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Historical Memory Discourse in Public Diplomacy

Historical memory refers to the way a group of people or a nation relates to a past event. The past plays a critical role in shaping the present and fostering a sense of belonging; as a result, the historical memories are the basis for social and political identities. Edkins noted that after a catastrophe, then there arises moment of reckoning, i.e. commemorating what happened during the calamity (1). The catastrophes form the historical moment. For example, in China, the 20th century which they refer to as a century of national humiliation (Bainian guochi) forms an historical memory for the country. The humiliation was in relation the Opium War and the impacts it had on the country’s sovereignty (Wang 3).

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The Relationship Between History, Identity and Memory

History is a representation of events that took place over an extended period. On the other hand, memory entails a recollection of what happened and its implications. Identity is the self-perception that makes people to be defined in a particular manner; it is the feeling of belonging to a given group. For example, identity can be based on religion, social class or locality. The historical events normally inform memory, and it is a prism for lived experiences. It is through historical memories that people have ideologies that are informed by their past (Edkins 6). Therefore, the necessity to create communities or political organizations based on past trauma. The remembrance of violence or trauma from a historical happening leads to the creation of identity. This implies that memories are part of social and political mobilizations in which groups are able to find their identities and plan for future actions.

History is an essential ingredient in the creation of identity. As a result, a narrative about a past occurrence serves as a mediated action which results in fostering the sense of belonging. It is through a past occurrence and internalization that identity is formed. For example, in relation to the current Chinese economic and military growth, one needs to understand the historical consciousness that fosters the sense of identity in the country. Therefore, an excess of history can be a powerful template that links people and enhance the collective consciousness (Edkins 2).

The relationship between history, memory, and identity can also be understood through the nationhood of different countries formed after the Second World War. For example, the Allied destruction of the Dresden became a significant part of historical memory that led to the creation of identity for the victims and it has been used to articulate the collective experience of loss (Edkins 2). It is through this historic memory that reconstructing and formation of the economic, cultural, political, and moral definition of German was formed. Another example relates to the Soviet Union in relation to the Second World War that the leaders called the Great Patriotic War. It served as a historical memory and was used to legitimize the existence of the Soviet Union. Besides, since the break-up of the union, the memory of the war has become a key element in creating national identities such as Russia.

Memory Discourses Advanced in Public Diplomacy Setting

Diplomacy is a multi-layered process that entails the formulation and implementation of foreign politics. It is characterized by negotiations in which a country lobbies for a certain course of action. In many cases, for public diplomacy to be effective, there is the need to have enough support and points of anchoring the discourse. The points are the tools used by governments or individuals to directly or indirectly influence positions and opinions that have an impact on the foreign politics.

Public diplomacy leads to influencing the decisions of another government through the use of various practices such as international norms, ethics, mutual cooperation and other persuasive processes. Memory discourse is one of the tools used to manipulate the decision-making process at the international level. It is used to increase support and legitimize the need for a given course of action. The memory discourses used in the international relations include events caused by the natural disasters, political, and global changes in climate. This implies that the memory discourses are not restricted to political issues only. Memory discourses have been used as the basis for the international relations reconciliations and truth commissions.

In the field of international relations, diplomacy has significantly changed. This has been attributed to the emerging of interconnected society and the need for hybrid international relations. For example, there is an increased use of soft power tools to push for changes at the international level. Also, there is evidence of a shift from political domain to diplomacy that is based on the opinion of groups to make international policies and treaties (Finney 457). Public diplomacy has been gaining more attention. As such, governments tend to leverage on this by the use of memory discourses as the basis for gaining advantage through public lobbying to affect decisions. Finney states, “There is copious contemporary and historical evidence that collective memories can impact upon the course of international relations” (457).

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The memory discourse is a multi-layered approach that in the past two decades has become crucial in lobbying for support at the both domestic and global level. It helps countries to explain the rationale for certain policies and to lobby for changes based on past experiences. The use of the collective memory has been enhanced by the existence of the United Nations bodies that give countries a platform to air their grievances. However, it is worth noting that memory discourse has also been used to legitimize military interventions. For example, the current approach by the U.S. and Russia in relation to Ukraine is based on the Transatlantic memory discourse in which each country claims a right to protect international interests based on experiences of the Second World War. This is an example of the increasing role of historical memory in the global context.

There has been an increase in the utilization of the tool while decision-making and policy formulations. For instance, with the increased interconnectedness in the world, there are common challenges faced by different countries; hence, the need to form regional and international policies to tackle the issues. As a result, trauma and memory are used to persuade other nations to join the process of in making international decisions. For example, after the September 11th attack, President W. Bush used the collective memory of terrorism to lobby for international support on the war against terrorism and the subsequent incursion of Afghanistan with the help of the U.K. Also, the president frequently invoked the Truman administration’s strategic posture employed during the Cold War to make policies and champion for international support on the Global War on terrorism.

The technique used in the public diplomacy entails historical reasoning and analogies which are used to create an image that compels the global leaders to act immediately. Memory discourse is applied by reflecting on the historical events to make decisions and legitimize the cause of actions. In the international politics, traumas and memories are used as sites of intense contestation (Wang 10). Also, Wang argued that the memories and traumas have been conceptualized as ‘sensitizing concepts’ through which investigations enhance better understanding of the political situation and policy formulation (8).

In essence, it implies that memory discourses have been used in various international forums to champion for transitional justice. It is common for public diplomacies to use national identity based on historical events to form and justify policy goals. It has a great impact on the persuasion efforts and international propaganda. In The case of U.S, Global War on Terrorism and use of past events to convince other Western countries such as France, the U.K., and German on the need for action against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and other nations considered to harbor terrorists is another example of the use of memory discourses in the arena of legitimation and support.


It is evident that memory discourses have a significant role in influencing various policies at the international levels. The increased use of the discourses points out to a change in the public diplomacy, i.e. from the past coercive nature and threats to the current scenario where countries use their identity as a soft power in policy and decision-making at the international level.

Works Cited

Edkins, Jenny. Trauma and Memory of Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Finney, Patrick. “The Ubiquitous Presence of the Past? Collective Memory and International History.” International History Review, vol. 36, no. 3, 2014, pp. 457.

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Wang, Zheng. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical, Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. Columbia University Press, 2012.

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1. StudyCorgi. "Historical Memory Discourse in Public Diplomacy." December 24, 2020.


StudyCorgi. "Historical Memory Discourse in Public Diplomacy." December 24, 2020.


StudyCorgi. 2020. "Historical Memory Discourse in Public Diplomacy." December 24, 2020.


StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Historical Memory Discourse in Public Diplomacy'. 24 December.

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