Can Non State Actors Do Public Diplomacy?

Is public diplomacy something that is only done by states? Can non-state actors do public diplomacy?   This is a discussion that parallels a debate that has been going on in the Diplomatic Studies community for several years.

The canon of diplomatic theory for instance represented by Nicolson (1963), treats diplomacy as about the relations between states.  The visibility of non-governmental organizations, substate governments, multinational corporations with the space of international policy making has led some scholars to argue that these are also diplomatic actors.  In 2005 Jönsson and Hall published Essence of Diplomacy, this argued that diplomacy was marked by three essential features, communication, representation and the reproduction of the international order. In Contemporary Diplomacy (2010) Geoff Pigman cuts this list down to communication and representation with the consequence that his concern is with the ‘representation and communication between global actors, including (but not limited to) governments, multilateral institutions, civil society organizations and large firms.’ (p. 11).  Some have (eg L’Etang 2009) argued for the overlap between PR and diplomacy.   Indeed former state diplomats port their diplomatic skills into the corporate realm.

If you follow this line of argument that it would make sense to argue that the same applies to public diplomacy and that ‘engaging with foreign publics’ by non-state actors can also be counted as ‘public diplomacy’.  The problem is with that is then any international engagement activity gets moved into the diplomacy column and that almost all international communication becomes public diplomacy. Is it useful to treat the promotional campaign for the new Star Trek movie as public diplomacy?  I would argue that it’s better thought of as marketing.

The Jönsson/Hall/Pigman argument focuses on the processes of diplomacy but I would respond with an analogy from domestic politics.  This is a like saying that because political parties and interest groups both campaign they are engaged in the same activity.  There is certainly an overlap in the activities of parties and interest groups but the objectives, structures, constraints and opportunities of the two types of actor are different.  States and other actors are different types of actors and each has different resources and constraints. PD (or foreign public engagement or whatever you call it) is the way that it is because it is done by states; the response to it is due to the fact that it’s done by France or Israel or the US.  PD is much harder than marketing a movie because states are much more complicated entities.  Some of the processes are the same but the nature of the entities and relationships involved are different and this makes me reluctant to see non-state entities as doing PD unless they are acting on behalf of states.


Jönsson, C., and M. Hall (2005) Essence of diplomacy. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nicolson, H. (1963) Diplomacy. 3rd Edition. London: Oxford University Press .

L’Etang, J. (2009) ‘Public Relations and Diplomacy in a Globalized World: An Issue of Public Communication’, American Behavioral Scientist, 53: 607–626.

Pigman, G. (2010) Contemporary Diplomacy: Representation and Communication in a Globalized World. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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