Culture, Cultural Diversity and Humanity-centred Diplomacies

In: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy
R.S. Zaharna Global Media Program, School of Communication, American University Washington, DC 20016-8017 United States

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In contemporary public diplomacy, the idea of culture and nation-state are so intertwined that notions such as ‘national culture’ that fuel populism or culture as a soft-power resource often go unquestioned. This article critically revisits assumptions of state-centric diplomacy that tie culture to the state. Culture as a domain of the state, which helped carve up the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has become limiting in a twenty-first-century milieu that is both culturally diverse and interconnected. The article probes the communication dynamics that are untethering culture from the state and giving prominence to forces of increased separation as well as global collaboration, including the phenomenon of humanity-centred diplomacies. Humanity-centred diplomacies’ distinguishing features — global consciousness, holistic perspective, cultural diversity and process-orientation — suggest advantages over state-centric diplomacy for leveraging cultural diversity and tackling complex global problems.

Culture and Public Diplomacy1

Is culture destined to be the demon that divides? Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory tapped into the widely held assumption that distinct, identifiable cultures not only exist but are inevitably antagonistic. Today, population shifts from the Global South into Europe inspire uncertainty and conflict. Populism rallies around cultural markers to divide ‘us’ from ‘them’. Indeed, real or imagined cultural distinctions bring to the surface questions of identity.

Public diplomacy, as both an instrument of advocacy and relationship-building, would appear to be ideally suited to help mediate cultural divisions. But is it? Despite calls for greater collaboration, is it possible that public diplomacy inadvertently fuels competition?

Consider that still larger problems threaten not just individual states, but the survival of humankind and the planet as a whole. Climate change is but one shared global problem, alongside water scarcity and global pandemics. These issues reflect the growing challenge of complexity in an interconnected world. They have been called ‘wickedly complex’ as the very act of trying to solve one aspect of the problem creates new problems.2

Ironically, the cultural diversity that is fuelling friction may also be the precise antidote for tackling wicked problems. While diversity is often cited as the main source of friction in working groups, as Scott Page wrote in The Difference, it is also the well-spring of innovative thinking and creative problem-solving.3 Among the greatest sources of cognitive diversity — that is, different perspectives, modes of thinking and approaches to problem-solving — is cultural diversity. Tapping into the wealth of cultural diversity is key to unravelling the complexity of wicked problems. The critical challenge, however, as Page noted, was learning how to ‘leverage diversity’.

Yet how effective is public diplomacy at leveraging cultural diversity for creative problem-solving? Learning to do so must become a primary goal of public diplomacy as the frequency and intensity of wicked problems grow. Ultimately, the question that faces public diplomacy is this: How do we square the circle and transform culture from a seemingly divisive demon to leveraging cultural diversity to solve complex problems?

Addressing that question is the central goal of this article. Some might argue that such a shift is not possible or even realistic, given what appears to be a stronger trend of resurgent nationalism. I would argue that not only is it possible, but that such a transformation is already well under way in the form of humanity-centred diplomacies. In contrast to state-centric diplomacy, which rests on the projection of a singular ‘national culture’ in the ‘inter-national’ system, humanity-centred diplomacies assume cultural diversity to be an inherent feature of humankind and draw upon that diversity to address pressing issues of humankind.

This article critically revisits the underlying assumptions of state-centric public diplomacy that tether culture to the state. As natural as the link between culture and ‘national identity’ may seem today, that link was forged during the process of state-building only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the idea of a distinct, separate cultural entity within bounded territory may have been ideally suited for the highly competitive and carved-up world at the time, it has become limiting for public diplomacy in a twenty-first-century milieu that is simultaneously both culturally diverse and interconnected.

To explore these ideas, we begin by critically examining how culture became linked to the state, and its role and limitations in state-centric public diplomacy. We then turn to the emerging communication dynamics that are untethering culture from the state and giving prominence to cultural diversity and the distinctive features of humanity-centred diplomacies. The article concludes with thoughts on the trajectory of humanity-centred diplomacies.

