The razzmatazz of public diplomacy

It wasn't just the Trump-Kim summit on June 12. Imitators, citizens, journalists and anyone with a social media presence, all jumped in to add a personal stamp

Public diplomacy is that subset of political communication between governments where they attempt to communicate directly with members of the public in the target state.

This may be carried out with or without the permission of the host government, depending on ideology, political circumstances and the dominant forms of media available at any point in time.

During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, both utilised commercial and state-produced films and technology exhibitions to influence opinion within each other's populations.

Today, it may well be social media, cable and satellite television that are offering global platforms for governments to send messages to target populations. But increasingly, the proliferation of social media means that entities other than governments and the traditional media can gain control of the diplomatic narrative. Other than social media publicity by onlookers, the media themselves ran updates on their social media platforms in addition to their print and online coverage.

MAKING OF THE 'HEROIC' LEADER?

The Trump-Kim summit on June 12 in Singapore witnessed the features of a new environment for diplomatic summits as processes that are more than just formal meetings for heads of state or government. Summits today have become circuses: Just as much as they are venues for serious inter-governmental communication, they are also platforms for image-making, merrymaking, jokes and mass catharsis concerning the gravity of global insecurity. With about 2,500 journalists from all over the world and those based in Singapore here to cover the summit, the publicity is multiplied many fold.


A dipstick poll to measure journalists' food preference at the dining hall of the summit media centre in Singapore on June 10. PHOTO: REUTERS

One of the most gripping and long-running stories accompanying the summit was that of its scene-setting. Not unlike a movie set, the arrival planes - both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's Air China flight and US President Donald Trump's Air Force One were classic Boeing 747s - and the hotel accommodation, right down to the dining menus, all had to be matched to convey a sense of equality. This was equality of grandeur.

In Mr Kim's case, his title was not that of President of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), yet his very presence had to approximate precisely that. Chairman Kim Jong Un of the DPRK's State Affairs Commission was the effective leader of his country. In this regard, he was Mr Trump's equal in terms of domestic political power and authority. Mr Trump was directly elected and his office was the presidency, as specified in the American Constitution. There was little doubt about that.

But the images for North Korea's propaganda needs on their state-run television back home demanded even more. Mr Kim had to appear a world statesman at the signing table in the Capella Singapore hotel on Sentosa. This explained the near-riotous jostling of both sides' security agents and approved journalists, for the choicest photographic spots near the table.

This was, of course, augmented by the early morning spectacle of the placement of US and North Korean flags side by side signifying the commencement of formal diplomatic contact between Washington and Pyongyang. The fact that both Mr Kim and Mr Trump strode to the middle of the panel of flags to shake hands spelt out a great deal of state-to-state equality between the two nuclear powers. Such a picture was truly worth a thousand words.

SOCIAL MEDIA SUMMIT FOR ALL

As events and participants unfolded in parallel to the official channels, the Korean diaspora and American citizens worldwide were not the only ones invested emotionally in the summit. Mr Trump's already legendary outbursts on Twitter and his brusque exit from the G-7 summit in Canada the weekend before shaped Twitter-sphere expectations of more drama to come. Some of the hashtags compared Mr Trump's presence to wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, or heavy metal icon Def Leppard.

Moreover, Dennis Rodman, Mr Kim's basketball acolyte, called for a journey of trust by both leaders, wore a red cap emblazoned with "Make America Great Again" and shed tears before CNN coverage and social media. As if on cue, Rodman revealed he was thanked by the White House for supporting Mr Trump's brave gesture towards Pyongyang. All round, #peace, #love, #HistoricalSummit, and #Singapore were announced on Rodman's own tweets.

Even the fact that the State Department committed a faux pas by initially placing Singapore in Malaysia, added to Singapore's unprecedented positive exposure worldwide. Coverage by prominent media correspondents like Ms Christiane Amanpour of CNN who interviewed Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, added to the heightened attention.

During the summit, Singapore became the most searched term on Google. Also heard on a Singapore radio station was the epiphany by the DJ that a new dawn in world peace was breaking in the tiny island state, accompanied by breathtaking popular songs of hope and harmony.

Foreign tourists, members of the Singapore public and food outlet owners were equally regaled by the presence of renowned Trump imitator Dennis Alan and Kim imitator Howard X. Both were spotted on innumerable advertisements touting Singapore's tourist attractions like the Merlion park and promoting vending machine-retailed chilli crab meals. At popular Singapore mall Bugis Junction, both imitators conducted a light-hearted pre-summit on June 9, ahead of the actual meet.

SUBSTANCE DOES NOT MATTER?

Finally, Mr Trump's production team must surely take the prize for producing the ultimate "promotional video", themed "Two Leaders, One Destiny", contrasting images of nuclear missiles, starvation, destitution and destruction against construction cranes, beaches with resort potential and two leaders walking into the sunrise of history.

In several quick strokes, the images that circulated fast and scintillating through the social media sphere transformed the Trump-Kim summit into a sentimental keepsake for the ordinary citizen everywhere. This was personalised drama for everyone who wanted to remember what it was like that day in history.

Pyongyang was not remiss in this jazzy image-making. The 40-minute video on state TV in North Korea on Mr Kim's journey to and from Singapore projected unprecedented diplomatic brilliance and a celebratory mood. The strategic, military and political substance of the summit appears unimportant.

Still, the razzmatazz would have lost its glitter if not boosted by the "soft power" of comfort food and things that work. Many a journalist expressed appreciation for the food, especially those arriving after a long journey, and for the continuous stream of coffee and tea which energised them when filing their reports.

No longer would June 12, 2018, be about Mr Trump and Mr Kim signing a declaration of principles of agreement for bureaucrats to act upon; it was equally a memorable moment for the souvenir hunter and the entertained.

It also did not seem to matter that some of this exhilaration may be misplaced.

  • Alan Chong is associate professor in the Centre of Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
  • This article first appeared on RSIS Commentary online.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2018, with the headline 'The razzmatazz of public diplomacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe