• Interview
  • Interview with Dr. Jan Melissen, Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute

Interview with Dr. Jan Melissen,
Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute

This issue features an interview with Dr. Jan Melissen, a formidable authority on public diplomacy. Dr. Melissen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute and serves as Professor of Diplomacy at the University of Antwerp.

What is Clingendael and what are its main objectives, primary activities, and some of its most noteworthy accomplishments?

The Clingendael Institute is the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, and one of Europe’s leading think tanks. What makes Clingendael exceptional is that it has two functions under one roof: a diplomatic academy and a research institute. We train not just junior Dutch diplomats, but also diplomats at various different levels and from many countries, including countries in Central, East and South-East Asia. Our research is oriented towards applied policy and meant to have impact, so we try to make products that tap into the public debate about international relations. There are two thematic foci: Europe and security. It’s impact-oriented—rather than an academic article or book article, we prefer to write policy briefs, advisory reports, future-oriented studies, and hold expert seminars and conferences. Thus, our work is debate centered and impact oriented. We work for governments, for international organizations, and for research foundations like the Korea Foundation. Our clientele is quite broad. Clingendael is also increasingly a networked institute. Like government ministries and research institutes, we function through our networks.

Tell us about your current research projects and the subject areas that interest you.

My interest is primarily in how diplomacy is changing: Where do we see innovation in diplomatic practice and what are the trends in diplomatic practice? The world of international relations is really fast moving, and diplomacy is by definition adapting to such changes. What we try to do is look at the characteristics of this evolution, and what kind of diplomacy governments need to be equipped for tomorrow’s world.
   Those interests are evolving. Personally, I am researching four areas. Firstly, public diplomacy in East Asia. Another subject is the impact of the digital age on diplomacy. Technology has an impact on the way we live, work, and interact with one another, so this is bound to have an impact on diplomacy at large. We will hear a lot more about digital transformation in international relations in the years to come.
   Thirdly, I am currently interested in how states take care of the security of their own citizens outside their borders. In a globalized world where people are travelling overseas and living in other countries, this is an important issue for all countries.
   Fourthly, at Clingendael colleagues and I are exploring the resilience of companies in the international environment, a concept we call “business diplomacy.” This has to do with the recognition that big multinational companies operate like diplomatic entities. Business diplomacy is much more than public relations and corporate social responsibility. Diplomacy is an activity not just carried out by governments.

What is interesting about East Asian and Korean diplomacy? And what is the importance of public diplomacy in this region from your perspective?

A lot of what we know about international relations diplomacy is based on Western historical experience and examples. I find that unsatisfying in a world where East Asia is rising fast. We must learn how East Asians see international relations and also diplomacy. In addition, people-to-people relationships and culture are extremely important. Culture in its more narrow sense but also in a broader sense that affects international relations.
  What is it that makes Korea stand out? What does it demonstrate to East Asia in terms of a society, an economy, and its values? Not values exported from the West, but homemade in East Asia, and this is where Korea has a real edge. The quality of its ideas that it can contribute to global conversations and international fora—doing things the Korean way, whether in the fields of cyber-governance, or overseas development assistance—can give Korea a place in international discourse that enables it to punch above its weight. In this perspective, what counts is the creativity of your ideas rather than aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons. In the perspective of my research that also makes Korea stand out is its identity as a middle power that has recreated itself through technology and building on the strengths of a digitally literate society.
   As to ODA, Korea has a strong narrative when it comes to development aid: it is a nation that has developed itself after the Korean War at a very rapid pace, and it has no history as a colonizing nation—like so many developing countries, it has experienced living under foreign rule. The West might learn from Korea’s best practices in public diplomacy and diplomacy.

How has digital age technology impacted the areas of Public Diplomacy and international relations?

Korea has a tradition of technological innovation, which is part of Korean DNA. Although Koreans realize it, perhaps they don’t realize its full potential. In a world that is becoming increasingly digitized, where technology is going to have a much bigger impact on our lives and international relationships, this is where Korea has something to offer, so I think it’s the real pearl that Korea must value to a greater extent. Technology in other ways is doing good things for Korea. For example, when you go abroad you get a text message saying what is happening in that country. That shows that tech can help you service your citizens. Furthermore, we have Korean-made social networking services used widely in East Asia, not just American ones.

In what ways might the Korea Foundation and Clingendael be able to join hands to advance our mutual interests?

There is a genuine interest in Europe in helping relationships improve in East Asia. The Korea Foundation could do a good job in working with Clingendael on issues of East Asian public diplomacy and international politics, because that is where you can find formulae and topics which promote the exchange of ideas in the interests of East Asia as a whole. Above all, Clingendael is well placed for the study and promotion of relations between East Asia and Europe.