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The Importance of Public Diplomacy in the Post-Cold War Era

by on March 22, 2012

Joseph Nye argues that public diplomacy remains of all-importance in the post-Cold War era.

Public diplomacy is a branch of the discipline of diplomacy which “differs from traditional diplomacy in that it involves interaction not only with governments but primarily with non-governmental individuals and organizations”, as put forth by Edward Murrow in 1963 (Leonard, Stead and Smewing, 2002, 1), and which “seeks to promote the national interest […] through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences” as put forth by the Planning Group for Integration of USIA into the Department of State in 1997 (Leonard, Stead and Smewing, 2002, 1 and

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both relied heavily on public diplomacy when seeking to spread their respective ideologies across the world (Leonard, Stead and Smewing, 2002, 2.) In this way, the United States utilised a series of campaigns and organisations, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The Voice of America and the United States Information Agency, to propagate Western values and ideals, hereunder democratisation and human rights. One may argue that these efforts to a certain extent pushed a desire for political change within the Soviet Union, ultimately contributing to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 (Richmond, 2008, 2 and

With the end of the Cold War however, the importance and relevance of public diplomacy in international politics appeared to diminish, and it was not until the events surrounding the terror attacks on the United States on 11th September 2001 and the subsequent “War on Terror”, declared by President George W. Bush, that public diplomacy again resurfaced as a weapon of political warfare, utilised in the quest of winning the hearts and minds of foreign audiences (Leonard, Stead and Smewing, 2002, 2 and

One may put forth the argument that the decreased focus on public diplomacy in the post-Cold War era, prior to 2001, presented quite a paradox. With globalisation taking hold, a wave of democratisation sweeping through large parts of the world and non-governmental organisations growing significantly in numbers, international power relations arguably changed. As the world became increasingly interconnected, one may argue that it became of greater significance than ever for governments to focus on implementing effective public diplomacy strategies, hereby influencing foreign audiences, in order to pursue their national interests (Leonard, Stead and Smewing, 2002, 2-3.)

In this way, Joseph Nye argues that the “power of attraction”, which can be achieved through public diplomacy, remains of all-importance in the post- Cold War era. Utilising soft power, making one’s state, ideas or norms attractive to foreign governments and publics, rather than hard power, the mere use of military capacities, may, to a certain extent, have a greater impact in a globalised world. With this, Joseph Nye calls for states, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, to increase their expenditure on public diplomacy efforts (Leonard, Stead and Smewing, 2002, 4-5.)

Joseph Nye: Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century.


Leonard, M., Stead, C., Smewing, C. (2002), Public Diplomacy, The Foreign Policy Centre, London.

Richmond, Y. (2008), Practicing Public Diplomacy – A Cold War Odyssey, Berghahn Books, New York.

About U.S. Public Diplomacy (Date Unknown), Public Diplomacy Alumni Association, accessed 16th March 2012.

Public Diplomacy and the Cold War: Lessons Learned (2007), The Heritage Foundation, accessed 16th March 2012.


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  1. In my opinion, public diplomacy was one of the most important stimuli which actually made change happen in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Radio Free Europe had an amazing impact on people. We may argue about its true objectivity, as it was highly funded by the CIA , still, thanks to it people from Eastern Europe had access to information about another kind of world. This made them determined to fight for a better life and better future.Hence, we can see how powerful public diplomacy may be.

  2. thebricsarecoming permalink

    Great blog, really enjoyed it, however i am not convinced there has been a significant drop in public diplomacy by governments post-Cold-War. I would argue that NGO’s, particularly government sponsored ones such as NED (National Endowement for Democracy) and USAid, are an example of the continuation of the US’s ‘public diplomacy’. I would love to hear your opinions on my post.

  3. I would not be so sure that USA public diplomacy was one of the main factors which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union . I am from Eastern Europe and therefore I fully understand what Radio Free Europe meant to every citizen in the Eastern Europe. However, in my opinion , it was economic factors and not the USA public diplomacy which made the Soviet Union collapse. Communist economic system with planned centralised economy simply was not neither effective nor sustainable. Arms race with USA highlighted the impotence of the Soviet Union’s economy and resulted in its collapse.

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