Media, International Relations and Game Theory: Focus on (Counter-)Public Diplomacy

Jorge Marinho
PhD in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism


The central topic of this article is the importance of communication and, especially, the media, in two interconnected aspects of international relations – game theory and public diplomacy. The latter examines the possibility of influencing various audiences through the media. Last but not least, this piece also emphasizes counter-public diplomacy.

Keywords: media; international relations; game theory; public diplomacy.


In this article, I maintain that, within the sphere of international relations, game theory and public diplomacy can be articulated and put into practice through the media. This implies combining several fields, such as Mathematics, Rhetoric and Communication Sciences. Thus, we specifically enter the field of media diplomacy. Throughout History, international communication by some States has met with opposition from other States with certain actions: counter-public diplomacy. The understanding of these matters involves addressing a few basic notions.

Game theory and international relations
As part of this article, it is considered that “A game is a formal description of a strategic situation.” (Turocy, von Stengel). This topic has given rise to several research studies. According to Theodore Turocy and Bernhard von Stengel, “Game theory is the formal study of conflict and cooperation. Game theoretic concepts apply whenever the actions of several agents are interdependent. These agents may be individuals, groups, firms, or any combination of these.” (Turocy, von Stengel). We need to start off by pointing out that these agents can also be countries (Camerer). With regard to partakers, “A game consists of a collection of decision-makers, called the players.” (Tesfatsion). There are relationships between game theory and decision theory (Colman / Game Theory / Kelly).
Among the various spheres to which game theory applies, I highlight international relations (Aggarwal, Dupont). This is fertile ground: “Indeed, it was in the general area of interstate conflict and its resolution that game theory would make its earliest and most significant contributions.” (Zagare, Slantchev). For instance, in 2014, Gerson Damiani submitted a Ph.D thesis at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of International Relations (Brazil): “The present thesis sheds light on contemporary game theoretical approaches in International Relations, in particular as they pertain to the role of strategy setting in cross-border trade.” (Damiani). Within the context of relations between countries, game theory is chiefly used for analyzing situations of war and peace (Damiani). However, the application of game theory is not limited to issues pertaining to armed conflicts and security, to the extent that it also includes other topics, such as the following examples: the environment, foreign trade, the economy and politics (Damiani). 
The way game theory envisions international relations matches models that are simplifications and stylizations of established interactions between States (Guner). In principle, “Naturally, no one has an obligation to learn game theory. Yet, those motivated students can try to master it and enjoy its power in generating explanations.” (Guner). In this regard, Guner adds something else: “However, students must realize that game models are abstractions; they are not equivalent to real interactions. If they construct a game, they must be aware that the assumptions of the model lead to constrained and stylized explanations.” (Guner). According to the said author, “There is, in fact, a trade-off: game theory cannot help students to understand and predict international phenomena if it has no connection with empirical facts, and, if too many observed details are included in the model, deductions become intractable. In gist, the creativity of modelers is of utmost importance in using game theory.” (Guner). 
Also as concerns deficiencies, “Game theorists have not paid much attention to emotions. This seems odd, since our theory's object of study is social conflict, where emotions are sure to arise. (…). Game theory needs an account of emotions (…)” (O’Neill). Certain specialists acknowledge that “Emotions are an important belief-dependent motivation. Anxiety, disappointment, elation, frustration, guilt, joy, regret, and shame, among other emotions, can all be conceived of as belief‚Äźdependent incentives or motivations and incorporated into models of behavior using tools from psychological game theory.” (Camerer, Smith).
Currently, the combination of elements of a rational nature with emotions should be considered when an analysis is performed on the factors that influence decision-making (Pfister, Bohm / Damasio 1994 / Damasio 2003). This way, the said combination should also be brought into persuasion research. Game theory is related to the study of persuasion and communication (Glazer, Rubinstein / Honryo).

