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One Handshake at a Time……..Really?!

by on May 8, 2012

What sense are we to make of citizen diplomats? (Sharp 2001, p.131), I cannot help but ask myself this same question.  So much has been written on the evolution of diplomacy, and citizen diplomacy tends to fall within the components of this change, but, wait! Citizen diplomacy according to Sharp is not that much of a novelty, apparently, “the high politics of the twentieth century is full of examples of private citizens performing the functions of go-betweens, from Dahlerus and his visits to Halifax and Goering in the early 1940s to the role of private Norwegian citizens in setting up the “back channel” between Palestinians and Israelis in the early 1990s” (2001, p.137).

So what is citizen diplomacy? Hmm, another question I cannot seem to make sense of either, there are quite a number of definitions which I can only assume owe their meaning to the variant shades of citizen diplomacy.  Citizen diplomacy has been defined through the concept of Track II diplomacy which refers to “the interactions among individuals or groups that take place outside an official negotiation process” (Kaye 2005, p.9), or more broadly by the ‘US center for citizen diplomacy’ organisation who defines it as: “the concept that the individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations ‘one handshake at a time.’ Citizen diplomats can be students, teachers, athletes, artists, business people, humanitarians, adventurers or tourists. They are motivated by a responsibility to engage with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial dialogue” (

I guess the definition supplied by the US Center can always be flipped to represent whichever country you represent, that is, if your country is as agonised as the Americans by how far down the reputation of their image abroad has diminished, enough for them to entrust individuals to do some diplomatic legwork.  It is this latter definition of citizen diplomacy that gives me a slight uneasiness, like Sharp, I share his earlier reservations that diplomacy is “a difficult business best undertaken by professionals who represent the states” and not citizen diplomats who “represent no one but themselves and not very well at that” (2001, p.134).

I am sure the vision behind ‘American citizen diplomacy’ is honourable and well intended, it is well recognised that citizens of a country can help others to form an opinion of that country, but, can this really change foreign policy? It is all too known that national stereotypes can be notoriously difficult to overcome, and honestly, can citizen diplomacy shift this?  I know I might be too much of a skeptic, and maybe there is some truth to Simon Anholt’s assessment that “the only remaining superpower is public opinion” (, but really……… handshake at a time?!!


Kaye, D.D., 2005. Rethinking Track Two Diplomacy: The Middle East and South Asia. Clingendael Diplomacy Papers, 3, pp.1–35.
Sharp, P., 2001. Making Sense of Citizen Diplomats: The People of Duluth, Minnesota, as International Actors. International Studies Perspectives, 2, pp.131–150.



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One Comment
  1. cal0265 permalink

    I do think citizen diplomacy can make a difference, however I think the results are long term… Nonetheless, it is a very broad definition and anyone who talks with a foreigner will be a diplomat. The concept is interesting but maybe too broad to be considered part of public diplomacy

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