The UN and public diplomacy: communicating the post-national message

2   The UN and public diplomacy

Communicating the post-national message1

Giles Scott-Smith

The Department of Public Information is dedicated to communicating the ideals and work of the United Nations to the world; to interacting and partnering with diverse audiences; and to building support for peace, development and human rights for all. Inform. Engage. Act.2

In few fields could there be more problems in working together than in that of information.3

The Charter of the United Nations declares that the organization rests upon “the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members” and is bound by the restriction that it shall not “intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Yet its Charter has also simultaneously sought to bind state behavior to “fundamental human rights,” “social progress,” and “better standards of life in larger freedom.” Its design, in other words, was both to maintain and modify the international system of states, a somewhat contradictory goal that has hampered the UN from the beginning. In this situation a coherent and effective public information policy is both chronically hampered but also essential. It is needed not only for defending and promoting the UN’s role in global governance, but also, more proactively, for persuading state authorities to comply with its aims and for reaching beyond those authorities to connect directly with the aspirations of global civil society. The UN therefore aims at different audiences: the member state authorities (including their UN delegations) and the “global public.” Akira Iriye has spelled out this dilemma succinctly:

This chapter considers the role of public information for the UN since its inception. It examines to what extent the UN’s Department of Public Information (DPI) has moved beyond merely informing to actually advocating key causes.5 It first looks at the origins, with the creation of the Information Board that promoted the new organization during World War II. It then considers the development of the DPI as the organ tasked with information provision, and the dilemma of how far this could actually involve advocacy of specific causes. The final section examines the reform of the DPI around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which to some degree allowed the organization to conduct a successful information campaign without resolving the deficiencies of its apparatus.

While the DPI’s mandate and organization have essentially changed little since 1945, the environment in which it operates has altered radically. First, the broad spectrum of UN agencies, with their array of specialist interests, necessarily complicates a fully centralized information operation. Second, the “personalization” of the UN in the form of the secretary-general has led to an increasing focus on that office and its spokesperson, yet how this is supposed to function alongside the DPI has never been fully resolved. Third, alongside member states and international secretariats, an associated network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has become a vital component of global governance and to UN capabilities.6 Fourth, the media landscape has changed dramatically, with the rise of digital technologies, the commercialization of information, and the diversification of news outlets. Attempting to have an impact on all fronts is therefore impossible, and the extent of current UN operations means that even a “smart diplomacy” approach that would attempt to coordinate agency information programs is hardly feasible.

The DPI currently operates through three subdivisions: Strategic Communications, News and Media, and Outreach. Additionally, the DPI’s 63 Information Centers around the world provide the UN with a visible global presence, connectivity, and feedback on media impact. Whereas the News and Media Division fulfills the role that the department has carried out since its inception—maintaining a flow of information to the global media—the Strategic Communications and the Outreach Divisions indicate how since the early 2000s the DPI has adopted a more active stance to target specific issues and mobilize support for them via institutional partners in global civil society. This noticeable shift from public information to public diplomacy occurred under Kofi Annan’s leadership as secretary-general, as part of a post-Cold War revamping of the UN’s mission. The capability to act in this way always existed; what was lacking was political will. As one observer remarked already in 1953, the DPI could always “inject into the stream of communications information which may be strategically influential.”7

Origins: the wartime UNIO

The UN Information Organization (UNIO) holds the distinction of being the first international agency of the UN network and the first to hold the United Nations label. Its origins reflect the multilateral enterprise of the UNO, there being a two-track development via its main offices in New York and London that eventually coincided at the end of World War II. The UN itself dates the UNIO’s origins back to the Inter-Allied Information Committee and Center (IAIC) in New York in September 1940, “which functioned as a clearing house for the information services of the nations at war with the Axis powers.”8 This was an initiative of the British government, and the first director of the center, Michael Huxley, described its purpose in a letter to Secretary of State Cordell Hull: “To meet at frequent intervals as an advisory committee to coordinate the work of agencies concerned with the survey of the American press and the issuance of information in the interests of the Allied cause.”9

In terms of audience, the United States was therefore the main target. Still officially neutral for the first 15 months of the committee’s existence, the stance of US public opinion was obviously vital for British war aims, and every effort needed to be made to secure widespread support. Those nations operating information services in the United States could join the committee, and it was only in July 1942, following the formation of the Office of War Information (OWI) that June, that the United States itself became a member. In November 1942, 10 months after the Declaration by United Nations, the New York Information Center became the United Nations Information Office overseen by an Information Board, and all signatories of the declaration were then invited to join.