Culture and State-centric Diplomacy

In contemporary public diplomacy, the idea of culture and nation-state are so intertwined that notions such as ‘national culture’ or culture as a soft-power resource often go unquestioned. However, history reveals that such a link was not always so. While the tradition of cultural exchanges in diplomacy among political rulers or dynasties dates back millennia, the idea of linking people to states using culture emerged at a unique juncture in Western history during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Claiming Culture; Creating Nation-States

If one reflects on the expanse of human history, cultural diversity and cultural exchange were long the norm. Since times of antiquity, cross-fertilisation of cultural artefacts has led to the enrichment and rejuvenation of societies. And diplomacy, along with trade and religion, played a boundary-spanning role in this cultural transmission. Ancient kings loaded their envoys with cultural treasures, from ivory combs to wild animals to the most precious of gifts, royal brides, as a means of building relations.4

While the link between ruling polity, culture and diplomacy enjoys a long and rich tradition, the public was not necessarily part of that mix. Often a ruling dynasty represented the dominant ethnic group, but governed or had protective arrangements over a diverse array of ethnicities. European dynasties in the eighteenth century, for example, were described by Benedict Anderson as ‘elephantiasis’ for their diversity:

Romanovs ruled over Tatars and Letts, Germans and Armenians, Russians and Finns. Habsburgs were perched high over Magyars and Croats, Slovaks and Italians, Ukrainians and Austro-Germans. Hanoverians presided over Bengalis and Quebecois, as well as Scots and Irish, English and Welsh.5

This mix of religious and ethnic diversity was a distinctive feature of other empires at the time. The Ottoman Empire, for example, spanned from the Balkans in Europe to central Asia, and back across North Africa to the Atlantic. Identities were local and distinct from loyalties to the rulers. Cultural diversity was a given.

We see a series of shifts from the assumption of cultural diversity to cultural unification with the demise of absolute monarchs and the rise of the nation-state and nationalism. Buried in this shift from diplomatic actors working on behalf of absolute monarchs to the nation-state comes implicit ties of culture to state-centric diplomacy.

The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 laid the foundation for the system of nation-states, each as a separate entity and defined by effective control over a territory and its people. Culture was pivotal in defining this entity and extending its control. Geoffrey Pigman highlights Louis XIV (1643-1715), who reigned during the dawn of the Westphalian era, as a monarch who played a key role in centralizing state power for France.6 The king sought to embody state sovereignty, proclaiming L’Etat, c’est moi (I am the State). The monarch set the diplomatic course for using culture to define the state:

The driving force of early diplomacy and conquest by the Kings of France was to establish as ‘natural’ and defensible frontiers for France, to create the ‘hexagon’ within which there could be linguistic, ethnic and political unity. As a result, the linguistic and cultural boundaries of contemporary France very nearly coincide with the political [italics added].7

Language played a powerful role ‘in the process of cultural unification within the territory of France’, according to Dennis Ager.8 The Alliance Française (AF), which is today best recognized for establishing the model of contemporary cultural diplomacy aimed at foreign publics, originally had provincial AF chapters located throughout France’s countryside for French-language instruction.9

Between 1750 and 1918, historians note a major shift, as traditional empires based on absolute monarchs were dissolving and the lines of modern states were being drawn. We see the rise of nationalism as a powerful force, as the elephantiasis of empires gave way to the need for national unity. Here, diplomacy becomes decidedly state-centric, as representation transfers from the person of the monarch to the sovereignty of the state.

