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How Visegradians Can Emulate Scandinavians

by Katarzyna Pisarska1


2014 is a year that marks epic anniversaries for the Visegrad states (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), also known as the “Visegrad Four” or “V4.” Among these are the 15th anniversary of their joining NATO and the 10th anniversary of E.U. accession. Yet it is the 25th anniversary of the peaceful and astonishingly swift transformation process that will be celebrated the most. This is because the year 1989 marked the emergence of a new Central Europe: one where standards imposed for decades by the communist reality were replaced by European norms and values, and where the idea of the “Return to Europe” led to a full political, economic, and institutional integration with the West.[1]

Today, a quarter of a century later, the Visegrad states are important members of the Atlantic community, contributing to transnational conversations on a wide range of topics from the future of the E.U. Eastern neighborhood to the shape of Europe’s security architecture. At the same time however, the 1989 exceptional success story of global historical significance seems to be largely unrecognized by public opinion in Europe and the United States.

The Visegrad states—individually, and as a group—continue to suffer from international invisibility and negative or neutral perceptions abroad. In turn, this hampers efforts to redefine the role of Central Europeans as actors in international relations. Their invisibility on the world stage is largely due to the lack of a coherent public diplomacy strategy in all four of the states as well as the inability to undertake a joint Visegrad effort in telling a compelling story about Central Europe—its past, present, and future.



As Joseph Nye puts it, “Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from attraction.”[2] Indeed, a positive perception of a state or region among foreign publics results in tangible benefits such as the increase of foreign direct investment, a boost in tourism, and enhancement of international cooperation opportunities. But attraction is generated not so much by an artificial “image” that a country wishes to project through nation branding campaigns. Rather, it is determined more by the country’s ability to engage foreign individuals and organizations in a dialogue on core values and ideas. Such an effort, defined as “public diplomacy,” is about creating international bonds, fostering mutual understanding, and abolishing stereotypes. This then facilitates the achievement of a country’s specific foreign policy goals.  It is the instrumentalization of soft power: the power of one’s attraction and reputation overseas.[3]

Studies show that small and medium sized states gain the most from adopting soft power measures in projecting their image and building a reputation abroad. As Jozef Batora notes, for this group of states, public diplomacy represents “an opportunity to gain influence and shape the international agenda in ways that go beyond their limited hard power resources—related to size, and military and economic strength.”[4]

This is well-illustrated in the example of the Scandinavian states: Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. In the 2012 Soft Power Survey, which ranked countries based on their attractiveness and international influence, all four made it into the top thirteen most powerful states in the world.[5] The success of the Scandinavian states in generating soft power can be attributed to at least two factors: individualized public diplomacy strategies and the ability to use regional cooperation as a tool for advancing foreign policy goals. Despite historical, cultural, and societal similarities, each of the four Scandinavian countries has managed to develop an individual and tailor-made public diplomacy strategy that reflects their society’s own values and characteristics but also differentiates between them.

With a credo that “it is sometimes possible for a country to do very well by doing good,”[6] Norway pursues a niche diplomacy, skillfully utilizing its comparative advantage of traditions in peace mediation efforts. Sweden on the other hand invests heavily in dialogue with foreign publics on human rights’ protection, including women’s rights. Denmark and Finland, meanwhile, focus on the innovative nature and openness of their societies which makes them attractive to immigrants and to high-tech companies seeking to invest overseas. Through different “attractive causes,” the Nordic states are able to build trust and credibility among foreign societies, which strengthens their soft power and ability to influence international agendas.

In addition to their country-focused public diplomacy strategies, the Scandinavian states use regional cooperation in getting the message across to international publics. The task of coordinating foreign policy messaging is facilitated by the fact that many of the strategic goals of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden are in sync.

Firstly, the Nordic States prioritize engagement with international organizations and the strengthening of the United Nations system. Secondly, they perceive themselves as the world’s peacemakers attempting to influence international policy in three important areas: environmental policy, international security, and global welfare. Thirdly, the Nordic states have consistently built an international reputation for generosity by providing humanitarian aid and development assistance to under developed countries. Finally, all four states are proud of their historic legacy of non-engagement in international conflicts and Socialist internationalism which heavily influences their foreign policies’ discourse.[7]

In sum, these Scandinavian states’ tailor-made public diplomacy strategies, combined with close regional cooperation in promoting joint foreign policy objectives, have given them credibility and respect within the international community. A clear “Scandinavian brand” is used not only to attract tourism or foreign investment, but also to channel important foreign policy messages embedded in shared Scandinavian values and ideas for the future of the world.    



Although largely newcomers to public diplomacy, the four Visegrad states stand a fair chance of emulating the Scandinavian success in building a strong international reputation. With a total population of over 64 million citizens (versus 25 million Scandinavians), a common historical legacy, and recent transformation achievements, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have a compelling story to tell international publics. But this can only be achieved if the intensifying public diplomacy endeavors undertaken by each of the states is matched by an equal effort to craft a regional foreign policy message that is consistent for all four countries.

The basic prerequisites to success are already in place. The four Visegrad countries share a common historical past, foreign policy goals, and hopes for the future. The historical legacy of the Visegrad Four can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Firstly, Central Europe is an area that — having undergone profound “latinization” — sets the religious frontiers between Roman-Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Secondly, the region has experienced the existence of important multinational and multi-religious empires characterized by their openness and democratic structure. Thirdly, Central Europe had a specific pattern of development. For centuries Central Europe was part of the West but in the 19th century it diverged and did not develop as quickly. This was caused by internal weaknesses of the states, the growth of new empires, and in the 20th century, the experience of fascism and communism. Finally, as the region emerged from Soviet domination in 1989, the newly independent Visegrad states were determined to shape their own destinies and reintegrate closely with the West.

All the above-mentioned historical factors have shaped the societies of Central Europe, forming their national identities and creating their unique regional geopolitical outlook. Today, the Visegrad states do not view their long-term security concerns the same way that Western Europe does. As such, it is characterized by a distinctive foreign policy discourse.

Firstly, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland are more inclined to conduct a values-oriented foreign policy. This implies that foreign policy should be firmly rooted in both national interests and a system of common values (such as freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law.) After several decades of struggling with authoritarian fascist and communist regimes, the Visegrad states are more prone to support human rights and freedom movements around the world. Given their successful transformation to democracy and market economies, they feel a special duty to assist the democracy process—whether it is in Cuba (Czech Republic), the Western Balkans (Hungary), Tunisia, or Ukraine (Poland.)

Secondly, after a decade of E.U. membership, the Visegrad states have emerged as dedicated supporters of the European integration process. With the gradual decline of U.S. engagement in Europe, the “frontier” position of Central Europe raises the V4s’ expectations for a stronger E.U. leadership role in the world, first and foremost in the Eastern Partnership and Western Balkans regions. Consequently, the Visegrad states are the staunchest supporters of an E.U. open-door policy. This is because their own experience tells them that enlargement is the most influential tool that the E.U. possesses in promoting democracy, prosperity, and stability in its own neighborhood.

The combination of shared historical and foreign policy characteristics provides solid ground for forming a consistent soft power Visegrad message. This should be complemented by individual states’ public diplomacy efforts that support the regional message.



In order to strengthen the Visegrad region’s international visibility and soft power capacities, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia must undertake strategic public diplomacy efforts that include finding an attractive cause. To build a positive reputation among foreign audiences, public diplomacy actions need to evolve around a consistently-pursued “attractive cause,”[8] that appeals to other societies and assents their moral and political beliefs.

Considering the political, social, and historical specificity of Central Europe, the general theme for the Visegrad states could evolve around the successful transformation experience of the region. In addition to the main theme, each of the states should craft an individually-profiled, narrower message, which would concentrate on strong features of their national identity. To map these strengths, the V4 governments need to consult their societies and create a compelling story of their own. In crafting individual messages it is worth remembering that historical narratives such as “politics of memory”[9] — although very important in Central Europe — are not easily transferable to foreign publics and should be seen only as supplemental to the main public diplomacy message.