Public diplomacy and the media
In the field of international negotiations, a ruler or government official can make statements through the media, based on game theory, for the purpose of influencing the nation’s population, the population of (an)other country(ies) and, especially, decision-makers. Therefore, domestic policy and foreign policy are not kept in airtight compartments. Domestic and foreign attempts to pressure rulers can occur more when they have to make decisions. In democracy, the opinion of the majority can constitute a concern for politicians. As part of this, the media have a role to play.
Kejin Zhao states that “Improving a country's international discursive power is a combination of the discourse fact and the discourse system in practice. It promotes the national capacity for shaping and even solidifies the international game theory of diplomacy” (Zhao). This statement seeks to satisfy the central focus of this article: the importance of communication and the media, in the field of international relations, and, therefore, including game theory and public diplomacy. According to Alan Henrikson, “ ‘Public’ diplomacy is thus to be differentiated from the rest of diplomacy only in that the influence to be exerted on other countries’ governments is indirect i.e., exerted via channels other than the formal or ‘official’ ones—notably, via the press and other such media of mass communication, today including the Internet (…).” (Henrikson). The goal is to influence populations which, in turn, are taken into account on the part of decision-makers: “Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs functions are premised on the knowledge that public opinion affects official decision-making almost everywhere in the world today.” (Strategic Goal 11: Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs). Laura Merickova thinks that “Public diplomacy is focused on changing attitudes and opinions.” (Merickova). This is why Rhetoric has special relevance (Hayden). The art of persuasion is applied to public diplomacy, to influence audiences in other countries (Ozyilmaz). Rhetoric is not only present in direct contacts between persons, that is, in interpersonal communication, but also, with proper adaptations, in situations where the messages are disclosed via traditional and new media.
As concerns the U.S. Government, for example, “The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, leads America's public diplomacy outreach, which includes communications with international audiences, cultural programming, academic grants, educational exchanges, international visitor programs (…).” (Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs). Within this context, it is relevant to refer to media diplomacy (Afsharpur), to public diplomacy 2.0 (Khatib, Dutton, Thelwall) and to cultural diplomacy (Kim). The latter, while related to the concept of soft power (Kim), generates medium- to long-term effects. 
We should not ignore the fact that “Media diplomacy in psychological operations of international status refers to formation of hatred and envy against definite state, government or authorities by another state or government. It includes political, cultural and psychological pressure, as well as rousing interest or sympathy towards definite other states.” (Afsharpur). As part of this, the international media can be manipulated and a certain person can also be the target (Afsharpur).
In the domain of public diplomacy, “Radio and television have been invaluable political tools for nations that have used them wisely. From the U.S. initiating radio broadcasts on the Voice of America during World War II, to China’s recent multi-billion dollar investment in its CCTV, governments have calculated the value of delivering information to people’s homes across the globe.” (Seib).


Shedding light on public diplomacy


Public diplomacy is also related to the field of entertainment (About U.S. Public Diplomacy / Bales). In this regard, I wish to highlight the films: “Cinema diplomacy originated in the United States. During the course of World War One the U.S. government worked closely with Hollywood to get American films into foreign markets (…).” (Cull 1). In the 21st century, cinema is still valued as a diplomatic instrument: “Yet if nation states and other practitioners of public diplomacy are anything to go by, then cinema is still seen as a central vehicle for international communication.” (Cull 2). A specialist like Nicholas Cull tells us that “Contemporary advocates of better U.S. public diplomacy are quick to point to the enduring power of film and the need for Hollywood to maximize its ‘soft power’ potential for the greater good of the country” (Cull 2). With regard to this, on February 17th, 2016, the British newspaper “The Guardian” published a news story: “The US secretary of state has met with film industry heads to share ideas on how to combat Islamic State’s narrative.” (Lee). The private sector is also taking part. In 2007, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintained that “The solutions to the challenges of the 21st century are not going to be met by government alone. The solutions must come from all sectors of American society working together, enhanced by a close and vital partnership between government and the private sector.” (Private Sector Summit on Public Diplomacy. Models for Action). To Condoleezza Rice, “This public / private partnership represents the true aim of transformational diplomacy (…).” (Private Sector Summit on Public Diplomacy. Models for Action).

According to Nick Hailey, a British diplomat, in the 21st century, public diplomacy should include both the Internet and print media (Anderson). Hard-copy newspapers, magazines and books have not been cast aside, despite the importance of the Internet. Zhou Mingwei, member of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and President of China International Publishing Group (CIPG), thinks that “The core of public diplomacy is the communication between different cultures. One of the missions of the CIPG is to introduce Chinese culture to the world through a variety of forms, including the Internet, mobile media and the traditional print media.” (Na). 


Counter-public diplomacy

As an example, I present some quantitative data regarding the power of international communication of the United States of America in 2015: “The Broadcasting Board of Governors today released its annual impact numbers, including an unprecedented weekly measured audience of 226 million. The increase includes substantial gains in digital and television audiences in highly competitive media markets that are of strategic importance to the United States:” (U.S. International Media Attracts Record Audience of 226 Million). As part of this overall result, “Digital audiences increased from 25 million to 32 million, driven in part by social media and Broadcasting Board of Governors-sponsored Internet circumvention tools to evade the Chinese firewall to access Radio Free Asia and Voice of America content (…).” (U.S. International Media Attracts Record Audience of 226 Million). There are other data regarding other geographical areas: “Thanks in part to a successful customized affiliate strategy, especially in Latin America, Africa and the Russian periphery, television audiences saw a substantial increase growing 18 million in the last year.” (U.S. International Media Attracts Record Audience of 226 Million).

