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Socially Distanced Diplomacy: The future of soft power and public diplomacy in a fragile world

A new critical issues report published by Sanctuary Counsel and CPD: "Socially Distanced Diplomacy: The future of soft power and public diplomacy in a fragile world" seeks to shed light on emerging challenges and opportunities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a major reset in U.S. foreign policy under a new administration.

Just as the dominant trends driving culture, fashion, art and politics for any given decade require several years to find their eventual form, so too it is for centennial shifts. In all likelihood, historians will regard 2020 as the definitive pivot point between the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Over the last 15 months, the standard models of operation for governments, businesses, civil society, cultural and educational institutions, and day-to-day life have been upended. As the world continues to come to terms with the new normal of the pandemic age (and attempts to adapt accordingly), diplomats, international organizations and NGOs working to keep global politics moving have had to do the same. 

For those operating in the fields of foreign policy and diplomacy, simply maintaining a minimum level of functionality from early 2020 onward has been nothing short of a generational challenge. While much of the world remains frozen in a socially distanced stasis and international travel remains nearly impossible, the need for meaningful global engagement, higher levels of trust between allies and international partners, and effective cross-border collaboration has only intensified. 

The role of soft power and public diplomacy in delivering on these fronts remains paramount. Yet, both soft power—as a concept and a practical tool—and public diplomacy are hardly immune from the upheaval wrought by the pandemic. Given such disruption, two critical questions must be asked: first, what is the future for the global balance of soft power? And second, are the traditional strategies and tactics for public diplomacy still viable now? While the immediate challenges of the pandemic are certainly the most pressing in any attempt to address these questions, it is equally important to set them in the wider geopolitical context. 

Drawing on insights from a global series of roundtable discussions with experts and practitioners from international affairs, politics, media, culture and academia, this report aims to chart a way forward for governments, diplomats and international organizations working to foster understanding and build trust across borders.