Public Diplomacy and Hostile Nations

In: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy
Geoffrey Wiseman Asia–Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University Acton, ACT 2601 Australia

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This article considers public diplomacy’s future through the prism of public diplomacy between hostile nations. It first sketches democracies’ past and present use of public diplomacy in hostile relations with non-democracies. It then discusses five particular challenges for democracies in their future thinking about the public diplomacy–hostile nations’ nexus. These challenges are: accounting for public diplomacy’s theoretical significance in hostile relations; deciding between isolating or engaging adversaries; avoiding the stigma of propaganda; managing democratic expectations; and settling on an appropriate role for governments. Democratic countries’ responses to these challenges will impact public diplomacy’s future, notably regarding its effectiveness in relation to hostile nations. The article concludes that public diplomacy is not a panacea for easing hostile bilateral relations. However, it is one of many elements that a judicious government can use — drawing on four ideal-type variants of public diplomacy — in order to improve relations with an adversarial state.


The purpose of this article is to consider public diplomacy’s future, as seen through the prism of public diplomacy between hostile nations. The focus is on democratic states in hostile, or adversarial, relations with non-democratic states. In such adversarial diplomatic relationships, democracies have essentially two strategic policy choices: whether to isolate or engage the adversary. Accepting that binary choice for analytical purposes, the article first sketches democracies’ past and present use of public diplomacy in hostile relations with non-democracies. The article then speculates on the future of public diplomacy between hostile states, identifying and discussing five particular challenges that democracies will need to address concerning their public diplomacy approach towards non-democratic adversaries. These challenges are: (1) evaluating public diplomacy’s wider theoretical, or strategic, relevance; (2) mitigating the isolate-or-engage dilemma; (3) avoiding the stigma of propaganda; (4) managing rising democratic expectations; and (5) settling on a role for governments in public diplomacy.

In the context of growing scholarly and policy interest in public diplomacy and its associated concepts,2 I offer several working hypotheses about democracies’ use of public diplomacy towards states with which they are in hostile, or adversarial, relations:

  • That diplomatic engagement is generally more effective than isolation.

  • That good public diplomacy cannot compensate for bad foreign policy.

  • That a democracy’s image or brand must closely resemble reality.

  • That democracies’ public diplomacy towards adversaries, even the more odious ones, should not be seen as a one-way monologue, but as a mutual, long-term dialogue of some kind.

  • That four ideal-type variants, or definitions, of public diplomacy can be identified, each offering varying utility in dealing with hostile relations: (1) a narrow traditional foreign ministry to foreign public approach; (2) a whole-of-government approach; (3) a new public diplomacy approach; and (4) a people-to-people (P2P) approach.3

These working hypotheses about the public diplomacy–hostile nations’ nexus underpin the analysis that follows. While I draw on my previous work on the United States’ (US) public diplomacy towards adversarial states, I also refer here to non-US examples. For manageability, I focus, first, on bilateral, or dyadic/binary, relationships, steering clear of other hostile configurations such as ‘deadly triangles’.4 Second, as already noted, my analysis and case selection is based on the public diplomacy of democratic states in hostile relations with non-democratic states, an approach that arguably fits theoretically within democratic peace theory. And, third, I am considering the use of public diplomacy in the sense that a democratic actor is seeking to influence foreign publics in a hostile state with the strategic objective of regime behaviour change (incentivizing an adversarial government to engage more cooperatively) and not with the strategic objective of regime change (ousting an adversarial government from power).

Democracies’ Use of Public Diplomacy in Hostile Relations: Past and Present

Public diplomacy — traditionally seen as the purposive efforts of states to influence foreign publics — is only one instrument that democratic states can use to influence publics in non-democratic states that they view as hostile, or adversarial. Other instruments include coercive measures short of war, such as economic sanctions, assertive military exercises, deception, covert action and espionage.5 As discussed further below, public diplomacy — which on most accounts in democracies implies open-source, fact-based efforts to influence foreign publics — should eschew such ‘dark arts’, aiming instead to engage foreign publics openly and transparently. So how have democratic nations attempted to influence and engage with publics in non-democratic adversarial states?

An important consideration for public diplomacy is whether or not the two adversaries (one democratic, the other not) exchange reciprocal diplomatic relations, usually manifested in the form of diplomatic missions — typically embassies in each other’s capital city and consulates in non-capital cities. Where embassies are not present, public diplomacy efforts have until fairly recently been limited to, for example, international broadcasting. Where embassies are present in respective hostile-state capitals, there is clearly an institutional basis from which to operationalize public diplomacy programmes. Assessments are mixed about the effectiveness of public diplomacy activities at diplomatic missions in an adversary’s capital. Historically, evidence from memoirs shows that some ambassadors and senior diplomats who are resident in a hostile capital intuitively recognize their public diplomacy roles and do what they can under tight constraints. Most famously and consequentially, in the early post-Second World War Soviet Union, George Kennan, as chargé d’affaires at the United States’ Moscow Embassy, was able to base his ‘Long Telegram’ on a distinction he made between the ‘paranoid’ leaders of the Soviet Union and the Russian people, a distinction he could likely not have made had he been reporting from outside the country. Similarly, in the waning years of the Cold War, the US Ambassador to Russia, the ‘peripatetic’ Jack Matlock, engaged effectively with both influential and ordinary Soviet citizens, which informed his reporting to Washington about the Soviet decline.6 In the past, creative ambassadors such as Jack Matlock thus used themselves as public diplomacy instruments.

