Excerpt from “Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power through Public Diplomacy” [McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009]

Canada has a high positive rating in the world and does very well within its limitations, the biggest of which is that it is in the shadow of the United States. Moreover, it is competing for attention with other G8 members, a growing number of emerging powers (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), and the so-called “pathfinder” nations, such as Spain, Poland, and Norway. The problem for Canada is that it has not generated a critical mass of programs. Its public diplomacy machinery and capacity has been fragmented for too long.

Each country’s approach to public diplomacy is based on widely different needs and goals. For Canada, a country whose relative power has been in decline since the end of World War II, public diplomacy is a means of slowing the loss of power. Samuel Huntington demonstrated in “The Clash of Civilizations,” in which he conceptualized power as a three-dimensional chessboard (with military, economic, and soft-power planes), that a nation can be vulnerable

on one plane and make up this power deficit with gains on another plane– what Nye has referred to as the fungibility of power.[i] Applying this idea to Canada, one could conclude that while Canada’s international power capacity at the political and security levels was degraded in the 1990s as a result of budget cuts implemented mostly by the Liberal government under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, there was at the same time an effort to redress this loss of power through Canadian involvement in soft-power initiatives such as the Rio Summit (1992), the Ottawa Convention on landmines (1997), the Kimberly Process to ban conflict diamonds, and the creation of the International Criminal Court.

However, some academic observers and media commentators harshly criticized the government for engaging in foreign policy on the cheap (“penny-pinching diplomacy”), as it was becoming all too apparent that the rhetoric of Canada’s global engagement was straining credulity at home and abroad. But by 2003, with Canada’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan (the largest Canadian deployment since Korea), Canada was once more raising its profile on the international military stage.

The paradox of Canada’s image is that its non-threatening and “non-imperial”

nation-brand is both a strength and a curse. International surveys repeatedly show that the Canada brand – “warm but fuzzy” – is among the most popular and well liked in the world.[ii] The curse is that unless Canada’s brand is broadened to include being seen as an “innovation nation,” it risks becoming the Argentina of the twenty-first century.[iii] Trying to re-brand Canada as a high-tech nation (a goal of all industrialized nations), as opposed to stretching the brand, would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Nor would it be a successful enterprise, given that it would be impossible to “hide” the fact that Canada is a large, sparsely inhabited country with abundant natural resources. The challenge will be to leverage the benefits of the existing brand – prosperous, open, diverse, trustworthy, law-abiding, and free of corruption – to promote Canada as an innovative nation. As a senior Canadian official has argued, the fundamental challenge is to decide what is most critical: “[y]ou can’t be all over the map. You want to have two or three messages to come forward … [and] be a little bit prudent about that, a little bit focused.”[iv]

Transforming public diplomacy

This book has argued that we need to think about public diplomacy in a number of dimensions: (1) temporally, in three time frames; (2) as an essentially contested concept that has many labels, such as cultural diplomacy, political communication, international public relations, democracy building, propaganda, branding, and military information operations; (3) as an endeavor whose effectiveness is linked to the level of societal support and understanding at home; and (4) as a form of statecraft that is not exclusive to foreign ministries but that, according to Bruce Gregory, “cuts across all political, economic, and military instruments and is essential to their implementation and success.”[v] Public diplomacy is not a single instrument or the exclusive preserve of a country’s foreign ministry; rather, it is a process, and as Gregory writes, it has “multiple components, each with their own organizations, budgets, tribal cultures, and rules for applying principles to behavior.”[vi]

The primacy of the military as a public diplomacy actor is often overlooked,

but the military is in fact the biggest public diplomacy player during conventional wars (after diplomacy has failed), or in other forms of conflict. The military is the first group in a theatre of operations, and because it is responsible for maintaining security as a necessary precondition for economic development and political negotiation, it must reconcile the interests of all government and non-government players (aid workers, media, NGOs) to achieve the mission’s military and non-military objectives. Increasingly, military intervention to stabilize failed and failing states requires a sophisticated understanding of local information space in both the lead-up to the intervention, when psychological operations aimed at both civilian and opposing forces will be necessary, and during the

peace-building phase (e.g., as in the case of joint military-civilian Provincial

Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan).

Public diplomacy in the developing world is most visible through the activities of outside aid workers and aid agencies (even if some national aid agencies have sought to hide any evidence of their affiliations), not diplomats.[vii] Indeed, for French policy-makers, the act of providing assistance to less-developed countries is part and parcel of France’s diplomatie ouverte, or “open diplomacy”; aid is considered a necessary precursor in order for France to be able to influence external attitudes and policies. Not to be overlooked as well are the international public diplomacy activities of foundations linked to political parties such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation or the United States’ National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

Each of these examples describes public diplomacy activity, because governmental actors (diplomats, soldiers, aid workers) or organizations affiliated

with national political parties seek to understand, inform, and influence foreign and domestic audiences on matters relating to a nation’s international interests, whether narrowly or more broadly defined.

This is not to say that there is necessarily a dichotomy between values and interests in the conduct of foreign policy. As David Wright, former Canadian Ambassador to NATO, has written, “[i]nterests can be pursued in ways that reflect a country’s values.”[viii] Canada’s foreign policy interests are seen by the world through the prism of its values. This book has shown how these values – this soft power – is projected through an array of government-sponsored programs and instruments. A strong effort to build consensus at home on a country’s international vocation, implemented through the domestic public affairs activities of foreign ministries, will contribute to building a stronger international brand. A country’s citizens are the key building blocks of its brand.

How can Canada’s public diplomacy be transformed in the years ahead? Government will need to make certain changes in outlook and approach in order to improve Canada’s public diplomacy. Some of these changes are identified below.

The first area concerns the need to have a much better understanding of the societies that are being targeted, which entails a much greater investment in public opinion research, including surveys, focus groups, media analysis and the use of social science methodologies such as the Delphi method (a systematic process of expert consultation), to obtain a deeper understanding of local conditions and local populations.

Foreign ministries in the Anglo-American world (in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), when they do consult civil society, tend to seek the views of political scientists (area studies experts or strategic-studies scholars); however, more attention needs to be paid to the views of sociologists and cultural-studies specialists, who may have a better sense of the fault lines of future conflicts. And while most diplomats will have a fair understanding of the views of Western-educated elites in Islamabad, they may be unaware of the currents roiling in the provinces and the seventy-six million Pakistanis under the age of twenty, who will determine the country’s future. As Gregory opines, “[g]overnments invest disproportionately less in [the] tools they need to understand cultures than in the tools they use to engage and influence cultures.”[ix] In other words, governments have been more comfortable spending billions on the tools of public diplomacy, such as expensive international broadcasting operations, attractive publications, and even websites, than they have in going out and discovering what foreign populations actually think and feel. “Knowing thine audience” is indeed the sine qua non of effective public relations and should be the mantra of every Canadian public affairs officer abroad.

Second, while interpersonal communication and audience research are

important, Canada must nevertheless do much more to marshal its presence

in global information networks, particularly television and the Internet. With the growth of the terrestrial and satellite television industry, a significant percentage of the developed world’s citizens and a growing proportion of the developing world’s citizens receive their information from these media sources. Yet, Canada is unique among G8 member states in not having a visual presence on the global airwaves. The only international outlet for news on Canada is through TV5, which carries French-language Canadian content. The irony is that although Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of television programming, much of it is not identified as Canadian.

Canada is missing an international information strategy that would develop a critical mass of new media (CanadaInternational.gc.ca portal) and old (TV5, RCI). Consideration could be given to marshalling the CBC’s resources to create an international Canadian broadcaster that would broadcast in both English and French, and also to creating a governance structure to give Canada’s government-supported international broadcasting a much-needed strategic direction. As a result of decades of inattention to information-based programming, Canada lags behind its G8 competitors not only in the scope of its international broadcasting efforts but also in the emphasis it places on relationship-building in foreign countries using audience-research measurement tools.

Third, Canada needs to align its public diplomacy efforts more closely with its international priorities. This seems obvious, but too often in the past, public diplomacy programs at embassies ran on automatic from year to year, with little reflection on how local public diplomacy strategies needed to change to reflect shifting foreign policy priorities. Following the publication of Canada’s International Policy Statement in 2005, DFAIT embarked on a major effort to align public diplomacy strategies for missions abroad with departmental business planning. This strategic approach to public diplomacy meant hard choices. In the future, it will mean taking resources away from some regions and transferring them to higher-priority regions or to countries such as Brazil, China, and India.

Simply put, public diplomacy programs should support Canada’s foreign policy priorities (both generally and specifically). The assumption is that the foreign policy priorities will directly support government-wide priorities. If public diplomacy is to be taken seriously, it must be given strategic direction, which means there must be an authority to direct, task, and assign operational responsibilities to departments and diplomatic missions.

A fourth proposal for transforming Canada’s public diplomacy concerns the role of the private sector. A common recommendation on the future of public diplomacy found in American and British reports since 9/11 is for the need to leverage the creativity and the resources of the private sector.[x] The guiding premise is that the government alone cannot be responsible for coordinating and promoting the national brand internationally. Indeed, in any advanced industrial country with a free market, free citizens, and multiple levels of government, it is not realistic to assume that one level of government, let alone a single government department such as a foreign ministry, could single-handedly change the national brand.

As the history of Canada’s public diplomacy demonstrates, some efforts –ultimately stillborn – have been made to coordinate public diplomacy by establishing a whole-of-government governance structure. However, less attention has been paid to devising a whole-of-country approach (including the private sector) to the management of Canada’s international brand. Since more than 80 percent of Canada’s exports and 44 percent of its foreign direct investment go to the United States, Canada’s private sector does have substantial experience in marketing itself to different foreign audiences.[xi] As Gregory points out, much of what public diplomacy needs to be successful actually lies outside government.

