Public diplomacy is the practice of engaging with foreign audiences to strengthen ties, build trust, and promote cooperation.

It is a key mechanism through which nations foster mutual trust and productive relationships and has become crucial to building a secure global environment. The public, interactive dimension of diplomacy, public diplomacy is global in nature and involves a multitude of actors and networks. 

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A Brief History of Public Diplomacy

As coined in the mid-1960s by former U.S. diplomat Edmund Gullion, public diplomacy was developed in part to distance overseas governmental information activities from the term propaganda, which had acquired pejorative connotations. Over the years, public diplomacy has also developed a different meaning from public affairs, which refers to a government’s activities and programs designed to communicate policy messages to its own domestic audiences.

By the late 20th century, public diplomacy was widely seen as the transparent means by which a sovereign country communicates with publics in other countries. Its aim was to inform and influence audiences overseas for the purpose of promoting the national interest and advancing foreign policy goals. In this traditional view, public diplomacy serves as an integral part of state-to-state diplomacy, involving official relations, typically in private, between leaders and diplomats representing sovereign states. In this sense, public diplomacy includes such activities as educational exchange programs for scholars and students; visitor programs; language training; cultural events and exchanges; and radio and television broadcasting. Such activities usually focus on improving the “sending” country’s image or reputation in order to shape the wider policy environment in the “receiving” country.

Recently, and notably since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, public diplomacy has attracted increased attention from practitioners and scholars around the world. As distinct from the “narrow” traditional, state-based conception of public diplomacy, recent scholarship has offered a “broader” conception of the field’s scope, developing the concept of a new public diplomacy. This view aims to capture the emerging trends in international relations where a range of non-state actors with some standing in world politics—supranational organizations, sub-national actors, non-governmental organizations, and even private companies—communicate and engage meaningfully with foreign publics and thereby develop and promote public diplomacy policies and practices of their own. Advocates of the new public diplomacy point to the democratization of information through new media and communication technology as a force that has greatly empowered non-state actors and elevated their role and legitimacy in international politics. As a result, a new public diplomacy is seen as taking place in a system of mutually beneficial relations that is no longer state-centric but rather composed of multiple actors and networks, operating in a fluid global environment of new issues and contexts.

This new public diplomacy will not in the short term displace traditional state-to-state diplomacy as practiced by foreign ministries, but it will impact the way those ministries operate. More than ever, foreign ministries and diplomats will need to reach beyond bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to construct and conduct relations with new global actors.

The heightened interest in public diplomacy in recent years has been facilitated by conceptual developments in other fields. Marketing and public relations concepts such as branding have been incorporated by public diplomacy scholars to apply to countries, regions, and cities. Similarly, the concept of soft power coined by international relations scholar Joseph Nye has, for many, become a core concept in public diplomacy studies. Nye defines soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” In other words, soft power is the degree to which a political actor’s cultural assets, political ideals and policies inspire respect or affinity on the part of others. Thus, soft power has come to be seen as a resource, and public diplomacy as a mechanism that seeks to leverage it.

The debate about a new public diplomacy has become global in nature, rather than limited to U.S. foreign relations, as important as they are. The USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School (CPD) endorses this global approach and encourages a worldwide set of perspectives in its scholarly research, policy analysis and professional education activities. Moreover, the debate has taken on a multi-disciplinary character, with no single discipline determining public diplomacy’s intellectual agenda. Thus, CPD views public diplomacy as an emerging, multi-disciplinary field with theoretical, conceptual and methodological links to various academic disciplines including communication, history, international relations, media studies, public relations, and regional studies.