In 2012, US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens adopted a similar approach, with tragic consequences, leading to his death at the hands of militants in the Libyan city of Benghazi, an event that captured worldwide attention and pointed to an emerging reality: that diplomats trained and socialized to conduct traditional official-to-official diplomacy are likely to be called upon — increasingly, at some risk — to venture out from behind the embassy walls and to engage face to face with non-official interlocutors, rather than leaving public outreach functions to their specialist public-diplomacy colleagues. Today, most (effective) ambassadors and diplomats of all ranks and streams see themselves in this light. Increasingly, public diplomacy is less and less seen as a specialized category of diplomatic practice (as remains the case formally in the US Foreign Service). As Bruce Gregory has argued persuasively, public diplomacy’s future emerges as an integral, almost taken-for-granted dimension of diplomacy as a whole.7 This view conceptualizes Jan Melissen’s earlier observation that public diplomacy has progressively become ‘woven into the fabric of mainstream diplomatic activity’.8

When hostile states are in — or moving towards — diplomatic relations, educational, scientific, cultural and sports exchanges are often used as frontline public-diplomacy instruments. The American Fulbright scholarship programme has acquired worldwide respectability.9 During the latter years of the Cold War, Pugwash conferences brought nuclear scientists together from the former Soviet Union and the United States, producing ideas that helped to bring the Cold War to an end.10 Ping-pong diplomacy famously enabled the United States’ opening with China in the early 1970s. And baseball greased the wheels of normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba in the final years of the Obama administration.11

While such lower-level contacts can form a web of relationships enabling normalization of relations between hostile nations, high-level visits, such as President Nixon’s to China in 1972 and Deng Xiaoping’s US tour in 1979, can lead to high-profile, high-stakes opportunities for public diplomacy. A high-level visit often gives a leader an opportunity to communicate with the adversarial state’s public, either directly or through symbolic activities (such as attending sporting or cultural events to show respect for the other country’s culture). These visits can lead to the forming of friendships between leaders that can aid diplomacy, as mentioned above, and may go some way in ‘de-demonizing’ leaders, a good example being Deng’s visit. But summits can also go wrong, embarrassing the host, as when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived for his May 1989 summit with Deng Xiaoping just as tens of thousands of protesters assembled in Tiananmen Square in support of Gorbachev’s liberal reforms in the USSR.12

Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was adept at global grandstanding, while Cuba’s Fidel Castro made brash use of the United Nations General Assembly to reach international audiences. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was an effective, if petulant, master of this personalized form of public diplomacy, by seizing the world stage for short periods, and not always with favourable results for his country. Still, the general lesson here is that charismatic, authoritarian leaders in adversarial relations with democracies, from Castro to Chavez, have cleverly pitched their public diplomacy in ways that seek to influence not only publics in countries that they consider hostile to them, but to global opinion as well.

In a 2016 article about the public-diplomacy dimension of summitry between adversaries, Zohar Kampf suggests that world leaders are increasingly bypassing their own national diplomatic systems and appealing directly to foreign audiences, as a complement to direct dialogue with their foreign-leader counterpart — with the aim of influencing the adversary’s public. Kampf describes such moves as a ‘rhetorical bypass’.13 For Kampf, political leaders seek to ‘warm the hearts’ of, or ‘instil fear’ in, the foreign audience. A good example of the former was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, when he aimed to undercut Israel’s enemy narrative by directly engaging with the Israeli people in a speech filled with hope to Israel’s Knesset that was broadcast live.14 In contrast, Kampf argues, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly disputed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts to negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, appealing to the American public to reconsider the true intentions behind Rouhani’s ‘charm offensive’, and warning that faith in the Iranian leader’s efforts will inevitably lead to the construction of weapons used against them. Volatile personal Twitter exchanges between US President Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 underscored the risks involved in rhetorical by-passing. Yet subsequent Twitter comments by Trump praising Kim point to the potential benefits of rhetorical by-passing. Either way, new technologies portend a likely future involving elite one-on-one public-diplomacy exchanges between leaders of states in an adversarial relationship: the antithesis of a grass roots, people-to-people (P2P) approach.15

Track-two initiatives — that is, informal interactions involving non-officials and/or officials acting in a personal capacity — provide an avenue of contact with adversarial states, while keeping some distance in order to float new ideas. These initiatives have the advantage over strictly non-governmental-based public diplomacy in that they involve participants close to governments on both sides of a hostile relationship. They have been used with varying degrees of success in the US–China and the US–Iran cases. In the hard cases, such as US–North Korea relations, track-two efforts have met with only limited success.16

Beyond government supported track-one and track-two initiatives, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been and remain an important means of contact with hostile or inhospitable foreign publics. The North Korea case illustrates how difficult it is for NGOs to engage with publics, even on a limited basis, in closed societies. Russia’s attempts to rein in American foundations and think tanks operating in Russia under Vladimir Putin underscore the limits on non-governmental actors’ ability to mitigate public hostility in an adversary state. Clearly, any future shift towards a more NGO-based public diplomacy should avoid romanticizing NGOs and their ability to affect other states’ governments or publics.17 Tourism and business contacts can be an indirect avenue for public diplomacy with hostile nations. In the case of Cuba, US tourism to the island arguably helped to spread American values and culture. In the case of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, US oil workers arguably created personal relationships between the two countries, despite strained relations between the two governments.18

Scholars have also influenced public-diplomacy efforts in hostile nations. They can provide information back home about an adversarial state, and their work sometimes feeds back to the adversarial state, potentially influencing events there. In the Soviet case, Robert Tucker’s insights on Stalin (written at Princeton University) played a role in glasnost-era reconsiderations of the Soviet past.19

