Harry Reid: The Theatrics of Diplomacy

My second day in Paris involved attending the annual SciencesPo Conference, which focused on how we can best foster innovation to improve education and research systems. The conference was divided up into six sessions across two days, with each session being dedicated to a different field, such as science or technology. However, I was most captivated by the session dedicated to social sciences, art and humanities.

While all the speakers in this session were very captivating and presented ideas ranging from redefining the geopolitics of the Arctic and Antarctica, to rebooting innovation in global media studies, I was particularly engaged with Professor Naoko Shimazu’s presentation on the theatrics of diplomacy as it was an interesting embodiment of my fields of study. Therefore, I thought I would continue with the theme of my first blog post and reformulate some of her ideas, to cement my own understanding of them, and to make them more accessible to others.

With that in mind, she theorises that a large part of how the public understands policy is a result of media representation, and therefore, government officials deliberately choreograph their workings in the public eye, so that they have more control over the subsequent media coverage. She argues that diplomacy, and politics in general, is very performative and analogises it to the intricacies of theatre.

Like all performances, there is a stage, performers, and an audience. The stage refers to where the diplomatic acts are executed, the performers are the aforementioned government officials, and the audience is typically the public at large but may be more specific depending on the diplomacy in question. This is reiterated by the fact that heads of state are often perceived as symbolic figureheads, representing the views and values of their respective countries, meaning there is an expectation that they will carry this out in their acts of diplomacy.

In making this submission, she rooted her analysis in the Bandung Conference of 1955, which was the first exclusively Asian-African oriented conference. She argues that this is symbolic in itself as the conference occurred during the first waves of decolonisation, meaning it was a deliberate act of defiance against colonial countries. This is reiterated by reference to the ‘stage, performers and audience’ metaphor.  

For instance, the mere fact that the conference was held in Indonesia was important as it was a newly independent country, thereby supporting the emphasis of decolonization surrounding the conference. However, more specifically, the name of the primary venue was changed from ‘Concordia Society Club to ‘Gedung Merkeda’ which means ‘Freedom Building’. This demonstrates the symbolism at play in the staging of the Bandung Conference itself, as the notion of 'freedom' is heavily loaded and has very positive connotations.

Furthermore, the participants of, or performers in the conference, both in terms of countries and individuals, was also a theatrical act of diplomacy This was reflected by the ‘Freedom Walk’ at the start of the conference, which Shimazu suggests was largely executed to identify who was and wasn’t involved through the use of national flags, which are inherently symbolic. 

Finally, Shimazu argues that the citizens of Bandung were both performers in the conference and the audience thereof. On one hand, they were performers as their reception of the conference framed the way that it was received by the rest of the world, and on the other hand, they were the audience as they were the ones watching the events unfold. Moreover, because the conference was a world first, the audience also extended globally, and more specifically, to the citizens of the participant countries.

Therefore, she concludes that the success of the conference was in part to the aforementioned symbolism that was at play. While this is a very specific example of diplomatic performance, she asserts that the underlying ideas can be applied to most high profile political decisions and the way in which they are positioned in the media; especially given the volatility of the political climate in the 21st century. Ultimately, this is an important takeaway as it encourages people to be more critical of both the media and the state alike, which considering the sheer influence they have, can only be a good thing.

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Posted on May 26, 2018 and filed under OECD Forum 2018.