The pandemic has changed many aspects of the world and our daily lives. In the context of great power competition, it might not have been a game changer, but it surely accentuated existing trends on the global arena: fracturing the world, leading to less cooperation (at least in those areas that matter the most) and weakening trust in multilateralism.
Middle powers, states which have a regional voice and the ability to shape international events, could be in danger of being caught in the crossfire of the rivalry between great powers such as the United States and China, with significant potential economic or political challenges, additional to those brought about by the pandemic itself. But the middle powers are also faced with an opportunity window now – to play a more important role in the world and international structures, to act as stabilizers in a tumultuous international environment, to cooperate with other similar-sized, like-minded countries, and together promote adherence to the traditional rules of the game, slightly tweaked for this new context. And, as a result, provide an alternative to being mere pawns in power games.
However, in order to be able to take on this opportunity, one must increase their influence, improve their image and consolidate their impact. One key role is and will continue to be played by diplomats. Diplomats, like many other people, had to change their way of work, and transition towards the online world, towards e-diplomacy. The new operating environment has changed greatly how the job used to be done, with things happening at a much slower pace currently, because oftentimes discussions are on the record, and there is not so much space anymore for informal, backdoor talks. However, there might be a silver lining: more space and time for strategic thinking and planning. Diplomatic academies and institutes from middle power countries should now focus on preparing their diplomats to conduct successful communication campaigns and thrive in these challenging, during- and post-pandemic times, with increased global power competition. While pursuing middle power diplomacy, middle powers can and should have great ambitions, and for this we need great power campaigns!
One main trap before learning more on global media literacy is being captivated by metaphors and ignoring processes as a whole. For example, the “wolf warrior” concept has frequently appeared when talking about diplomacy, mainly in the context of Chinese diplomats who started taking a more assertive, proactive, and even aggressive style, thus creating controversies on whether this approach is efficient and appropriate. Middle power diplomacy is usually based on showing “good international citizenship”, framing oneself as a trustworthy country and partner, which pursues multilateralism in solving regional and global issues, and with a focus on norm-based policies. To this, we might add even a hint of more dynamism, what some authors referred to as neo-middle power diplomacy, which includes a more proactive approach, involving lobbying, rule-making and setting standards.
Covid-19 has caught all of us, and especially governments and leading officials, in a fight with the virus, trying to keep the situation under control at home, on both health and economic aspects. However, the pandemic does also provide suitable timing, although it might seem a bit counter-intuitive, for nation branding and image building. Several middle powers, in contrast to major powers, have handled the pandemic well and became success stories. In other words, they managed to pursue a good strategy, flattened the curve efficiently, kept the deaths number low and/or did not suffer greatly from an economic point of view, maybe also with the help of innovative technologies. New Zealand and South Korea are just two examples from many. This brings international praise and positions a state as being capable and knowledgeable.
Nation branding involves creating a favourable image and reputation of a country as a whole in the international arena, in other global actors’ eyes. This favourable image could be built in relation with the state’s governance, investments, exports, tourism, culture and other aspects as such. The good reputation does give an increase in soft power and allows a middle power to gain more influence and therefore, have a stronger voice and impact.
In order to boost their global standing, middle powers should leverage on their strengths. So, an assessment of what a country could do, offer and initiate comes first. Regional and international aid continues to be even more necessary (see the example of India these days, that started producing vaccines for the neighbouring countries – the vaccine diplomacy as a reaction to what we saw in the spring as the mask diplomacy employed by China). Sharing is caring, and states who have the capacity to donate and give a helping hand to those in need will be appreciated, especially given the potential of the pandemic to increase the inequality between the Global North and South, a matter that is painfully illustrated by the struggle of some to get access to the vaccine. Donating and helping should not be confined to material resources: do not think that masks and vaccine diplomacy is the only way. Knowledge, best practices and ideas can prove to be even more necessary. Also, these might be tight to the pandemic and therefore imply a great deal of medical aspects but do think beyond the health aspects – it could be anything which drives and helps recovery and sustains good governance and an organized international environment. Having initiative for cooperation and being a good example for others can mean a lot to middle powers’ national image. Having and maintaining a powerful network will also mean less dependency.
Another piece of advice for middle powers and their diplomats is to engage with international media efficiently, keeping relations, giving periodic interviews and having these translated into more languages. Also, keep a close eye on the media’s perception and how your image is contoured in the international press, how it plays out with other global and regional narratives. An efficient communication strategy involves keeping a message concise, with relevant and accurate information, but also empathetic. Continuously reframing the message to win hearts and minds is crucial to a successful communication campaign: the context is more than a challenge, it is an opportunity, and diplomats must adapt and adjust accordingly.
The last, but not the least important, aspect of this media literacy process and global communications campaigns is increasing the awareness of information and influence operations, with a particular focus on strengthening middle powers and their diplomats’ resilience to such operations.