public diplomacy skills by training new diplomats and offering tailored and regional training courses to others. But we could definitely use some help along the way, and this is where social diplomacy comes in. The active involvement of citizens and non-governmental organisations in the international business of diplomacy provides crucial added value, and that includes Dutch NGOs like FORUM. Ordinary people are using their own resources, contacts and strategies to pursue common goals, including countering tensions and conflicts. This offers a level of credibility that is hard to achieve with public diplomacy, which can always be wrongly mistaken for propaganda.

Governments should not try to drive social diplomacy, but we can build on its merits: decentralisation and flexibility. So I welcome FORUM’s initiative to host a conference on how social diplomacy can be most effective. I am sure we can learn a lot from the discussions over the next two days, and I would ask you in closing to share your thoughts and recommendations with me.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Together, we must provide a counterbalance to those forces seeking to undermine human rights and spread ignorance and polarisation. If we are to live together in mutual respect, based on shared values, dialogue is an indispensable tool. As social diplomats, you shape that dialogue. That is no small responsibility, but it can also be extremely rewarding. I wish you a productive conference.

Thank you.