As the Upper North Side and Think Canada campaigns have shown, the business community can play an important role in helping to showcase Canada abroad through sponsoring particular events. Indeed, an effective public diplomacy mission strategy will explicitly seek to incorporate trade and investment objectives. What should always be remembered, however, is that Canadian companies, with the possible exception of Crown corporations, will promote Canada abroad in concert with government when it serves their corporate interests commercially. The summary paper from the Wilton Park Conference of March 2006, entitled Public Diplomacy: Key Challenges and Priorities, stressed that “[t]here are difficulties in harnessing non-governmental actors … because non-governmental organizations and businesses do not share the same objectives, or limitations, as national governments.”[xii] It is understandable that corporate interests may not always be best served if these “Canadian” companies cooperate with Canadian missions in countries where they have business interests; as a result, they may wish to disassociate themselves from the mission. The private sector will thus make decisions about cooperating with government on branding campaigns on a case-by- case basis. But accepting this fact should not prevent the federal government from establishing some general guidelines for how the private sector’s presence can be leveraged on a more systematic basis in support of image building, just as it does when it invites Canadian firms to participate in the Canadian pavilion at world fairs.

Finally, under certain circumstances, it makes eminent sense for countries to work together to project themselves to each other. In essence, this would mean engaging in mutual public diplomacy. Assuming the inherent benefits of such mutual public diplomacy, Canada has worked in cooperation with Afghanistan to explain the purpose of Canada’s substantial contribution of Can$3.5 billion (2004–9) in aid and security assistance to this country.[xiii] When Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada travels across Canada to explain to the Canadian public the efforts that Canada and the international community are making to bring stability to his country, the Afghan government is indirectly supporting Canada’s own public diplomacy efforts in Afghanistan.

Such mutual public diplomacy is not limited to relations between Canada and developing countries but can be extended to any foreign campaign in which Canada’s foreign policy interests intersect strongly with the national interests of the host country. For instance, in 2008 Canada and France jointly celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Quebec City.

A variation on this mutual public diplomacy is the need for more cooperative public diplomacy by two (or more) like-minded countries in a third country. For example, it does not make sense for donor countries in a failed state to engage in competitive public diplomacy, since this suggests a duplication of efforts and contradictory messages. The international media regularly reports the lack of coordination of donor efforts in response to natural disasters and the rebuilding of failed states. Some of this is inevitable as national bureaucracies mobilize to send aid as quickly as possible. However, there would be a distinct whiff of national politics being played out in these international reconstruction efforts if donor countries sought to plant national flags on their donations and their aid projects, and thus their national public diplomacies, in order to prove that taxpayers’ money was being well-spent. This is not to say that the international division of labor whereby one country, for example, trains local NGOs on how to monitor human rights violations and another country helps to build an independent media system is counterproductive. However, there are cases where the fragile host government, beset by insurgencies and instability, must wonder why the need for visibility by donor countries sometimes seems to trump a coordinated effort at communicating with and distributing aid to its citizens. The need for more cooperative public diplomacy in third countries is certain to expand, as identity conflicts become the predominant source of international conflict.

Projecting one’s country abroad is not superfluous. It is of fundamental importance to national survival. In the end, Canada needs to adopt a more strategic, whole-of-government and whole-of-Canada approach to its public diplomacy, one that will take into account a multitude of interests such as tourism, culture, sports, export promotion, immigration, investment attraction, and the promotion of international peace and security. This approach must anticipate controversial issues, develop clear policies that are in line with Canadian interests, and ensure that certain images (e.g., the image of an environmentally friendly country) do not negate others (e.g., the image of a country that is open to foreign investment). Canada needs public diplomacy strategies that combine, in an optimum fashion, traditional and new public affairs tools and techniques.

“Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power through Public Diplomacy”, pages 279-281 and 257-264, is excerpted here with the permission of McGill-Queen’s University Press.


Evan H. Potter is assistant professor in the Department of Communication, University of Ottawa. He is the founding editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy journal and was the 2008 Canada-U.S. Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Public Diplomacy at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. He is also a former senior strategist in the Communications Bureau at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the author of Cyberdiplomacy: Foreign Policy in the 21st Century.


[i] Nye, Joseph S. Jr. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Book Group, Public Affairs 2004.  

[ii] This is the conclusion arrived at by Daryl Copeland at Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Intrnational Trade, after having surveyed foreign attitudes towards Canada in 2000.

[iii] This statement refers to the disappointing performance of Argentina, a country that held great promise early in the twentieth century and then faded into deliquescence.

[iv] Curtis Barlow, personal interview with Evan Potter, 11 July 2006, Ottawa.

[v] Gregory, Bruce. “Not Your Grandaparents’ Public Diplomacy.” Presentation at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa, 30 November 2005. Transcript, 6.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development was criticized in the media when its staff apparently painted over the Union Jack insignia on their vehicles.

[viii] Wright, David. Managing Global Crises – and the U.S. Colossus. Commentary 207. C.D. How Institute, December, 2004. 2.

[ix] Gregory, “Not Your Grandparents’ Public Diplomacy,” 6.

[x] See Mark Leonard. Public Diplomacy. London: The Foreign Policy Centre 2002.

[xi] Canada, Statistics Canada, Imports, Exports and Trade Balance of Goods on a Balance of Payment Basis.

[xii] United Kingdom, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Report on Wilton Park Conference, 10.

[xiii] Canada’s contribution of Can$3.5 billion to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, makes it the single largest recipient of Canadian aid.