Leading this transition from the IAIC to a body framed around the goals of the United Nations was the American Arthur Sweetser, a former member of the League of Nations’ Geneva executive who saw the shift as a major opportunity to “promote internationalism in the United States.”10 A similar office was opened in London in November 1943, and the only difference in membership between the two was the Philippines, which possessed no representative in Britain. By January 1945 an official resolution provided for the “formal constitution” of the UNIO, with offices in New York and Washington, DC.11 The UNIO therefore preceded other UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), both dating from 1943.

The output of the IAIC between 1940 and 1942 demonstrates a clear aim to influence opinion on the war effort in the United States. A document from January 1943 confirms this, identifying three basic stages of development of the IAIC/UNIO. The first involved the coordination of separate national efforts to increase the understanding of their cause. Thus, from January 1941 the monthly Inter-Allied Review was issued as “a record of documents and statements regarding the fight of the Allies against aggression and for world freedom.”12 The second stage saw the creation of a reference library to provide information on the war effort to an increasingly involved American public. The third stage was marked by the entry of the United States into the war and a subsequent demand “for understanding of the common aims and objectives for which each and all were fighting.” It was this that brought greater attention for planning on postwar reconstruction, in a notable shift from winning the war to preparing the peace—and, hence, to becoming a public opinion “pathfinder” for the future, postwar United Nations.13 A mistrust of behind-the-scenes scheming and the failure of post-World War I designs for peace caused widespread hope that the United Nations would bring something more lasting. It was “the same story all around the world,” demonstrating the interdependence of US and Allied interests.14 The office’s remit for action was therefore anything that emphasized Allied unity, mutual aid and interests, and “the importance of cooperation and joint action for winning not only the war, but also the peace.”15 Promoting the outlook of multilateral planning boards and institutions displaying a common cause became a priority in order to demonstrate the changing nature of international relations thanks to the nascent UN system. This approach also included the League of Nations, parts of which, such as the International Labour Organization, remained in existence in Geneva through the war.16

Although it operated out of two principal offices in New York and London, it was the US location that determined its overall direction and status as an institution, and for this reason the relations between the UNIO and the agencies of the US government are of special importance. In September 1942, a working agreement with the OWI that spells out this relationship fully was finalized. To meet Congressional demands, the agreement required that “the policy and program of the Inter-Allied Information Center shall be consistent with the policy and the program of the Office of War Information.”17 Since technically the IAIC had to work according to unanimity, this same approach applied to all of its member states, yet the implication that the organization could not function without US approval was clear.

Divergences in outlook did occur within the US government itself. An OWI pamphlet, The United Nations Fight for the Four Freedoms, was blocked from being distributed in India by the State Department because its call for equality effectively opposed British rule and could undermine the war effort. Paradoxically enough, from 1942 the British Ministry of Information used the United Nations label as a way to counter Indian demands for British withdrawal, insisting instead that the collective interest lay with first winning the war and then determining the passage of decolonization.18 National interests and global aspirations therefore became convoluted in both the US and British policymaking environments. Following the Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942, fear of triggering resistance in the US Senate to any new international agreements meant that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was very reticent to discuss UN planning publicly during the following three years.19 The room for maneuver for the UNIO was therefore from the beginning circumscribed by US national interest. Politically this had to be managed very carefully. US public opinion avidly picked up on the United Nations as a concept for winning the war and creating a better peace. The report Postwar Trends in the United States from mid-1943 included a survey of the American press that demonstrated widespread civilian and military support for the Four Freedoms and “active, effective cooperation with other nations after the war, even if such cooperation takes the form of a world federation in which the United States would merge some of its sovereign rights.”20 The value of the UN concept as a “psychological weapon” for propelling the war effort was clear, but there was also the danger that public demand for concrete results would outstrip political capabilities to reach agreement. For these reasons it was deemed necessary to produce a simple, easily reproducible symbol or emblem for the UN that could be used to highlight the cause and merits of this new form of international cooperation. The thinking behind this is worth quoting:

With confusion being caused by various US agencies choosing their own UN symbols, a collection of private groups within the United States did eventually decide on a basic UN flag by March 1943, consisting of four colored blocks representing the Four Freedoms on a pale background. Although it was only meant to be flown alongside national flags, it inevitably never gained complete acceptance either within the United States or elsewhere.22 Nevertheless, the principle of a common symbol was a sound ploy for public relations—arguably, a similar strategy lies behind the adoption of the MDGs in the early twenty-first century.