Cultural exchanges — books, television, music, art, theatre, fashion and movies — are widely thought by public-diplomacy practitioners and scholars to play a positive role in how democratic countries are perceived by an adversarial state’s public. In the US case, it often (but not always) helps that American culture has been pervasive worldwide, even in states that are hostile to the United States.20 Yet, as argued below, culture can only take matters so far in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. As Suzanne Maloney has observed in the US–Iran case, public diplomacy can support efforts to overcome decades of mutual animosity, but ‘it cannot supplant the vital role of formal diplomatic engagement between governments for handling crises and thorny security dilemmas’.21

While a case can be made that public diplomacy’s impact must be assessed within a broader and ever-expanding spectrum of cultural — or soft-power — interaction, even where direct, official contacts remain constrained or even non-existent, some scholars are not convinced that such programmes are consequential. For example, Robert M. Entman advocates ‘mediated public diplomacy’, an approach that places less emphasis on citizen-to-citizen activities and more on actions designed to shape elite opinion.22 Guy J. Golan’s mediated public-diplomacy approach builds on his view that ‘America’s rivals actively use their broadcasting channels to frame and interpret American culture, political values and policy according to their own political interests’ and that the United States is being ‘defined by others’.23 As with Entman, Golan is more sceptical of social media’s potential to influence unfriendly foreign publics. Rather, he sees international broadcasting as a more effective tool. Thus, democratic states with sufficient resources can use (revamped) traditional mass communication methods to influence public opinion in adversarial states.24 Others argue that Voice of America has in fact successfully reinvented itself as a multi-media broadcasting organization with a variety of streaming audio, video and social media platforms in languages such as Mandarin. Still others stress how Russia has poured resources into its Russia Today (RT) network and China into the Xinhua News Agency.25 Yet most international broadcasters now self-identify as global media organizations and avoid the term broadcasting. Golan and Entman’s scepticism about the potential of social media as a tool to influence unfriendly publics may have merit, but their apparent bright-line distinction between social media and international broadcasting seems increasingly problematic.26

Overall, many ambassadors, public-diplomacy practitioners and scholars have generally embraced internet-based platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as new frontline tools in their public diplomacy arsenal. However, their effectiveness in hostile-nation contexts remains contested, as argued by the mediated public-diplomacy advocates. Much depends on how well the adversarial government is able to limit its citizens’ access to the internet and those who take advantage of such access may be singled out as dissidents and punished.27 If the past has been characterized by a generally optimistic public-diplomacy view about social media’s potential for democratic change in authoritarian states, the future could well see the pendulum swing in a pessimistic direction — given mounting revelations about business malpractice by social-media giant Facebook and others, such as the disgraced political data firm Cambridge Analytica, and in view of widespread manipulation of social media by individuals and governments.28

The Future of Public Diplomacy between Hostile Nations

Building on the above account of the past and present, what challenges can we expect to impact public diplomacy’s future in democracies? Generally, the forces of globalization, the shifting balance of power between major states and between states and non-state actors, and revolutionary advances in communications technology will shape that future.29 In particular, I see five challenges for democratic public diplomacy in relation to their non-democratic adversaries.

The Theory Challenge

In the landmark 2008 special issue of The Annals on public diplomacy, Bruce Gregory enquired whether public diplomacy was an academic field.30 Contemporaneously, Robert Entman argued that ‘the field of public diplomacy has lacked frameworks to guide research and practice’.31 In the years since, scholarly literature on public diplomacy has proliferated impressively. Does considered thinking about the public diplomacy–hostile nations nexus help resolve such theoretical challenges as those raised by Gregory and by Entman?

My two contentions about public diplomacy’s theory challenge are: (a) that public diplomacy is not currently a theory (and therefore not an academic field), but rather a practice; and (b) that public diplomacy is a key instrument of soft power. The first contention — that public diplomacy is not a theory — begs the question whether diplomacy more broadly is a theory? I think it is on the general grounds that the systematic study of diplomacy helps us describe, explain and predict a great deal about how world politics function. Moreover, in terms of normative theory, diplomacy is clearly prescriptive in the sense that it provides rules of the road for how international conflict can be managed.32

Even if seen as a practice rather than a theory, public diplomacy scholarship — multi-disciplinary and practice-based — contributes to theorizing in many ways. For example, public diplomacy speaks directly to theories of influence.33 A strong theoretical trend in the literature is that public diplomacy should be seen less in monologic (one-sided) terms and more in dialogic (two-sided) terms.34 Applying this to dyadic adversarial relationships, both sides are attempting to influence the other’s public. As discussed further below, democracy-based programmes fall prey to the belief that democracy is a one-way street: ‘we’ influence ‘them’ to be more democratic. In contrast, in post-modernist theorizing, democracies define their own identity, the national ‘self’, in relation to the adversarial, foreign ‘other,’ rather than in relation to international friends and allies. This ‘self-imaging’ was most dramatically on display throughout the Cold War, when the democratic United States pitted itself against the totalitarian Soviet Union in a process that can be called ‘other-imaging’. This self–other identity formation can be detected today, for example, vis-à-vis China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and North Korea.35 In constructivist theory, what this means is that official diplomats and programmes do not simply represent a set of fixed national interests and a fixed, say, American national identity to its adversaries. Rather, diplomats reproduce and reconstitute an American identity and culture that is dynamic and ever changing. Thus, every act of diplomacy in general and public diplomacy specifically is not simply an act of representation, but also one of identity formation. Accordingly, democratic public-diplomacy practices directed at adversarial states are not solely representations of, say, the United States; they are also identity formations of the United States in which the very opposition with the ‘other’ has an effect back on the ‘self’. In other words, public diplomacy must be seen to promote the interests of the democratic state concerned and the adversarial state or it will fail. Public diplomacy is conducted with the adversary rather than against it.36 Thus, a democracy’s public diplomacy must be seen to promote the interests of the adversarial state — and especially its citizens — as well. The ‘practice turn’ in International Relations adds further support to this argument.37

