Dr Anja FABIANI is currently Minister Plenipotentiary at the Directorate for Economic and Public Diplomacy Department for Public Diplomacy and International Cooperation in Culture within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia. Dr FABIANI participated in the 3rd face-to-face edition of the Asia-Europe Public Diplomacy Training Initiative, held on 24-27 August 2015 in Bangkok, Thailand. She shares in her below article some of the key knowledge and skills she obtained from the training as well as insights into a new face of diplomacy drawing upon Slovenia’s case and the extraordinary encounter with her Thai counterparts.
The Asia-Europe Public Diplomacy Training Initiative is implemented in cooperation between the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland through DiploFoundation, and the National Centre for Research on Europe (NCRE) of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Between 24 and 27 August 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand hosted the third face-to-face training of this initiative. Focusing on implementation of successful public diplomacy strategies, the training covered broader areas of cooperation between Europe and Asia, and looked into the topics of nation branding and soft power.
Nation branding is the crafting and management of a country’s positive image abroad. It means mobilising all the factors that can contribute to the promotion of a country. Nevertheless, it is not the same as marketing a product, as it concerns entities that are beyond economic value. Since the value is incomparable, nation branding may not lead to direct economic consequences but to a much more subtle and added value for a country — holistic benefits that affect a country’s identity and even change a self-imposed image. Nation branding also has a broader impact on a country’s economy (e.g. tourism) thus deserves the utmost attention.
Apart from the understanding of the above basic concepts, the participants of the training were equipped with specific skills and tools that expanded our knowledge about public diplomacy.
It was also very interesting to learn about the findings of a study on Europe’s perception of Asia and Asia’s perception of Europe – highlighting particularly the prevailing stereotypes, which do not necessarily reflect the reality.
I had the chance to take part in the training as a representative of Slovenia, a small and relatively young European country. Slovenia can be categorised, according to its location, as Central European, Mediterranean, on the edge of Western Balkans, or – as Slovenes like to say – on the sunny side of the Alps.
Slovenia has great soft power potential – or, attraction, according to Joseph S. Nye – as it combines its small territory with the beauty of several geographical regions, which makes it unique. Besides, Slovenia is a safe country with a high quality of life. However, what is less certain is how much Slovenes value their (natural) attributes and are able to use and promote them around the world.
Slovenia declared independence in 1991 and will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2016. Independence from former Yugoslavia set off a spontaneous process of nation branding, which made Slovenia known around the world. Thus, we could say that the process of gaining independence itself was, in a way, nation branding. I remember a popular slogan of the 1980s, “Slovenia, my country”. No one thought at that time that the slogan, together with other factors, would lead to independence. We would hear it on TV and expected that it would promote tourism. But it turned out much more than that. Social developments over time and the roles of arts and pop culture as well as marketing of cultural products are vividly depicted in Urša Menart’s 2012 documentary film, There once was a land of hardworking people.
Today, Slovenia – like other states and nations of Europe – is faced with a new challenge of creating something new that will credibly convince the domestic and foreign public of its soft power. During the public diplomacy training, we learned about the interesting case of Switzerland and its public diplomacy agency, Presence Switzerland. One of the key points addressed was that it is sometimes harder to convince the domestic than the foreign public of the content of the “nation brand”. Moreover, it is necessary to highlight a country’s strengths and turn stereotypes to its own advantage.
If there are stereotypes about Europe in Asia and the other way around, can these limited attitudes be overcome, upgraded, or enhanced? Maybe this is one of the challenges for the future. Maybe this will allow us to establish a new identity that will include Europe and Asia equally. This would mean less “admiration” in the eyes of Asians (which is supposed to be typical) and less “narcissism” in European ones (as we have heard some reasonable criticism in this respect). In any case, Asia and Europe need further cooperation on an equal footing, since the point is to learn as much from each other as possible.
When talking about cooperation between Asia and Europe, I should make another observation. The experience of coming from a small country like Slovenia has helped make me more sensitive to differences between the two continents. And this is why I do not wish – now and in the future – for this cooperation to be conducted in any other way but with a great deal of mutual understanding.
But understanding may not be exactly the right word. Perhaps a better word would be feeling. We heard this word several times at the public diplomacy training (like in the sense of the saying that people may forget what someone has said or done to them, but never forget how this made them feel). And I feel the role of feelings is essential in communication with our Asian partners. The Thai greeting “wai” will open more doors and hearts than the more European “hello”, even though Asia is leaving Europe behind in the use of (smart)phones.
Personally, I found the cultural event that the organisers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand prepared for the conclusion of the training a wonderful experience. We were able to experience some of the Thai custom and even try them out (cooking, dancing, martial arts).
Another purely personal experience was that in Thailand you can really feel the joy of its smiling inhabitants when they make their guests happy.
It makes me wonder if it is not time for emotional diplomacy.