In 2015, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) had audiences in over 100 countries and covered the following media: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti) (BBG Global Audience Estimate From the FY 2015 Performance and Results Report. Overview of Facts and Figures).

In fact, within the context of free flow of information among countries, there are asymmetries, given the fact that the countries don’t all have the same means to produce and send messages to the outside world, by projecting their influence over international audiences through the media, with an extensive geographic reach, if necessary. These means, along with political decisions, depend on various factors, such as economic-financial and technological resources, as well as human resources duly prepared to develop public diplomacy initiatives, in strategic and tactical terms. Because of the aforementioned asymmetries, guerrilla diplomacy is also a possibility (Copeland).

Several authors focus on the similarities and differences between propaganda and public diplomacy (Brown / Snow / Zaharna). To this end, I point out that the terms “propaganda” and “psychological warfare” can be used as synonyms (Culbertson / Mattelart 1993, pp. 108-109). From a military standpoint, there are some relations between psychological warfare and public diplomacy (Kucukozyigit). In 2014, the following statements were published in “The Jerusalem Post” newspaper: “We see [public diplomacy] as a war front like any other,” Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General for Communications and Public Diplomacy Arthur Koll explained. (Harkov). To Koll, “It’s a different kind of warfare, not one where missiles are flying or gunshots, but there is great importance to words, feelings and the sympathies people develop. It’s important to our national security.” (Harkov).

While thinking of eventual measures, on the part of the States, to prevent the reception and the effects of messages disclosed through the media, as part of public diplomacy, just like counter-propaganda and counter-psychological warfare, I emphasize counter-public diplomacy. The latter can comprise several initiatives: 1 – electronic / IT measures intended to prevent or, at least, hinder media located abroad to be able to send messages into a given country; 2 - control of national media, including censorship, given that public diplomacy can also include influencing top-level media officials and various domestic media professionals that produce and issue certain contents locally; 3 - border control to prevent certain books, newspapers, magazines, CDs and DVDs, for example, from entering the country; 4 - forbidding people from receiving messages sent by foreign media; 5 - counter-narratives disseminated internally and abroad through the media.

The regimes known as dictatorial can adopt the five measures. In principle, except under extraordinary situations, the regimes considered democratic choose the last option. Within a democratic context, freedoms of expression and information prevail. In this regard, it is worth pointing out the free flow of information, both domestically and between countries. Could it be that this freedom of circulation of messages serves, through the foreign media, to bring into a country messages with the goal of affecting the respective population or even a certain individual considered to be a target? Regarding people’s protection, in collective and individual terms, what should the State do when faced with this situation with a fading difference between public diplomacy and psychological warfare? How does international communication combine with national sovereignty? The preceding questions can have several answers, depending on various political perspectives. Over the course of time, and depending on multiple circumstances, the answers can also vary. The media industry should not be analyzed separately and, for this reason, the decisions that are made in relation to it can have repercussions in other spheres. 



Game theory associated with public diplomacy contributes toward the goal, through the media, of influencing the people who have to make decisions. This influence can go by way of addressing messages to vast swaths of the populations in several countries, to a group of decision-makers or to a single individual. As part of this, the public and private media are used as instruments of public diplomacy to, chiefly in the long run, attain certain goals with the target audience. These instruments of media diplomacy can be related to various areas such as journalism and cinema.

Not all States have the same means to communicate at international level. Indeed, there are asymmetries. History shows us that not all States address the free flow of information the same way, that is, the possibility, through the media, of sending and receiving messages from abroad. The difference between public diplomacy and psychological warfare is not clear-cut. To counteract public diplomacy, specifically as concerns sending contents abroad, the States, depending on the political regimes in place, can create various obstacles, in order to hinder entry of the said contents in their territories or to cancel out any effects on the target audience. These obstacles, such as electronic measures, censorship or counter-narratives, are part of counter-public diplomacy. All this raises issues pertaining to the way the States envision the relation between international communication and national sovereignty. 


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Photo by: Jorge Marinho

Published by Marinho Media Analysis / March 18, 2016