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Diplomacy and People

Summary and Keywords

Public opinion has long been associated with diplomacy. The earliest records of public involvement in diplomacy are available from the city-states of ancient Greece, where diplomats in the Greek city-states were chosen by public assemblies following thorough public deliberations. However, the growth of a sense of professional community among diplomats following the rise of foreign ministries led to a gradual structuring of the communication patterns. Most generally, a cleavage started to appear between modes of communication in relation to actors within the professional community and in relation to actors outside it. Within the diplomatic community, communication followed the rules, norms, and procedures of emerging diplomatic practice and ceremony. Outside the diplomatic community, the patterns that emerged can be conceptualized along two paths: (1) information gathering, and (2) informing the public at home and abroad about foreign policy. Modern professional diplomacy has been seeking to strike a balance between limiting public access to diplomatic processes and trying to communicate with the public with the aim of generating a public opinion favorable to government foreign policy. The current information-intensive global environment poses a challenge to foreign ministries’ institutionalized mode of limited public communication along two dimensions: the rising importance of so-called public diplomacy, and the increasing need for public legitimization of foreign policy decisions.

Keywords: public opinion, public diplomacy, diplomats, diplomatic communication, diplomatic community, foreign policy


Public opinion has always been an important factor in diplomacy, although its influence has taken on different forms in different historical periods. With the rise of foreign ministries and their gradual professionalization between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, diplomacy came to be considered an exclusive area of expertise which was to be handled outside of public view. While such an approach found support in the works of numerous authors ranging from François de Callières to Harold Nicolson, the importance of public opinion for the success of diplomatic endeavors was also recognized by scholars and practitioners, including such great statesmen as Metternich and Palmerston. Modern professional diplomacy has been seeking to strike a balance between limiting public access to diplomatic processes and trying to communicate with the public with the aim of generating a public opinion favorable to government foreign policy. The current information-intensive global environment challenges foreign ministries’ institutionalized mode of limited public communication along two dimensions: the rising importance of so-called public diplomacy, and the increasing need for public legitimization of foreign policy decisions.

Public Opinion and Diplomacy

The earliest records of public involvement in diplomacy are available from the city-states of ancient Greece. There diplomacy was an activity profoundly public in nature. Diplomats in the Greek city-states were chosen by public assemblies following thorough public deliberations. Moreover, their instructions were also discussed at length by assemblies of citizens, and upon arrival in the receiving city-state they would proclaim the diplomatic messages openly to the local public assembly (Hamilton and Langhorne 1995:9). Ambassadors were rarely provided with any plenipotentiary powers to negotiate. Of key importance were their oratorical skills, upon which the successful reception of their messages would often depend. Finally, the involvement of multiple domestic interest groupings in the external relations of any given city would also result in the sending of multiple envoys to represent the various strands of domestic opinion on a given matter (Hamilton and Langhorne 1995:10). With the rise of other political formations, including the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and later the heteronomous diplomatic world of medieval Europe, the conduct of diplomacy became much more personally attached to the various rulers (Queller 1967; Anderson 1993). Subjects of sovereigns were, as a rule, not deemed worthy of being involved in discussions of foreign policy. Yet the entry ceremonies of new ambassadors and sovereigns could be considered a basic way of informing the public about foreign relations, where the fact that a foreign embassy or a king had arrived would signify the existence of relationships with foreign countries. Political and diplomatic messages of various kinds were conveyed to the public (including present foreigners) during such ceremonies. The 1691 return of William III of England to the Netherlands is a case in point. As Jones points out:

Dutch officials could think of no more fitting gesture than a triumphal entry into The Hague, complete with appropriate allegorical figures. Peace, War, Justice, Tyranny, and Felicity adorned the triumphal arches that had been raised for William’s procession through the city […]. The pageantry was entirely political, and the messages were diplomatic. The whole tangled history of the succession of the English throne, the Revolt of the Dutch United Provinces against Spanish rule in the Netherlands, and the Grand Alliance of England, Holland and the League of Augsburg against the expansionist France under Louis XIV could be read in the arches, banners and illuminations. (1984:13–14)

Besides messages on foreign policy, the entry ceremony of an ambassador could communicate a great deal about the wealth and power of the sending sovereign by the strength of his entourage and bodyguards and the number of horses for his carriage, all on flamboyant public display (Anderson 1993:16). Following the invention of the printing press, the growth of literacy, and the ideational developments of the Enlightenment, public opinion – that is, all the nongovernmental opinions which were given public expression in the press, pamphlets, provincial assemblies, the universities, salons, and other societies of intellectual and political elites (Hamilton and Langhorne 1995:124) – started to play a role that could no longer be ignored by diplomatic services. Metternich noted in 1808, that “public opinion is the most powerful medium of all. Like religion it penetrates into the darkest corners” (Anderson 1993), while Palmerston would note some decades later: “Opinions are stronger than armies. Opinions, if they are founded in truth and justice, will in the end prevail against the bayonets of infantry, the fire of artillery and the charges of cavalry” (Nicolson 1939/1988:37).