Nationalism, which emerged in Europe and North America during the late eighteenth century, ‘was premised on the belief in a world of exclusive nations’, according to Anthony Smith. As he relates, ‘The basic goals of nationalists everywhere were identical: they sought to unify the nation, to endow it with a distinctive individuality, and make it free and autonomous’.10

In the three pillars of nationalism identified by Hutchinson and Smith — ‘unity, identity and autonomy’ — we see the reinforcing aspect of culture in both defining the identity of the nation and distinguishing it from others: ‘The people must be united; they must dissolve all internal divisions; they must be gathered together in a single historic territory […] and share a single public culture’ [italics added].11

Dissolving internal divisions and creating a single public culture, as many have noted, relied on the creation of national symbols, myths and memories.12 Despite obvious differences in appearances, ‘governments assiduously promoted myths of shared ancestry’.13 In the forging of a national identity, we see also the subjective sense of a growing ‘consciousness of nation’ — a ‘self-awareness of sameness and commonality […] and interwoven destinies’.14

Nationalism in the Western (Westphalian) context is distinct in that a sense of national identity preceded the formal establishment of state structures of political authority.15 As a result, nation (identity) and state (political sovereignty) appear to have become conflated in the literature (‘nation-state’) as well as in public sentiment.16 Politicians and lay people alike ask, ‘Who are we as a nation?’.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, the term ‘culture’ emerged after the idea of a distinctive national character began to take root. The term culture was introduced in 1871 by the British anthropologist Edward B. Tylor. Tylor equated culture with civilization: ‘Culture or civilization is a complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society’.17

Like national borders, this definition of culture suggested something identifiable and static. Despite the reality of constant changes within a society — in almost every aspect of life, from clothes to food to norms — culture ‘as a way of life’ suggests an entity frozen in time. Such an entity must be preserved, promoted and, if need be, defended.

Public Diplomacy and Culturing State-centric Power

In 1918, as the tumultuous transition period from absolute monarchs to modern states came to a close in Europe, states were poised to take their place in a new era of relations among nations. If culture was politicized to help create the modern nation-state, it was further instrumentalised to project and promote state power in the ‘inter-national’ system. In all areas of public diplomacy, culture played a pivotal role.

The link between culture and state was foundational to the emergence of cultural diplomacy as a practice by governments of planning cultural programmes in line with broader national interests.18 France was the first to establish the model for overseas cultural and language training with the Alliance Française in 1883. For many colonial powers, establishing cultural institutes was critical to assimilating the populace of colonized territories. As early as the Second World War, countries learned that cultural diplomacy was a valuable tool not only in enhancing their image, but also in wooing people’s affection through music and art.19

International broadcasting, another early and prominent form of public diplomacy, also drew upon the idea of a national identity by quite literally projecting its voice onto the world stage. The early features and limitations of the twentieth-century mass media ideally reinforced the linking of culture and state. First radio and then television helped to create a ‘national’ audience, who shared national experiences together and, in the process, further solidified the idea of a shared national identity. The dominant media, or ‘mainstream media’, as many have noted, both produced and reflected dominant cultural values. The limited geographic reach of these media technologies further reinforced the notion of ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ audiences of state-sponsored communication.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, when public diplomacy gained prominence in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the link between state and culture was an implicit assumption. Joseph Nye included culture as one of three ‘soft power resources’ that states can wield as a source of attraction. As Nye explains, ‘the soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others); its political values; and its foreign policies’ [italics added].20 Note the assumption of possession: ‘its culture’. Culture had become the unquestioned domain of the state.

Finally, culture was not just a critical ingredient in nation-building; it remains a pivotal component of nation-branding. Culture is a key ingredient of Simon Anholt’s notion of ‘competitive identity’ among states.21 Nations highlight distinctive aspects of their culture — such as heritage sites, food, traditions, or even ‘our people’ — in an effort to distinguish themselves from others.

While the idea of culture as a soft-power resource is appealing, the notion that culture is linked to a defined geopolitical entity, or is something that a state possesses, is worth revisiting.

Limitations of Bounded State-centric Culture

It is in some ways surprising how few have questioned the idea of culture as a domain or power resource of the state. Yet even as states claim culture as their own, culture appears flagrantly oblivious to national boundaries. Where might one draw the boundaries of Arab culture? Or Spanish culture?