My second contention — that public diplomacy is an instrument of soft power — risks implying that public diplomacy is an instrument of soft power only. Soft power itself is not a theory — in the sense noted above, that it cannot describe, explain and predict — but it is more than a strategic policy concept, such as containment and détente. Perhaps it is best characterized as an analytical category of power. Governments and other governance actors certainly do wield soft power through public diplomacy. Moreover, public diplomacy is also an instrument of hard power. It can be a force multiplier of hard power; for example, by generating support for military alliances, encouraging states to remain neutral in wartime, or leveraging public support for military exchanges and economic assistance.

In sum, theorizing about public diplomacy — without insisting that it is a separate field that acknowledges diplomacy as the ‘master institution’ (to borrow Martin Wight’s famous phrase),38 that draws on emerging practice theory, and that builds on current identity and relational research — can gain real purchase by focusing more than it has in the past on public diplomacy between hostile nations.39

The Diplomatic-Representation Challenge

Democratic governments have to decide whether to isolate or engage their non-democratic, adversarial rivals. In such hostile bilateral relationships, are democratic-country public-diplomacy efforts — designed to improve relations rather than dislodge a regime — helped when both rivals have diplomatic representation in each other’s capitals? As noted above, the historical evidence is mixed. On the one hand, relations between the United States and China and between the United States and Russia have waxed and waned even with the presence of American embassies in Moscow and Beijing.

On the other hand, the more diplomatically isolated an adversarial state (consider China under Mao, North Korea since the 1950s and Iran since 1979), the harder it is to conduct almost any form of public diplomacy, since contact, which is essential to public diplomacy, is severely limited. The European view has been that on-the-ground public diplomacy is more likely to be effective than over-the-horizon radio, television and new-media programming. Cutting diplomatic ties with an adversary for extended periods (the American view) leads to a lack of communication and information, which can produce and exacerbate stereotypes and biases that distort a relationship, as well as lead to increased hostility. Moreover, the absence of diplomatic representation forces both sides to signal their views via public media (as with the Trump–Kim Twitter exchanges described above), but this is risky and is arguably more about sending messages to adversarial governments than to adversarial publics. The hostile Turkey–Armenia relationship lingers at least in part because of the lack of formal diplomatic relations.40 And US–Vietnam relations seem to have improved since the establishment of full diplomatic relations in the mid-1990s and the arrival of Pete Peterson, a former Vietnam War prisoner of war, as the United States’ first ambassador.

The Propaganda Challenge

For democracies, the propaganda challenge is how they overcome the lingering suspicion that, in Geoffrey Berridge’s sharp observation, public diplomacy ‘is simply propaganda rebranded’.41 Ever since Edmund Gullion coined public diplomacy as a useful euphemism in 1965, Berridge argues that ‘“[P]ublic diplomacy” is what we call our propaganda; “propaganda” is what the other side does’. For Berridge, ‘Makers of propaganda have traditionally distinguished between white propaganda — the former admitting, but the latter concealing, its source. “Public diplomacy” is the modern name for white propaganda directed chiefly at foreign publics’.42 Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, democratic foreign ministries and related public-diplomacy partners fail to see how their adversaries can see their own benign public-diplomacy efforts as propaganda.43 Thus, authoritarian states such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela see US public diplomacy as malignant and offensive and their own activities as benign or defensive. There is something to Berridge’s complaint. In the past fifteen years, public diplomacy scholarship and practice in democracies has generally separated itself conceptually from the penumbra of propaganda, with conceptual assists from concepts such as soft power and nation branding. In their enthusiasm to promote public diplomacy, some advocates have let non-democratic countries such as China off the propaganda hook by allowing assertive public diplomacy, branding and soft power to be described in relatively benign terms. On this view, many public-diplomacy advocates have unwittingly provided conceptual cover for China to present its rise as merely an expression of soft power and deft public diplomacy rather than realpolitik or geopolitics.44 The emergence of the ‘sharp power’ concept — just as China moves more assertive internationally, for example with its aggressive efforts to militarize the South China Sea — may prove to be a much-needed corrective.45

As coined by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, sharp power is the idea that countries such as Russia and China manipulate open political and digital-information environments in democracies. They contrast sharp-power techniques of distraction and manipulation with soft-power techniques of attraction and persuasion, urging more assertive responses by democracies.46 In response, Joseph Nye warns against overreaction to sharp power, arguing that while Russian and Chinese ‘information warfare’ is real, sharp power is in fact a form of hard power. Nye warns that democracies should not imitate such methods, as that would undercut the advantages that arise from soft power.47 Sharp power’s implications should not be under-estimated, as alleged Russian interference in the Brexit campaign and in the 2016 US presidential elections suggest and as public concerns grow about Chinese interference in other democracies, such as Australia. Democracies need to respond to misinformation and to misrepresentations of their policies by non-democracies, while prudently heeding Nye’s warning. It is worth considering whether Nye’s reduction of ‘sharp power’ to a form of hard power is too restrictive and whether it might better be understood as a form of hard power combined with soft power? Moreover, it remains to be seen whether ‘sharp power’ will usefully be added to the power lexicon as an analytically distinct subset of hard power, or an unnecessary addition to his ‘hard’, ‘soft’ and ‘smart’-power categories.48