Efforts to shape public opinion were first introduced on a larger scale during the reign of Napoleon I. The French “Grande Armeé” published a daily bulletin which had a noteworthy influence on the perception of events by the peoples of the occupied territories. Napoleon’s diplomats founded a newspaper in Poland for propaganda purposes, and the French government published an English-language newspaper, Argus, to foster anti-British propaganda (Anderson 1993:137). Throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century, it became standard practice for ambassadors to publish articles explaining the policies of their governments in the most respected newspapers in the country of their residence.

Modern Professional Diplomacy and One-Way Communication with the Public

Along with the gradual growth of a sense of professional community among diplomats following the rise of permanent embassies, one can observe a gradual structuring of the communication patterns of the emerging diplomatic community. Most generally, a cleavage started to appear between modes of communication in relation to actors within the professional community and in relation to actors outside it.

Communication within the diplomatic community had a regulated character, following rules, norms, and procedures of emerging diplomatic practice and ceremony. Those rules manifested themselves in the particular diplomatic language that came to distinguish communication within the diplomatic community from communication with nondiplomatic actors. As Nicolson notes,

the need of intelligence [in relations between governments] is self-evident, but the equally vital need of tact is often disregarded. It is this latter need that has led diplomatists to adopt a paper currency of conventionalised phrases in place of the hard coins of ordinary human converse. These phrases, affable though they may appear, possess a known currency value. (1939/1988:122–3)

Furthermore, communication among diplomats came to be marked by the general norm of reciprocity and exchange of information, essentially a form of dialogue mapping out the positions of counterparts and a gathering of relevant information, which preceded actual foreign policy decisions. As Watson observes, “The European diplomacy which our global system inherited developed as a dialogue between members of a system which (as always in the past) had a cultural and historical identity strong enough to ensure that its members recognized certain rules” (1982:17–18, emphasis added). Communication within the diplomatic community was hence rule-based, dialogical and happened essentially ex ante relative to the foreign policy decisions that eventually ensued.

A fairly different set of patterns started to emerge in relation to actors outside of the diplomatic community. In simplified terms, they could be conceptualized along two paths: (1) information gathering, and (2) informing the public at home and abroad about foreign policy. The first path followed a number of ad hoc event- and situation-specific patterns, motivated by efforts to gather information relevant to the preparation of foreign policy decisions. Ambassadors would talk to whoever could provide information on issues relevant to foreign policy decisions, whether they were domestic actors or foreigners. Ambassadors would hence be like hubs toward which information would flow from various sources, and they would then relay that information further to their home governments (and/or eventually trade particular pieces of information within the local corps diplomatique for other information). As is apparent, neither information gathering nor informing the public has a dialogical character. While the former is a collection of information flows directed at the diplomat by external actors, the latter took the form of a unidirectional broadcast from the diplomat toward external actors (the public). Hence, the diplomats’ communication with actors outside the diplomatic community is one-way and ex post (this could also be referred to as a press release mode of communication).

The early decades of the nineteenth century saw the spread of literacy and an increasing importance of printed media. This went hand in hand with the rising importance of public opinion and public demands for information on foreign policies, prompting foreign ministries to standardize public information management practices. Standardization and rationalization related to what information was to be provided to the public and to what channels were to be used for providing it. The first step toward standardized information provision was taken in Sweden, where the country began to publish an annual list of its ambassadors and consuls in 1824. Great Britain, France, and Italy published similar lists from the 1850s and 1860s onward (see the compendium essay on “Diplomacy and Diplomats”). The British Foreign Service published, in the 1820s and 1830s, the so called “Blue Books” which included selected diplomatic correspondence on selected foreign policy events from earlier years, with other European foreign services gradually engaging in similar practices – the French had their “Yellow Books,” while Bismarck’s foreign ministry would publish its “White Books” (Hamilton and Langhorne 1995:127). Although, as Anderson observes, “[p]ublications of this sort broke sharply with the anonymity and complete immunity from public scrutiny which had hitherto marked foreign offices” (1993:114), they were providing information on foreign policy decisions ex post and in a broadcast fashion, and their selective nature indicated that they often were used for presenting the decisions made in a favorable light.