If cultures observed physical boundaries, they might more readily resemble the curved silhouettes of human migration and settlement. Or perhaps cultural boundaries would take the shape of the mandala political formations of South and East Asia, where entities were defined by human loyalties to a charismatic ruler at the centre, rather than external boundaries.22

The limitations of affixing culture to states may account for some of the paradoxes of contemporary public diplomacy. Despite the professed goals of promoting mutual understanding and enhancing relations, culture in public diplomacy appears to be fuelling inter-state competition. The competition among cultural institutes that emerged during the Second World War has continued, and even intensified,23 as countries have tried to broaden their reach and impact through networking and creative outreach strategies. From the early days of international broadcasting, countries have competed for listeners, viewers and credibility. That competition has now taken to the digital realm.

The idea of culture as a static, fixed thing fit well in theory (if not in reality) with the emerging state-centric, carved-up view of the world at the time. What was designed to appear as ‘natural’ in the nineteenth or twentieth century has become a liability in the highly interconnected global world of the twenty-first century. The view of culture as something static and tethered to a territory, rather than a human dynamic, will grow increasingly anachronistic with the interconnective (as opposed to international) forces of globalization and digital technologies. If culture resists boundaries, it is because people and goods, as carriers of culture, tend to resist boundaries.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all: the limitations inherent in tethering culture to state-centric public diplomacy leave it ill-equipped to address wicked complex problems. Rather than being able to leverage diversity, public diplomacy’s state-centric focus may usurp culture for national use. The incentive for cooperating with those who are not like-minded may be perceived as too great a challenge or threatening to national interests. And yet it is precisely this collaboration, the ability to leverage diversity, that is most needed.

Cultural Diversity and Humanity-centred Diplomacies

If culture and people (the carriers of culture) appear oblivious to state boundaries, the open, borderless internet and digital technologies are almost irreverent. Digital technologies, which accord direct interaction among peoples, are untethering both culture and communication as domains that were once largely controlled by the state.

Digital technologies have helped to create a different conceptualization of communication that is based not on separate, individual actors, but on the combined dynamics of interconnectivity and the interactions of a multiplicity of actors. Here we see a qualitative shift from individual state actors, which have for so long dominated the study of diplomacy as statecraft. It is the shift from an individual to a more holistic perspective of an expansive and encompassing communication environment. Because of the global reach of digital technologies, cultural diversity is an inherent part of that communication universe.

This interconnectivity extends beyond state and non-state actors to the general public on social-media platforms. Social media represent new diplomatic spaces, or to use Iver B. Neumann’s term, ‘diplomatic sites’, for public engagement.24 The more interconnected people become, the greater the potential for direct interaction of diverse cultural perspectives, and the stronger the force towards needed adaptation and realignment. This is not always a welcome turn of events for states or publics. States may resist intrusions, erecting firewalls or even border walls. The public may also respond with resistance to diversity and instead seek out like-minded others. The rise of populism and nationalism are symptomatic of such resistance.

If division and polarization are one side of the interconnectivity coin, on the other side we find those who leverage the interactivity and interconnectivity for a more expansive global perspective. Here we see a rise of social entrepreneurs, online petitions and social-media campaigns to increase public awareness and involvement. Alongside networks of outrage, Manuel Castells also observed networks of hope.25 Akira Iriye documented the steady growth of international collaboration in Global Community. As he observed, ‘underneath the geopolitical realities defined by sovereign states, the (twentieth) century witnessed a steady growth of another reality — the global (and globalizing) activities by international organizations’.26 These organizations have grown in number, variety and diversity. Their growth is part of another direction that communication technologies are leading diplomacy. Concurrent with efforts to maintain national separation and cultural divisions, we see growing global collaboration.

Humanity-centred Diplomacies

As different actors interact in the public political arena, we see the growing prominence of what might be called a ‘humanity-centred diplomacy’. Humanity-centred diplomacy focuses on the larger goals of humanity and draws upon cultural diversity as the means for pursuing these goals. This phenomenon is not new, but has recently been gaining currency. Several works have used various terms to try and capture this idea of humanity-centred diplomacy — indeed, diplomacies.27

Costas Constantinou proposed the idea of ‘human diplomacy’ and the transformative aspects of diplomacy to humanize the Other.28 He distinguished between a ‘hetero-diplomacy’ that differentiates, and ‘homo-diplomacy’ that searches for commonalities. Writing later with James Der Derian, Constantinou and Der Derian advanced the idea of ‘sustainability diplomacy’ as a shift in attention from narrow strategic calculations of state power and national interests, which can have disastrous effects on the ground, to a larger view of diplomacy focused on regional or global interest. Constantinou and Der Derian describe sustainability diplomacy as ‘peace-preserving and peace-making though not necessarily pacifist’.29 Cosmopolitan diplomacy, based on values such as tolerance, friendship and respect, similarly resonates with humanity-centred diplomacy.30

Public diplomacy scholars are also raising the call for a more humanity-centred public diplomacy. Manuel Castells emphasized that public diplomacy ought to be ‘the diplomacy of the public’, contrasting private, self-defined interests and values against a shared public interest.31 Juyan Zhang and Brecken Chinn Swartz suggested the idea of ‘public diplomacy for Global Public Goods (GPG)’, in order to capture a growing need to address the common goods of humankind.32 Similarly, Kathy Fitzpatrick proposed ‘public diplomacy in the public interest’, in response to public diplomacy that is becoming ‘more socially-conscious with increased focus on global issues, problem-solving, and shared goals’.33

At first glance, structural or tactical differences may appear as the immediate distinction between state-centric and humanity-centred diplomacies. State-centric diplomacy is concerned with individual states within the inter-state system. Humanity-centred diplomacies are focused on humanity, or the global expanse of humankind in its totality. Peering below this surface, however, we find aspects of humanity-centred diplomacies that are distinctive from state-centric diplomacy and which suggest decided advantages for navigating cultural diversity and engaging in complex problem-solving.

First, central to humanity-centred diplomacies is the awareness of being connected to others and feeling part of the larger family of humankind. Akira Iriye called it ‘a greater global consciousness […] that individuals and groups, no matter where they are, share certain interests and concerns’.34 He pointed to this consciousness as the primary impetus in the steady growth of international organizations working together on shared problems. Costas Constantinou spoke of diplomacy’s transformative aspect to find ‘the Self in the Other, and the Other in the Self’.35 This shared human consciousness, not surprisingly, is a concept found across cultural heritages. The feeling of shared humanity underlies the African concept of ubuntu: ‘one is human through others’. Polynesians express the humanity in family that extends not only to fellow humans but natural elements. Fellow feeling and connection to others is core to Confucius philosophy and the concept of ren in guiding relations. Even the origin of the English word ‘humanity’ echoes a relational affinity: ‘humanity’ is from the Latin humanitas for human nature and kindness. This feeling of emotional connection and global consciousness distinguishes humanity-centred diplomacies from the diplomatic premise of ‘national self-awareness’ and traditional statecraft that has traditionally privileged rational interests and strategic action.

Second, humanity-centred diplomacies assume a holistic perspective of human and diplomatic relations. Humanity — that is, the totality of humankind together — is ‘the fundamental survival unit’ and core to diplomatic vision and practice.36 We see this holistic assumption in Seçkin Barış Gülmez’s definition of cosmopolitan diplomacy as going ‘beyond national interests and provides the foreign policy-maker with a global geographical focus and an appeal to humanity as a whole’.37 The holistic perspective assumes complete interconnectivity; no one state can be viewed in isolation from other states or publics. All are part of an interwoven thread of interconnected relations, and the actions of one can ultimately affect all. By contrast, state-centric diplomacy represents an individual-level focus on individual political actors, including their attributes (such as power and interests, etc.) and actions (strategies and approaches, etc.). However, whereas relations may represent a strategic choice for states engaged in bilateral or multilateral state-centric diplomacy, relations are an unconditional given in humanity-centred diplomacies.

Third, the holistic perspective of humanity-centred diplomacies, by extension, also assumes cultural diversity as a core feature and dynamic of diplomatic vision and practice. Because the relational universe includes all of humanity, by definition, it encompasses the cultural and social perspectives, orientations and traditions of humankind. It is this assumption of diversity that suggests an array of ‘diplomacies’ rather than one ‘diplomacy’ that can be compared against others.38

Cultural diversity is not just an inherent feature of the relational universe; it is a central dynamic as well. Cultural diversity is key to the synergistic quality often found in humanity-centred diplomacies. Why? Because, given the assumed conditions of interconnectivity and cultural diversity, diplomatic actors must continually adapt and re-adapt to different others (and even different selves). On the negative side, that adaption can result in friction between differing assumptions, experiences or perspectives. Asymmetries of power may prompt efforts to control or dominate competing perspectives. On the positive side, however, the friction of direct interaction can spark an intensive need to learn about — and from — the other in order to reduce tensions. This friction point, where exchanging and engaging in different perspectives, is when leveraging diversity can actually begin to occur.

Fourth, in humanity-centred diplomacies, collaboration and process-orientation necessarily supersede the goal-orientation of state-centric diplomacy. The individual, atomized perspective of state-centric diplomacy makes it possible to assume a goal-orientated posture: the state views itself as a sole actor that singularly defines, pursues and achieves its goal. Humanity-centred diplomacies, on the other hand, because of assumed cultural diversity, recognize that the goals of one actor might not be those of another — or may even be contradictory. Yet because of interconnectivity, the need for collaboration replaces the futility of atomization. As Ali Fisher noted, ‘The start and end point for strategic collaborative public diplomacy is working with, not controlling or even necessarily leading, others’.39 This point is echoed by Manuel Castells, who speaks of creating a communication space: ‘The aim is not to convince but to communicate, not to declare but to listen’.40 We might also add perspective-taking and empathetic communication, which are inherently part of the process, if they are not yet in the research literature.

Within this process-orientation of humanity-centred diplomacies, two immediate areas appear most pressing. One area, which is related to the need to address wicked global problems such as climate change, is problem-solving. A second area, related to hurdles in problem-solving, is identity mediation. Identity mediation is foundational to the transformative capacity of diplomacy to accommodate perceived differences and to locate commonalities, as Costas Constantinou highlighted.41

In an environment that is both interconnected and diverse, these features of humanity-centred diplomacies suggest distinctive advantages over state-centric diplomacy in tackling wicked problems.

The distinctive advantages are evident in the different approaches and outcomes of the 2009 and 2016 climate talks. The 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen reflected a dynamic of state-centric diplomacy, played out by atomized competing states (albeit in a multilateral context). Prior to arriving at the summit, actors had separately articulated their positions and goals. The intense negotiations that followed were characterized by Donna Marie Oglesby as a ‘competition of ideas’ among state and non-state actors.42 Subsequent efforts to stem unproductive competition entailed compromise and coordination, not collaboration. Oglesby described the failed summit, which resulted in no new treaty, technology, or emissions reductions, as a ‘spectacle’ of public diplomacy on parade.

By contrast, the Paris climate accord of December 2015 reflected the holistic perspective and global consciousness of humanity-centred diplomacies. The initiative was built upon a foundation of diversity and grew in diversity.43 A coalition of Small Island and Developing States (SIDS), from the Polynesian islands in the Pacific to those in the Caribbean, spearheaded an active initiative to secure the support of larger states. Noteworthy, these areas have traditions reflecting a holistic relational view of the universe. They were aided by civil-society organizations and other public interest groups. They enlisted the support of private corporations and business executives such as Richard Branson, able to supply financial resources and media platforms larger than their own governments. That combination of diversity, sustained interaction, interconnectivity and process-orientation resulted in an accord, adopted by the consensus of 195 parties, to work to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

While our discussion here has contrasted state-centric and humanity-centred diplomacies, it is important to note that one does not necessarily replace the other. Even with the shift from an ‘inter-national’ system based on separateness to a global arena of interconnectivity, states and state-centric diplomacy will continue to play major roles. As Kathy Fitzpatrick suggested, it may be more advantageous and accurate to see such changes as an expanded perspective of diplomacy.44 Indeed, that expansion is holistic and global.


In looking ahead, we may speculate on the trajectory of humanity-centred diplomacies. At the moment, the prospects might not look so promising.

As globalization deepens and technological advancements leapfrog, every aspect of people’s lives, from communication to finances to education to politics, becomes more interconnected. An accelerated pace of change invites intensified resistance. This is the paradox of ‘populism on steroids’: the more integrated and interconnected people become, the more vehemently they may resist integration and seek to erect barriers. We might expect such reactions to intensify so long as publics perceive the need to maintain a sense of separate, bounded and singular identity in the face of greater interconnectivity and diversity.

While state-centric and even actor-centric diplomacy may dominate the immediate term, the long-term trajectory favours humanity-centred diplomacies. Humanity-centred diplomacies reflect and align with the trends of a more interconnective, interactive and culturally diverse global political arena. Humanity-centred diplomacies also align with ongoing megatrends in twenty-first-century communication dynamics that assume interconnectivity and diversity. Humanity-centred diplomacies are inherently network-based and collaborative. These characteristics run parallel to social-media platforms and emergent media and thus are likely to have an added advantage.

As globalization intensifies, two main functions of humanity-centred diplomacies are likely to become in higher demand. Greater interconnectivity and interactivity will call on diplomacy’s capacity to mediate between identities, finding commonalities among differences. And, as the severity of wicked problems such as climate change increases, collaborative approaches that are inherent in humanity-centred diplomacies will become a pragmatic imperative rather than an idealistic luxury.

If humanity-centred diplomacies appear idealistic or even simplistic, it may be because communication strategies that recognize our complex relational universe are under studied. Holistic and relational approaches are largely viewed through the dominant individualistic lens of communication and appear more altruistic than globally strategic or advantageous. What is desperately needed is more research from a holistic perspective.

Here it is possible to return to our original question: How do we square the circle and transform culture from a seemingly divisive demon to leveraging cultural diversity to solve complex problems? The answer: by expanding the perspective and mission of public diplomacy. Over the past two decades, there has been intensive study of state-centric and actor-centric public diplomacy — how to advance state interests, accrue soft power, enhance images, or differentiate national brands. The same, if not more, intensive study is now needed to explore humanity-centred diplomacies, particularly in the areas of the two vital functions of identity mediation and problem-solving. This article is a call for such research.

Finally, this article is also a call for globalizing public diplomacy. The realization that the link between state and culture was a politically constructed reality raises the possibility of deconstructing that nineteenth-century legacy and cultivating a new, more holistic vision for the twenty-first century. We need to globalize our understanding of diplomacy from a limited, state-centric perspective that focuses on separate, definable and bounded entities, to a global, holistic vision that encompasses humanity at large. This is not about replacing, but expanding our vision. Culture and cultural diversity can play a pivotal role in shifting this perspective, offering a more expansive, global vision of diplomacy, and even diplomacies in the plural. Squaring the circle of culture-as-demon to cultural-diversity-as-saviour is the promise of humanity-centred diplomacies, and for globalizing the field of public diplomacy.

R.S. Zaharna

is Professor of Public Communication and Director of the Global Media Program at the School of Communication, American University, in Washington, DC, as well as a Faculty Fellow with the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. She received the 2018 Distinguished Scholar Award in International Communication from the International Studies Association. Her books include: Battles to Bridges: US Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy after 9/11 (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); The Cultural Awakening in Public Diplomacy (Los Angeles, CA: Figueroa Press, 2012); (co-edited with Amelia Arsenault and Ali Fisher) The Connective Mindshift: Relational, Networked and Collaborative Approaches to Public Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 2013); and Globalizing Public Diplomacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).


The author thanks the editors of this special issue of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Jan Melissen, Jay Wang and Marcus Holmes, as well as Volker Stanzel, Michael Schneider, Natalia Grincheva, Amelia Arsenault, Brian Hughes and Diya Basu, and the anonymous reviewers, for their constructive and encouraging feedback.


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Iver B. Neumann, Diplomatic Sites: A Critical Enquiry (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013).


Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (New York, NY: Policy Press, 2012).


Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), p. 202.


Given the global nature of diplomacy, some of the terms used below might not easily translate to capture the meaning or intent. For example, upon reflection all diplomacy is inherently human, at least in the political arena. Sustainability has become associated with corporate social responsibility and environmentalism. Cosmopolitan, while extensively used in the literature, can carry connotations of elitism and, curiously, city diplomacy. The term ‘public’ can translate into ‘people’ or ‘general’, a vagueness that has plagued the concept of ‘public diplomacy’. ‘Public-centric diplomacy’ might also easily cast the public as yet another non-state actor.


Costas M. Constantinou, ‘Human Diplomacy and Spirituality’, Discussion Papers in Diplomacy (The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, 2006).


Costas M. Constantinou and James Der Derian, ‘Introduction: Sustaining Global Hope: Sovereignty, Power and the Transformation of Diplomacy’, in Costas M. Constantinou and James Der Derian (eds), Sustainable Diplomacies, Studies in Diplomacy and International Relations (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).


César Villanueva Rivas, ‘Cosmopolitan Constructivism: Mapping a Road to the Future of Cultural and Public Diplomacy’, Public Diplomacy Magazine, no. 3 (winter 2010), pp. 45-56.


Manuel Castells, ‘The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 616, no. 1 (March 2008), pp. 78-93, available online at


Juyan Zhang and Brecken Chinn Swartz, ‘Public Diplomacy to Promote Global Public Goods (GPG): Conceptual Expansion, Ethical Grounds, and Rhetoric’, Public Relations Review, vol. 35, no. 4 (November 2009), pp. 382-387, available online at


Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, ‘Public Diplomacy in the Public Interest’, Journal of Public Interest Communication, vol. 1, no. 1 (2017), p. 79.


Iriye, Global Community, p. 8.


Constantinou, ‘Human Diplomacy and Spirituality’.


Rivas, ‘Cosmopolitan Constructivism’, p. 47.


Seçkin Barış Gülmez, ‘Cosmopolitan Diplomacy’, in Gerard Delanty (ed.), Routledge International Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018), p. 431.


Constantinou and Der Derian (eds), Sustainable Diplomacies; and Noé Cornago, Plural Diplomacies: Normative Predicaments and Functional Imperatives (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2013).


Ali Fisher, Collaborative Public Diplomacy: How Transnational Networks Influenced American Studies in Europe (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 202.


Castells, ‘The New Public Sphere’, p. 92.


Constantinou, ‘Human Diplomacy and Spirituality’.


Donna Marie Oglesby, Spectacle in Copenhagen: Public Diplomacy on Parade (Los Angeles, CA: Figueroa Press, 2010).


Anna Naupa, ‘Indo-Pacific Diplomacy: A View from the Pacific Islands’, Politics & Policy, vol. 45, no. 5 (1 October 2017), pp. 902-917, available at; and Timothée Ourbak and Alexandre K. Magnan, ‘The Paris Agreement and Climate Change Negotiations: Small Islands, Big Players’, Regional Environmental Change (15 November 2017), available at


Fitzpatrick, ‘Public Diplomacy in the Public Interest’.

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