Once an “attractive cause” is identified, the V4 states should find efficient channels to communicate their messages to foreign audiences and prioritize dialogue through people-to-people contacts. Such channels should first and foremost serve to establish long-term relationships between societies. These need to include educational and cultural exchanges as well as short-term study visits of foreign professionals (experts, journalists, NGO leaders, politicians.) Because of the high costs related to running such programs, the V4 states should not be afraid to synergize their efforts and create a joint Visegrad International Visitors Program, with a mission of funding short-term study tours to Central Europe for cross-sector leaders from all around the world.

Additionally, on the national level, each of the Visegrad states should strongly encourage the internationalization of higher education. By engaging with foreign students, universities serve as the best diplomatic centers of the host country. At the same time, the V4 governments need to recognize that the attraction and retention of foreign students at university campuses is just one part of the internationalization equation. The other is ensuring that the inflow of foreign students also influences the host country’s academic environment by enhancing the curriculum and study-abroad opportunities for its own students.

Engaging the Visegrad domestic societies. Because public diplomacy serves as both a window into, and out of, society[10] the role of the domestic component in formulating and implementing public diplomacy strategies cannot be underestimated. So far however, the crafting of public diplomacy policies in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia has followed a centralized model with hardly any public consultations or engagement.

In order to undertake effective public diplomacy initiatives, the Visegrad governments should start applying the principle of partnership at the domestic level. Such a model foresees the collaboration of the state with both non-governmental and private sectors in the formulation (through consultation) and realization of public diplomacy goals. The first step is for foreign policy practitioners to devise a convincing public diplomacy message by exploring the identity of their own society. At the second stage, in allowing domestic public and non-governmental actors to communicate with their foreign counterparts, the state contributes to a consistent and credible spread of its values, ideas, and consequently its foreign policy concepts. The government must also recognize the role and increased importance of private sector funding for large public diplomacy initiatives such as Central European Modern Studies at the most prestigious universities in the West.[11]   

Distinguishing nation branding from public diplomacy. In the early 2000s, as part of their preparations for E.U. accession, all four Visegrad states began investing in nation branding as a way of improving their image among E.U. societies. States have outsourced brand management to private consultants and sponsored expensive TV advertisements focused on place marketing. By 2004 it became obvious that Central European branding efforts had failed, mainly because of their inconsistency,[12] artificiality, and detachment from the true nature of Visegrad societies.

Unlike branding, which focuses on projecting “images” and “promoting” a country, public diplomacy is about building relations with other nations based on a message that reflects its society’s values and beliefs.  In that sense, it is a “do-it-yourself” business which requires the commitment of Visegrad foreign policy practitioners and the societies that they represent. The general diplomatic discourse in the region needs to move from talking about “promotion” to discussions on Central European values and that stir up international dialogue. Finally, successful public diplomacy efforts require further changes in the structure of Visegrad MFAs[13] and greater openness toward involving both domestic and foreign non-governmental partners in the realization of some of their foreign policy goals.

Strengthening the multilateral dimension of public diplomacy. Although public diplomacy activities are first and foremost tasks for individual states, the Scandinavian example shows that regional cooperation and coordinated messaging can significantly enhance public diplomacy efforts. Such cooperation not only strengthens the perceived credibility of states involved, but also creates a synergy of activities generating international attention and a positive perception of the region as a whole. As discussed earlier, the four Visegrad states share many characteristics and common interests that would allow them to better coordinate at least some of their public diplomacy activities directed toward their Eastern neighbors. But this requires political will and, maybe more importantly, a good understanding of the nature of public diplomacy.



Public diplomacy is still a rather peripheral concern for most foreign policy practitioners in the Visegrad states. Yet with the growing need for more advanced tools in order to influence the regional and international agenda, senior diplomats in the Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Slovakian MFAs are increasingly convinced of its importance. Central European public diplomacy has the potential to correct foreign perceptions about the region by drawing attention to its rich and diverse history and its rise from tragedy to economic and political triumph. It can also be an important conduit through which to present the distinctive Central European perspective and enable the V4 to contribute to transnational conversations.

Integrating public diplomacy in the foreign policy making machinery surely requires patience and sustained support from the highest levels. More importantly, it necessitates a broader and more democratic outlook on how foreign policy is made. In practical terms for the Visegrad states, a genuinely effective public diplomacy means opening up to a new set of partnerships: with domestic civic partners, foreign civil society organizations, and last but not least, with each other. It is high time to make the most of the positive media coverage that Central Europe is currently enjoying. This can and should be done by crafting a compelling Visegrad message which will draw attention to the region’s success-story, and in the long-run build a strong “Visegradian” brand that is recognized all around the world.


[1] To read more see: Anders Åslund, "How Capitalism Was Built : The Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia,” (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 281-304.

[2] Joseph S. Nye Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2004), p.6.

[3] Jan Melissen, “Public Diplomacy between Theory and Practice”, Paper presented at The 2006 Madrid Conference on Public Diplomacy (WP) entitled “The Present and Future of Public Diplomacy: A European Perspective.” Javier Noya (ed.) wp 29/2006 - 30/11/2006.

[4] Jozef Batora, ‘Public Diplomacy in Small and Medium-Sized States: Norway and Canada’, Discussion Papers in Diplomacy, (Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, March 2005), p.7.

[5] The Soft Power Survey ranks nations according to their standard of government, diplomatic infrastructure, cultural output, capacity for education and appeal to business. The list is calculated using around 50 factors that indicate the use of soft power, including the number of cultural missions, Olympic medals, the quality of a country’s architecture and business brands. For more see:

[6] Alan K. Henrikson, ‘Niche Diplomacy in the World Public Arena: the Global “Corners” of Canada and Norway’, in: Jan Melissen, The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations, (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2005),  p. 68.

[7] Mary Hilson, The Nordic Model: Scandinavia since 1945, Reaktion Books, London 2006, p. 116 – 147.

[8] The term “attractive cause” was coined in: Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

[9] The “politics of memory,” used by the Polish and Hungarian Ministries of Foreign Affairs, stresses the exclusion of Eastern European heritage from mainstream European memory before 1989 and highlights the suffering and bloodshed that the region has experienced in the 20th century.

[10] Jan Melissen, “Public Diplomacy between Theory and Practice,” paper presented at The 2006 Madrid Conference on Public Diplomacy (WP) entitled “The Present and Future of Public Diplomacy: A European Perspective.” Javier Noya (ed.) wp 29/2006 - 30/11/2006.

[11] Among the most recent initiatives of this kind is the Program on Modern Poland at Oxford University (St. Antony’s College) that is endowed by the Polish businessman, Dr. Leszek Czarnecki.

[12]According to Wally Olins, who was commissioned by Poland to create a brand slogan: ““Inevitably [national branding campaigns] are inspired at least partially by governments. And governments like quick results. But governments [...] often don’t stay in power for very long.” . For more see:

[13] In the past few years some serious reorganization in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the Visegrad States is taking place. The Czech Republic and Poland have established Departments dealing exclusively with public diplomacy and along with Slovakia also Departments on Commercial Diplomacy. First public diplomacy strategies have been developed encompassing a wide range of initiatives, yet less “message-focused” than one should expect. 


Author Biography

Dr. Katarzyna Pisarska is an Associate Professor at the Warsaw School of Economics and an Associate Scholar at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington D.C., specializing in E.U. and Polish foreign policy. As Founder and Director of the European Academy of Diplomacy and the Visegrad School of Political Studies, Katarzyna Pisarska has been a practitioner of public diplomacy for more than a decade. Previously, Dr. Pisarska was a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at Harvard University (2007), a Visiting Scholar at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (2010), the University of Oslo (2012) and a Visiting Lecturer at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku (2012-2014).

For her work, she has received the “Top 99 under 33 Most Influential World Foreign Policy Leaders” title (2013) and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos (2014).


Katarzyna Pisarska




Pub Date: 

Summer 2014