By the end of 1944, the IAIC and the UNIO had collectively held more than 100 sessions, with subcommittees covering films, exhibitions, radio, the press, women’s affairs, and postwar planning. The arrival of new UN agencies such as the UNRRA and the FAO necessitated the expansion of UNIO’s task to show that the different elements of the UN system itself were working together. A publicity document chronicling the evolution of the United Nations referred to 74 separate top-level meetings between June 1941 and April 1945 covering the war effort and postwar planning.23 The pitch was solidly along the lines that victory was only achievable because of the cooperation initiated by the United Nations. The UN role in the war effort in Europe is described thus:

The coordinated military strategy of the United Nations that resulted in the great victorious campaigns of western and eastern Europe, was planned at Tehran and later at Yalta, by Marshal Stalin, Prime Minister Churchill and the late President Roosevelt. Acting on these plans, the Combined Chiefs of Staff set in motion the mighty forces that ultimately linked up the Allied armies’ offensive in the west with that of the triumphant Red Army in the east.24

Differences of opinion among the Allies were occasionally acknowledged in the publicity material, and the divergence of opinion between the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom on postwar arrangements for Europe could hardly be ignored. Obviously, all attention was therefore given to the many examples of constructive cooperation, in order to overshadow the disagreements. An early analysis by the Federal Communications Commission confirmed that “solidarity” was an appropriate keyword for the radio broadcasts of the allied nations, and particularly in terms of the relationship between Russia and the other Allies. Great efforts were made to insist on a common military, political, and moral front, to the extent that “praise of Russia occurs with such frequency in the United Nations’ broadcasts as to warrant specific mention as a recurring and important theme in itself.” Disagreements primarily existed in relation to Australian, Chinese, and Dutch East Indies criticism of the Pacific War being given secondary status in comparison with Europe, and Britain’s poor position in the region as a result. These criticisms were not ignored, with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) countering with details of the UK war effort and a general aim to resist the potential appeal of fascist propaganda dividing the Allies among themselves.25

What conclusions can be drawn from the wartime IAIC/UNIO formula? First, coordinating information output during a global war was a unique environment that necessarily separates it from anything undertaken by the DPI since. Second, there was the need to maintain allied cohesion and not give the enemy any source of entry to cause damaging division. The overarching message—win the war and create a durable peace and a better life for all—resonated powerfully amongst the Allied publics and all those who were resisting the Axis powers. Third, this message would have a greater impact if it was projected in the simplest of terms. The Four Freedoms were ideal in this respect, projecting aspirations that were universally appealing. The attempt to create a common UN symbol as a mark of the ubiquity of UN activity was a similar move. Fourth, there was the special focus on the United States as the decisive public to be won over. Throughout the war, the IAIC/UNIO organization was primarily directed toward the US media landscape, and positive relations with the US government were crucial for their operations. Ironically, as it turned out, US public opinion was largely ahead of the upper levels of the Roosevelt administration in wanting to pursue the UN ideal fully. Fifth, as the war progressed, there was the deliberate aim to emphasize the collective effort of the United Nations toward goals of universal consequence. It was a global war for a just cause, and it would be a global peace in the same vein. Common interests should prevail over national interests. Last, there was the recognition of interdependence—all nations needed to appreciate the greater value of collective action, since acting alone or expressing isolationist tendencies would not deliver improvements for their citizens.

What elements of this wartime formula are still relevant today? These can be summed up as follows: a determination to project goals for a future, better world; the need for collective responsibility in achieving them; the recognition that interdependence prevented alternative national solutions in isolation of each other; the possibility of an effective supranational