These qualifications notwithstanding, current concerns about sharp power imply that future intellectual and policy interest in public diplomacy is best encapsulated under soft power as the best strategic-policy framework for how countries can better seek to influence publics in hostile states.49 The challenge, and my concluding point, is that debates about the future of public diplomacy will need to revisit — critically — the concept’s moorings in propaganda and to devote considerable reflection on definitions and concepts of power that swirl around diplomacy and soft power.50

The Rising-Expectations’ Challenge

Related, and in some tension with the propaganda challenge, is a widely held assumption in many democracies that public-diplomacy practices will help to bring about a future world order with democracies ascendant. Part of the reason for these rising expectations is that citizens in democracies in general and Americans in particular — especially since the end of the Cold War, the demise of the communist governments in Eastern Europe and the 2011-2012 ‘Arab Uprising’ — put great faith in the power of popular demonstrations against totalitarian and authoritarian governments. When this faith is added to the belief that the internet is making communication easier and control of information more difficult, the result can be a perception that public diplomacy and the spread of democratic values are unstoppable. However, reliance on public diplomacy as a central instrument — for example, of US policy for influencing Iran, North Korea, Cuba, or other relatively closed, adversarial states — fails to consider what is a serious disconnect between (strategic) objectives and (instrumental) capabilities. Overcoming decades of animosity and resolving profound differences on urgent security issues, such as the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and sharp ideological differences with Cuba, require a much broader mobilization of diplomatic instruments and resources than public diplomacy has to offer. Nonetheless, public diplomacy can support such efforts in various ways, but their impact should not be over-stated. For example, the P5+151 nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015 demonstrated strong evidence of US whole-of-government diplomacy, in which teams led by the US Secretaries of State and Energy negotiated an agreement in partnership with other countries that combined hard and soft-power tools, secret bargaining and some public diplomacy. The United States’ opening to Cuba late in President Obama’s second term resulted from more than a year of secret negotiations by a White House national security staffer and a US Foreign Service officer working with Holy See diplomats.52 As for US–North Korea negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programme begun under President Trump, they reveal little public diplomacy — and little spread of democratic values. As argued above, public leader-to-leader interactions can change quickly, especially when unpredictable individuals are involved, and again without much of a role for traditional public diplomacy. Moreover, as also argued above, high-level contact must be buttressed in the long term by formal diplomatic engagement between the two governments.

The Role of Governments’ Challenge

A fifth challenge for public diplomacy’s future between hostile nations is determining whether a democratic government’s links to public diplomacy activities is an advantage or disadvantage.

As foreshadowed above, democratic governments in adversarial relations will need minimally to balance judiciously four public diplomacy variants: (1) a narrow ‘traditional government to foreign public’ approach, which focuses on a country’s foreign ministry and embassies; (2) a ‘whole of government to foreign public approach’, which involves many government departments and agencies; (3) a ‘new public diplomacy’ approach, conducted by both governmental and non-governmental actors; and (4) a ‘people-to-people’ (P2P), ‘citizens diplomacy’ or ‘whole-of-society’ approach, in which publics engage directly with other publics.53 This is, of course, an ideal-type analytical framework, and the four approaches are not mutually exclusive. But the framework allows us to consider better the options and their likely consequences. The key is to recognize when each approach — or combination of them — will be most effective in engaging with a hostile adversary’s public.

The traditional, foreign-ministry-based variant (1) and the increasingly accepted whole-of-government variant (2) still fall under the ‘mediated public diplomacy’ rubric (generally state-based and shorter term).

The state–non-state, multi-actor variant (3) is more ‘unmediated’ (less statist and longer term) than the ministry of foreign affairs and whole-of-government variants. Building on state-centric notions of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, I have promoted the idea of polylateral diplomacy as diplomacy’s third dimension — a term that characterizes relations between state and non-state actors.54 Among many issues for future research and discussion is the extent to which non-governmental actors participate as independent diplomatic actors (arguably some now do) or as partners, collaborators, or co-opted agents with governmental actors.55

Category (4) in my ideal-type framework, the P2P-based approach, is more ‘unmediated’ than the other three variants, the most non-state based and the longest term. However, this category seems highly problematic as a public diplomacy category. Thus, as Bruce Gregory has argued, the P2P variety sits more easily with cross-cultural internationalism — the sweeping flow of cross-border connections that exist apart from diplomacy. Unless there is some connection with governments, however direct or indirect, this P2P approach puts the analyst on a slippery slope to the view that all cross-border connections between people are public diplomacy.56 This conceptual conundrum notwithstanding, the silver lining is that it is now possible to consider diplomacy’s future as having a fully developed fourth, ‘omnilateral’ dimension — which, building on my third-dimension definition, I would define as the conduct of relations between at least two non-state entities, with a modicum of international standing, in which there is a reasonable expectation of systematic relationships, involving some form of reporting, communication, negotiation and representation, but not involving mutual recognition as sovereign, equivalent entities.57