When it comes to the rationalization and standardization of channels through which information would be provided to the public, multiple organizational structures have gradually been adopted by foreign ministries. To meet the demands for information and inspection by various parliamentary committees that began to emerge in European parliaments, foreign ministries began introducing specialized units to deal with these demands and to assist the committees in finding and receiving the requested information. To deal with the broader and unstructured demands for information on foreign policy from journalists, the business community, and the general public, press departments were created at most foreign ministries in the period around World War I. Their role was to draft press releases, organize press conferences, and generally provide information on foreign policies to both domestic and foreign audiences.

The pattern of communication with the public that was adopted by foreign ministries is the same as in any public agency based on bureaucratic principles. The citizen was asked to provide information by using standardized formats, preferably in writing, and the officials would then respond in due course, providing the requested information (if available). The bureaucratization of communication with the public at foreign ministries generally resulted in a standardized and regularized one-way flow of information.

The Challenges of Public Diplomacy

Public diplomacy understood as activities of state and nonstate actors contributing to the maintenance and promotion of a country’s soft power (Bátora 2006) is not a new phenomenon. For instance the recognition of the United States by the then dominant European powers was almost entirely dependent upon public diplomacy conducted on its behalf by European intellectuals such as Voltaire or Pierre de Beaumarchais in the late eighteenth century. Benjamin Franklin in his capacity as the first US ambassador to France was the archetype of an effective public diplomat contributing to the attractiveness of his country’s ideals by enchanting the French court with his nonconformist style of a diplomat-philosopher. For reasons discussed above, most foreign ministries have traditionally regarded public diplomacy as a corollary to the “real” business of diplomacy and have been rather skeptical of assigning resources to this kind of work (Tuch 1990). There has been a tendency in foreign ministries around the world to distinguish between public diplomacy and so-called public affairs. While the former focuses on governmentally sponsored promotion of a country in relation to foreign publics, the latter involves information provision on foreign affairs to the domestic public. In an information intensive global environment, where a country’s image is created, maintained and/or challenged by a plethora of state and nonstate actors, such a division is difficult to maintain. As the experience from a number of countries indicates, governments (and notably foreign ministries) have been trying to develop symbiotic relationships with nongovernmental actors, including artists, journalists, academics, film-makers, religious leaders, and other opinion shapers (Leonard et al. 2002; Melissen 2005). This is based on the realization that if a country is viewed positively by the home public constituency, domestic actors will more readily associate themselves with their country in their international activities, and thereby often increase its attractiveness. The international attractiveness of a country makes it more likely that its foreign policy aims will be achieved with fewer resources expended, and this in turn makes it more likely that domestic actors active internationally will associate themselves with their state (for a model of public diplomacy as a multidimensional activity between home and abroad see Bátora 2006).

Obviously, the international attractiveness of the culture or policies of a particular country can vary across different societies around the world, as well as across segments of its domestic society. The challenge in this case is hence to develop a “multivocal” public diplomacy strategy able to explain the same policies or cultural traits in diverging locally specific ways in foreign societies; at the same time finding ways of generating some level of consensus across political, religious, or ethnic segments of the domestic society. The most profound institutional challenge, with the need to operate in a multidimensional foreign-domestic dynamic, results from the fact that foreign ministries are traditionally not used to dealing with the domestic public (Bátora 2006).

Besides the foreign and domestic actors, foreign ministries today also have to deal with an emerging kind of transnational actor who can have profound effects on raising awareness of particular foreign policy issues and/or generating credibility for particular policies. This applies to transnational networks of nongovernmental organizations such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (Price 1998; Zaharna 2007), but increasingly also to individuals with a global reach, a sense of purpose, and an ability to interact with governmental leaders and hence engage in what Andrew Cooper (2007) calls “celebrity diplomacy.” Celebrities such as Bono or Angelina Jolie have been consistent in drawing global public attention to issues of poverty, AIDS or debt relief in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Some governments have been quite successful in engaging with celebrities in support of their international activities. Norway, for instance, engaged Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey to host one of their annual Nobel Peace Prize concerts and hence captured global media attention for an event that brands this Scandinavian country on a global scale (Bátora 2006).

A normative challenge related to public diplomacy is the question of whether the self-interested promotion of a country’s soft power in order to gain leverage over other countries and/or societies is appropriate if one of the key goals of public diplomacy is genuine relationship building (Fitzpatrick 2007).