While there is some way to go to elaborate diplomacy’s omnilateral dimension, the best short-term conceptual future for public diplomacy is conveyed in Gregory’s idea that the ‘public diplomacy’ concept should be replaced in favour of ‘diplomacy’s public dimension’.58 Gregory wisely puts the diplomacy horse before the public diplomacy cart.59 Accordingly, all diplomats have a public role, not only those who are assigned to the public diplomacy division in the ministry at home and to the relevant section at a diplomatic mission abroad. In this view, traditional diplomats still play a role. US diplomats in China point to how they facilitate engagement of US private-sector and civil-society actors — US city mayors, state governors, business executives and others — seeking access in China. And Chinese officials often turn to US embassies and consulates for advice on possible partners in the United States. Public diplomacy is indeed woven into the fabric of mainstream diplomatic activity, and this trend is likely to continue.60

The challenge for democratic governments seeking to influence foreign publics in adversarial states, then, is to find ways to reconcile the need for government strategies and programmes, on the one hand, with the view that non-governmental, arms-length strategies are the most effective. The soft power–public diplomacy nexus points to a possible reconciliation. Soft power — in its indirect affective rather than its direct normative forms — is creatively ambiguous and could be seen as having P2P connotations, while public diplomacy programmes are more directly seen to be connected to governments. Given a general preference for P2P approaches with little or no governmental involvement, the dilemma for public diplomacy advocates is that they may need to relinquish the term ‘public diplomacy’ to describe their favoured option, or move to the view that diplomacy at large has a fourth, people-to-people, dimension.


This analysis suggests a useful, if constrained, role for public diplomacy in resolving hostile relations between adversarial states in the years ahead. While the record is mixed, on balance, mutual diplomatic relations lessen these constraints, which in turn increases the prospect of relations improving between bitter rivals. However, any expectation that public diplomacy can change an adversarial state’s behaviour in the short term is bound to be disappointed; it is only over the long term that public diplomacy can greatly aid the normalization of state-to-state relations and state–society relations. This long-term condition underscores the difficulty of evaluating public diplomacy’s influence, a notoriously difficult task even under ‘normal’ diplomatic circumstances.61 Under ‘adversarial’ circumstances, evaluating public diplomacy becomes considerably more difficult.

Public diplomacy is not a panacea for easing hostile bilateral relations. However, it is one of many elements that a judicious democratic government can use — or better yet, as I have suggested, allow to occur — in order to improve relations with an adversarial state. Ideally, I foresee a more people-based, rather than a more state-based, future for public diplomacy, in which governments enable exchange-like programmes and then step back and let their citizens do the rest over the long term.62 In other words, there are grounds for reversing the order of my four ideal-types so that the new order of priority would be: (1) people-to-people; (2) new public diplomacy; (3) whole-of-government; and (4) traditional foreign-ministry public diplomacy.

Notwithstanding the considerable literature that is critical of soft power as a concept and analytical tool,63 I see the balance of academic and policy interest shifting towards wider acceptance of soft power as a compromise, strategic-policy concept and public diplomacy as a key governmental instrument along with others. Smart power is arguably facile as a synthesis of hard and soft power, but it has intuitive appeal. Still other questions remain as to where public diplomacy fits as a multiplier of hard power. Sharp power poses genuine intellectual and policy challenges. I suspect that the sharp-power challenge in particular will shift the policy and scholarly debate from a generally optimistic view of soft power and public diplomacy’s potential to a more pessimistic view of the genuine threats emanating from hostile, authoritarian adversaries. In that future context, I concur with Joseph Nye that democracies should avoid the temptation to employ sharp power of their own, as such an approach would undermine a democracy’s massive normative soft-power advantage.

In sum, public diplomacy will enjoy a brighter future to the extent that those who think about it and those who practise it embrace the idea of diplomacy’s public dimension, resisting the epistemic temptation to consolidate public diplomacy as a separate field and set of practices and situating their valuable work under broader conceptions of diplomacy.64

Geoffrey Wiseman

is Professor and Director of the Asia–Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. He has worked at the Ford Foundation, the University of Southern California and in the Strategic Planning Unit of the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General. He is a former Australian foreign service officer, serving in three diplomatic postings (Stockholm, Hanoi and Brussels) and as private secretary to the Australian foreign minister. With Pauline Kerr, he co-edited Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).


This was the central theme of Geoffrey Wiseman (ed.), Isolate or Engage: Adversarial States, US Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015). I draw on this book below. See also Mel Gurtov, Engaging Adversaries: Peacemaking and Diplomacy in the Human Interest (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018); Jeffrey R. Fields, ‘Engaging Adversaries: Myths and Realities in American Foreign Policy’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 26, no. 2 (June 2015), pp. 294-321; Miroslav Nincic, Renegade Regimes: Confronting Deviant Behavior in World Politics (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005).


Jan Melissen, ‘Public Diplomacy’, in Pauline Kerr and Geoffrey Wiseman (eds), Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 2018), pp. 200-202.


This framework is advanced in Wiseman, Isolate or Engage, see pp. 12-13 and 298-299.


Michael A. Allen, Sam R. Bell and K. Chad Clay, ‘Deadly Triangles: The Implications of Regional Competition on Interactions in Asymmetric Dyads’, Foreign Policy Analysis, vol. 14, no. 2 (April 2018), pp. 169-190.


Jennifer Sims, ‘Diplomacy and Intelligence’, in Kerr and Wiseman, Diplomacy in a Globalizing World, pp. 244-261.


Robert English, ‘Soviet Union/Russia: US Diplomacy with the Russian “Adversary”’, in Wiseman, Isolate or Engage, pp. 35, 43; see also Jack F. Matlock Jr, Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York, NY: Random House, 1995).


Bruce Gregory, ‘Mapping Boundaries in Diplomacy’s Public Dimension’, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, vol. 11, no. 1 (2016), pp. 1-25.


Jan Melissen, ‘The New Public Diplomacy: Between Theory and Practice’, in Jan Melissen, The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 11. For even more recent evidence that the public diplomacy examples set by Kennan and Matlock are now the rule, see Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador to Putin’s Russia (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).


Nancy Snow, ‘International Exchanges and the US Image’ in Geoffrey Cowan and Nicholas J. Cull (eds), Public Diplomacy in a Changing World, special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 616 (March 2008), pp. 198-222.


Geoffrey Wiseman, Concepts of Non-Provocative Defence: Ideas and Practices in International Security (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 93-94. On the soft-power and public-diplomacy value of military exchanges, see Carol Atkinson, Military Soft Power: Public Diplomacy through Military Education Exchanges (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).


Peter C. Bjarkman, ‘Stalled US–Cuba Détente and the Uncertain Future of Cuba’s National Pastime’, Public Diplomacy Magazine, vol. 17 (winter/spring 2017), pp. 37-43.


David Hastings Dunn and Richard Lock-Pullan, ‘Diplomatic Summitry’, in Costas M. Constantinou, Pauline Kerr and Paul Sharp (eds), The Sage Handbook on Diplomacy (Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016), p. 236.


Zohar Kampf, ‘Rhetorical Bypasses: Connecting with the Hearts and Minds of People on the Opponent’s Side’, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, vol. 11, no. 2 (2016), p. 151.


Kampf, ‘Rhetorical Bypasses’, p. 158.


Matt Stevens, ‘Trump and Kim Jong-un, and the Names They’ve Called Each Other’, The New York Times (9 March 2018), available online at (accessed 5 June 2018).


Scott Snyder, ‘North Korea: Engaging a Hermit Adversarial State’, in Wiseman, Isolate or Engage, pp. 85-109. Selig S. Harrison, a journalist who covered Asian affairs for The Washington Post and later worked as a think-tank scholar and advocate of engagement with North Korea, made eleven trips over four decades as a rare guest of the country’s regime; see Emily Langer, ‘Selig Harrison, Reporter and Scholar Who Covered — and Shaped — Asian Affairs, Dies at 89’, The Washington Post (6 January 2017), available online at (accessed 5 June 2018). Highly publicized visits to Pyongyang by former American professional basketball star Dennis Rodman were not generally seen as serious public diplomacy, but arguably they humanized Kim Jong-un to some extent and were an expression, if idiosyncratic, of US soft power; see Caitlin McDevitt, ‘Rodman: Kim Jong Un is “a Good Dad”’, Politico (9 September 2013), available online at (accessed 5 June 2018).


Samy Cohen, The Resilience of the State: Democracy and the Challenges of Globalization. Translated by Jonathan Derrick (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006). See also Sidney Tarrow, The New Transnational Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).


William M. LeoGrande, ‘Cuba: Public Diplomacy as a Battle of Ideas’, in Wiseman, Isolate or Engage, pp. 231-258; and Michael Shifter, ‘Venezuela: The United States and Venezuela: Managing a Schizophrenic Relationship’, in Wiseman, Isolate or Engage, pp. 259-279. See also Michael J. Bustamante and Julia E. Sweig, ‘Buena Vista Solidarity and the Axis of Aid: Cuban and Venezuelan Public Diplomacy’, in Cowan and Cull (eds), Public Diplomacy in a Changing World, pp. 223-256.


English, ‘Soviet Union/Russia’, in Wiseman (ed.), Isolate or Engage, p. 37 and pp. 44-45.


Simon Anholt, Brand America (London: Marshall Cavendish, 2010).


Suzanne Maloney, ‘Iran: Public Diplomacy in a Vacuum’, in Wiseman (ed.), Isolate or Engage, p. 200.


Robert M. Entman, ‘Theorizing Mediated Public Diplomacy: The US Case’, Press/Politics, vol. 13, no. 2 (April 2008), p. 89.


Guy J. Golan, ‘The Case for Mediated Public Diplomacy’, Diplomatic Courier (19 July 2013), available at (accessed 29 May 2018).


For a compelling argument about how inadequate government funding for international broadcasting limits one democracy’s soft power–public diplomacy efforts, including how to compete inter alia with Chinese activities in South-East Asia and the South Pacific, see Graeme Dobell, Geoff Heriot and Jemima Garrett, Hard News and Free Media as the Sharp Edge of Australian Soft Power, Strategy Paper (Barton, ACT: Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), September 2018).


See, for example, Zhuqing Cheng, Guy J. Golan and Spiro Kiousis, ‘The Second-Level Agenda-Building Function of the Xinhua News Agency’, Journalism Practice, vol. 10, no. 6 (2016), pp. 744-762.


I am grateful to a reviewer for this insight.


Alec Ross, ‘Digital Diplomacy and US Foreign Policy’, in Paul Sharp and Geoffrey Wiseman (eds), American Diplomacy (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2012), pp. 217-221.


For an account of how an authoritarian government manipulates Twitter, see Katie Benner, Mark Mazzetti, Ben Hubbard and Mike Isaac, ‘Saudis’ Image-Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider’, The New York Times (20 October 2018).


For an account of these trends, see Philip Seib, The Future of Diplomacy (Cambridge: Polity, 2016).


Bruce Gregory, ‘Public Diplomacy: Sunrise of an Academic Field’, in Cowan and Cull (eds), Public Diplomacy in a Changing World, pp. 223-256.


Entman, ‘Theorizing Mediated Public Diplomacy’, p. 87.


For a persuasive argument on how diplomacy and diplomats contribute to a theory of international relations, see Paul Sharp, Diplomatic Theory of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


For a useful recent analysis of power, see Darren J. Lim and Victor A. Ferguson, ‘Power in Australian Foreign Policy’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 72, no. 4 (2018), pp. 306-313.


Geoffrey Cowan and Amelia Arsenault, ‘Moving from Monologue to Dialogue to Collaboration: The Three Layers of Public Diplomacy’, in Cowan and Cull (eds), Public Diplomacy in a Changing World, pp. 10-30.


Rebecca Adler-Nissen, ‘Stigma Management in International Relations: Transgressive Identities, Norms, and Order in International Society’, International Organization, vol. 68 (winter 2014), pp. 143-176.


This argument resonates with earlier international-security concepts, such as the ‘security dilemma’ and ‘common security’, both of which dealt with how leaders need to take account of the adversary’s security interests; see Geoffrey Wiseman, Concepts of Non-Provocative Defence: Ideas and Practices in International Security (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 52-53 and 88.


Ole Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot and Iver B. Neumann (eds), Diplomacy: The Making of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); see also Geoffrey Wiseman, ‘Diplomatic Practices at the United Nations’, Cooperation and Conflict, vol. 50, no. 3 (2015), pp. 316-333.


Martin Wight, Power Politics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p. 113.


R.S. Zaharna, Amelia Arsenault and Ali Fisher (eds), Relational, Networked, and Collaborative Approaches to Public Diplomacy: The Connective Mindshift (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013); Linwan Wu, ‘Relationship Building in Nation Branding: The Central Role of Nation Brand Commitment’, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, vol. 13, no. 1 (February 2017), pp. 65-80.


Mehmet Sinan Birdal, ‘The Closing of the Opening: The AKP’s Armenian Policy’, Public Diplomacy Magazine, vol. 17 (winter/spring 2017), pp. 51-56.


Geoffrey Berridge, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 5th edition 2015), p. 200.


Berridge, Diplomacy, pp. 208 and 198.


Wiseman, Isolate or Engage, pp. 287, 288 and 294.


Robert Ross, ‘China: American Public Diplomacy and US–China Relations, 1949-2012’, in Wiseman, Isolate or Engage, pp. 59-84.


Falk Hartig, ‘How China Understands Public Diplomacy: The Importance of National Image for National Interests’, International Studies Review, vol. 18, no. 4 (December 2016), pp. 655-680.


Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, ‘The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence’, Foreign Affairs (16 November 2017), available online at (accessed 29 May 2018).


Joseph Nye, ‘How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power: The Right and Wrong Ways to Respond to Authoritarian Influence’, Foreign Affairs (24 January 2018), available online at (accessed 29 May 2018).


I am indebted to a reviewer for these points.


In Australia, for example, the renaming of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Public Diplomacy, Communications and Scholarships Division to the Soft Power, Communications and Scholarships Division — thus widening the Division’s scope so that soft power is now seen as the wider concept that includes public diplomacy — reflects this trend. On the soft power–public diplomacy nexus, see, for example, Caitlin Byrne, ‘Introduction to the Special Issue: Recasting Soft Power for the Indo-Pacific’, Politics & Policy, vol. 45, no. 5 (October 2017), pp. 685-704.


Discussion in this paragraph owes much to insightful queries from a reviewer.


P5+1 refers to the United Nations Security Council’s permanent five members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Germany.


William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), epilogue at pp. 418-453.


A well-known exposition of this view is Manuel Castells, ‘The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communications Networks, and Global Governance’, in Cowan and Cull (eds), Public Diplomacy in a Changing World, pp. 78-93.


Geoffrey Wiseman, ‘“Polylateralism”: Diplomacy’s Third Dimension’, Public Diplomacy Magazine (summer 2010), pp. 24-39.


For earlier work, see Shamima Ahmed and David M. Potter, NGOs in International Politics (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2006), pp. 57-74.


Gregory, ‘Mapping Boundaries in Diplomacy’s Public Dimension’, pp. 20-23. Gregory argues that scholars and practitioners benefit from mapping boundaries, however porous, between category domains. See also Wiseman, Isolate or Engage, pp. 298-299.


My thinking here owes much to the ground-breaking work of Costas Constantinou; see, for example, Costas M. Constantinou, ‘Between Statecraft and Humanism: Diplomacy and its Forms of Knowledge’, International Studies Review, vol. 15 (2013), pp. 141-162. Immanuel Kant used the term ‘omnilateral’ in a broad sense to refer to the will of all individuals. In diplomacy, Adam Watson used it more narrowly to describe ‘quasi-parliamentary conferences’, such as the UN General Assembly; see Adam Watson, The Dialogue between States (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), p. 151.


Gregory, ‘Mapping Boundaries in Diplomacy’s Public Dimension’.


For a contrary view that public diplomacy should be treated as a separate field of study, see Kadir Jun Ayhan, ‘The Boundaries of Public Diplomacy and Non-State Actors: A Taxonomy of Perspectives’, International Studies Perspectives (2018), pp. 1-21.


With thanks to a reviewer for clarifying this point.


Pierre C. Pahlavi, ‘Evaluating Public Diplomacy Programmes’, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, vol. 2, no. 3 (2007), pp. 255-281.


A good example is the Australian international student mobility New Colombo Plan.


See, for example, Craig Hayden, The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2012), especially chapter 2 on ‘Evaluating Soft Power’.


Acknowledgements: I am indebted to the editors of this special issue for their adroit guidance and also to the anonymous reviewers for excellent, detailed comments on a draft. I also wish to thank Lachlan King for his research assistance.

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