The Challenges of Domestic Foreign Policy Legitimization

Secrecy is a key feature of modern diplomacy. Authors such as Abraham de Wicquefort or François de Callières held that diplomats should be honest with each other, and to enable honesty, negotiations should be secret so as to facilitate the highest possible amount of trust between the parties involved (Hamilton and Langhorne 1995:69). This generates an interaction dynamic within a professional in-group which is different from interactions with outsiders (i.e. the public). Besides the need for secrecy, specifics related to dealings with foreign states involving specialized language skills and knowledge of foreign geography and cultures, as well as their largely aristocratic ethos, made foreign ministries rather exclusivist and isolated from their home societies. In the mid-nineteenth century, the German foreign office, for instance, was described by contemporaries as “holy ground, unapproachable for the profane world, and only accessible to the Levites and priests.” In the same spirit, the French foreign minister Guizot would comment on the construction of the new premises of the French foreign ministry in 1844: “The Hôtel of the Minister must be isolated; that is to say, detached from other buildings, surrounded by court and a garden, [and] distant from the public thoroughfare” (both quoted in Lauren 1976:23–5). A by-product of this dynamic in many countries is often a lack of trust or at best skepticism on the part of the public vis-à-vis diplomats. An attempt to remedy this was President Wilson’s idea of “open covenants openly arrived at” of January 1918, which the diplomatic community has not embraced to this day. The objections of the diplomatic community were already well summed up by Wilson’s contemporary Harold Nicolson (1939/1988), who saw no problem with open covenants but, for reasons inherent in the established practice of diplomatic negotiation, found open negotiations more problematic. Hence a level of separateness from the society at large continues to characterize foreign ministries. As Ross argues in his deeply skeptical analysis of the ills of contemporary diplomacy, of which he was a practitioner during his more than 15 years in the British foreign office,

[d]iplomacy is not democratic, even in democracies. Somehow, and through the accretions of practice and habits of history, it is accepted that diplomats are a separate élite, who are free to arbitrate policy with little outside scrutiny, influence or accountability. We the governed and those affected by their decisions have little idea what the diplomats are doing in our name, or even who they are. This is true of the US State Department; it is even more true of the Chinese foreign ministry. The juxtaposition is deliberate. Even in supposed democracies, it is very difficult to know what our representatives are doing in our name. It is all but impossible to have access to them or influence their decisions; if they make mistakes, which will inevitably happen, it is only very rarely possible to hold these practitioners to account. (2007:20)

Traditional established channels of parliamentary control through committees on foreign affairs and similar mechanisms have not alleviated public pressures for more openness and access to foreign policy decision-making. To tackle the decreasing legitimacy of foreign policies, some foreign ministries have been trying to introduce mechanisms for public consultation on foreign policy priorities. This includes web-based discussion forums on foreign ministry websites (the most notable example are the eDiscussions conducted by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, to which its decision makers regularly post responses); issue-specific discussion forums with societal stakeholders; and, most recently, some foreign ministers have launched personal blogs on the internet. The Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was one of the pioneers, updating his blog several times a day on occasions. In addition to high interest among Swedish citizens, this also sparked off a wave of criticism among some of Sweden’s senior journalists, criticizing the minister for undermining the democratic control function of the press and introducing Hugo Chavez-like practices of “privatizing the public space” (Torekull 2007). Nevertheless, the Slovenian foreign minister Rupel and the Spanish foreign minister Moratinos have recently also launched their personal blogs. Building public credibility and legitimacy for foreign policy remains one of the key challenges for contemporary foreign ministries.


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      Cooper, A. (2007) Celebrity Diplomacy. Toronto: University of British Columbia Press.Find this resource:

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                                    Clingendael’s Diplomatic Studies Programme. At, accessed July 2009. 1. Among many useful Clingendael publications on diplomacy downloadable from the site is Jan Melissen, “Wielding Soft Power: The New Public Diplomacy” (Diplomacy Paper 2), providing a useful discussion of concepts such as cultural diplomacy, nation branding and propaganda; Evan H. Potter “Canada and the New Public Diplomacy” (Discussion Paper 81), dealing with changing patterns of global politics in a media-intensive international environment and focusing on the role of soft power and public diplomacy as key elements in the conduct of foreign affairs; and Jozef Bátora, “Public Diplomacy of Small and Medium Sized States: Norway and Canada” (Discussion Paper 97), looking at differences between the public diplomacy of small states and major powers and developing a conceptualization of public diplomacy as a multidimensional activity between home and abroad.

                                    The Neaman Document. At, accessed May 19, 2009. This study on Israeli public diplomacy by the Samuel Neaman Institute, Technion and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel, features a number of studies covering various aspects of Israeli public diplomacy. It features interesting conceptual discussions of the Israeli case, diverging from more general models of small state public diplomacy, and practice-oriented policy suggestions.

                                    Policy eDiscussions. At, accessed May 19, 2009. Twice a year, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade conducts public online discussions with Canadians on topics related to Canadian foreign policy. At the end of each eDisussion, the Department provides a response to the issues and suggestions by the citizens.

                                    Center on Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California. At accessed May 19, 2009. The Center conducts state of the art research on various aspects of public diplomacy. The site features a set of useful resources related to public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy.