Knowledge Diplomacy vs. Soft Power

What is the difference between these two terms—and why does it matter for international higher education?
International education can be and is used for both diplomatic and soft power purposes, and the key is to understand and respect the similarities and differences. Photo: Shutterstock

International higher education has a long history with respect to its contribution to strengthening (or jeopardizing) relations between and among countries. Its role continues to evolve as the world faces new challenges and conflicts.

Knowledge diplomacy and soft power are two very different approaches to the contemporary role that international higher education, research, and innovation (IHERI) play in international relations. Thus, distinguishing between their similarities and differences is critical. Though the terms “diplomacy” and “soft power” originate from the field of international relations, they are now regularly used by other sectors, including international education. This migration of terms illuminates new dimensions and issues related to international higher education and at the same time causes some confusion and misunderstandings.

What is the difference between the two terms, and why does it matter? Knowledge diplomacy and soft power are best understood in the context of key changes in contemporary diplomacy and international higher education. The characteristics of each concept inform how international education programs, partnerships, research, and innovation initiatives are conceptualized and executed, from international joint universities to programs like Confucius Institutes.

Changes in Contemporary Diplomacy and IHERI

Diplomacy is usually understood as the management of relations between and among countries, traditionally thought of as the responsibility of government representatives and diplomats. Now, it is characterized by having a broader selection of state and non-state actors, including nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and civil society. New information technologies and social media are affecting notions of diplomacy, and the diversity of global issues—such as refugee crises, pandemics, social justice movements, and climate change—is increasing and presenting new challenges to the work of diplomacy. Soft power and sharp power, both of which take a more competitive and dominant approach to international relations, are more becoming more commonly used strategies by governments.    

At the same time, international higher education is also broadening its initiatives beyond the traditional scholarships, student and scholar mobility, international student recruitment, and joint conferences. For instance, international and regional joint universities, education and knowledge hubs, regional centers of excellence, international branch campuses, global research, and innovation networks all play a role in strengthening relations between and among countries and regions to help address pressing global challenges that require a multilateral and multisector approach.  

Knowledge Diplomacy and Soft Power: How Are They Different?

There is no question that IHERI can be and is used for both diplomatic and soft power purposes. The key is to understand and respect the similarities and differences. An in-depth review of both diplomacy and soft power reveals that there is much confusion as to the intentions and outcomes of these two approaches. More attention needs to be given to the conflation of these terms.

Knowledge Diplomacy

Knowledge diplomacy is “the process of strengthening relations between and among countries through international higher education, research, and innovation,” as defined in an upcoming book on the subject. It involves a wide variety of state and non-state actors, including universities and colleges, think tanks, foundations, centers of excellence, civil society organizations, private sector research groups, and governmental departments, among others. 

Knowledge diplomacy brings together these diverse actors from different sectors and disciplines to address global, regional, and national issues that one country cannot solve alone and to promote better relations.

There is no doubt that national self-interests prevail; it is naïve to think otherwise. This requires a knowledge diplomacy approach based on negotiation, conflict resolution, cooperation, and working toward achieving a common goal, given the different priorities, needs, and resources of the countries and actors involved.  Despite these differences, diplomacy in general—and knowledge diplomacy in particular—is based on the principles of collaboration, reciprocity, and achieving mutual but different benefits. 

Worth noting is that knowledge diplomacy is not a neutral concept, because of the positive outcome of strengthening relations between and among countries. However, it is not a normative concept, as it does not indicate that it should be the preferred approach or what a country ought to do. There are instances where a competitive approach is preferred.

Soft Power

The concept of soft power, developed by Joseph Nye, a well-respected American scholar and policy adviser, is popularly understood as “the ability to influence others to get them to want what you want” in order to gain dominance and competitive advantage in international relations. Operationally, soft power is described as using attraction and persuasion to achieve national self-interests through co-option and compliance.

Using a soft power approach is a legitimate and effective means to meet national foreign policy objectives. With respect to the use of higher education for soft power purposes, Nye states that “countries, such as the United States, are perfectly informed about the fact that the education system is one of the most essential instruments in terms of dominance in the global political arena.”

It is important to acknowledge that contemporary IHERI activities have a role in both a knowledge diplomacy approach and a soft power approach in international relations. However, the key message is to understand the fundamental differences between the two approaches.  

Differences between the role of IHERI in Knowledge Diplomacy and Soft Power Approaches
Chart of approaches to knowledge diplomacy and soft power
Chart Courtesy Jane Knight

IHERI actors and activities can be the same for both approaches, but intentions and outcomes differ.

Misunderstandings About Soft Power

From an international relations point of view, the use of IHERI in a soft power approach is based on fundamentally different intentions (dominance and competitive advantage), principles (compliance and cooption), and modes of operation (attraction and persuasion) than knowledge diplomacy—even though the international education actors and primary activities may be the same.

However, there are many higher education policy makers, practitioners, and researchers who mistakenly believe that soft power efforts using common IHERI activities—such as international student recruitment, student and scholar mobility—are about increasing mutual understanding, gaining trust, and promoting exchange. But, these are not the usual intended outcomes of the soft power strategies of attraction and persuasion. While the soft power approach appears to be benign, it inherently focuses on serving self-interests and gaining competitive advantage.

This raises the question as to how using IHERI in a soft power approach—which is based on dominance, compliance, and cooption, not collaboration and mutuality of benefits—can lead to trust and reciprocity. Perhaps those working in the international higher education sector see soft power, which is characterized by attraction and persuasion, as a more palatable strategy than the use of hard power—which is oriented to military force, sanctions, and coercive tactics—and therefore mistakenly use the term “soft power” to represent cooperation and collaboration.

Does this explain why soft power is a very popular and widely used concept in fields like international higher education? Is this a case of terminology transfer from one sector to another, where terms are adopted without realizing the key principles and intentions which underpin them?

There are advocates who maintain that international higher education initiatives can and should be used to gain competitive advantage, self-interests, and dominance—even for hegemonic reasons. This type of relationship can occur between developed countries, as well as between developed and developing countries where soft power can also be perceived as a means of neo-colonization. 

For example, Anna Wojciuk in her book Empires of Knowledge in International Relations: Education and Science as Sources of Power for the State believes that that the international mobility of students and scholars or recruiting international students through attraction is done for  political purposes and competitive advantage. This is completely in line with Nye’s thinking that increasing attractiveness is key to having more political influence, dominance, and meeting foreign policy goals in many sectors— including higher education and research.

The Knowledge Diplomacy Approach: A Case Study

International joint universities (IJUs) are a good example of using international higher education, research, and innovation in a knowledge diplomacy approach to strengthen relations between countries. In general, IJUs are new independent universities created though collaboration between higher education institutes and governments from two or more countries. These new institutions move beyond the branch-campus model where one university establishes a brick-and-mortar campus of its own in another country. 

Instead, an IJU is cofounded and comanaged by the government/university located in the host country and the government/university located in the foreign partner country. Together they develop a new institution based on joint academic programs, collaborative research and innovation projects, scholar and student exchanges, and partnerships with local industry, governments, and non-government organizations.     

The German Jordanian University (GJU) is an example of how to operationalize key dimensions of this approach. GJU is one of the first IJUs and was jointly created in 2005. It draws on the German education and applied research model to: 1) jointly create relevant academic programs to the meet the human resource needs of Jordan, 2) build high-tech research capacity in Jordan through partnerships between Jordanian and German academics and industries, and 3) strengthen relationships and trust between the two countries. 

Several elements of this partnership align closely with a knowledge diplomacy conceptual framework and illustrate how governments and institutions can successfully bring a knowledge diplomacy approach to fruition:    

Intentions: GJU was jointly created and funded by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research of the Federal Republic of Germany. Its explicit mandate is to integrate “people and nations; cultures and disciplines; science and practice.”

Actors: The key players in this bilateral initiative include national governments, universities, and their external partners—plus industry, business, and local non-governmental organizations in both countries.

Modes: Throughout the planning, development, and operationalization stages of GJU there was continuous consultation, dialogue, negotiation, collaboration, and exchange between the Jordanian and German governments and founding universities. It can be described as a horizontal relationship trying to maintain a win-win approach to respect the diverse needs, priorities, and expectations of each country.

Principles: As illustrated by their collaborative efforts to fund and establish this institution and its stated mandate, the key principles supporting this initiative are cooperation; working towards common interests according to the needs and priorities of each country; reciprocity, and mutual, but different, benefits.

Activities: The major IHERI activities include joint academic programs, collaborative research initiatives, student and scholarly exchange, collaboration on applied science and innovation with industry, governmental and non-governmental agencies. An example of an innovative and successful joint initiative has been the establishment of the GJU Office for Industrial Links mandated to create and sustain liaison between university and non-university actors for the purposes of research, training, and employment. 

In terms of research and innovation, all GJU graduate programs are actively engaged in research with an emphasis on producing new knowledge for application and innovation, especially with business and industry. However, research is also conducted for the broader public good in Jordan and the surrounding area.  For example, the graduate department of social work focuses on the needs of migrants and refugees, and faculty research deepens the knowledge base on displaced people with a specific focus on Syria and other countries in the Middle East.  

Student mobility and exchange is a top priority of the GJU. Since 2006, up to 100 students per year travel in both directions between the two countries. The German government has provided scholarships for GJU students to continue graduate studies in Germany. GJU has also developed agreements with several German universities to host Jordanian students for a year of exchange during their degree. Similarly, agreements are in place for German students to study at the GJU either on short-term visits or for their whole degree program to better understand Jordanian culture. 

The GJU is one example of how using international higher education, research and innovation activities in a knowledge diplomacy approach helps to build and strengthen relations between countries while bringing diverse academic, social, cultural, and economic benefits at the same time. 

The Soft Power Approach: A Few Examples

In contrast to GJU’s knowledge diplomacy approach, one of the most often cited examples of soft power in international higher education are Confucius Institutes (CI).  The Chinese government labels Confucius Institutes as a source of soft power through increased understanding of Chinese culture, language learning, and building friendships. The effectiveness of this strategy is questionable, given the number of Confucius Institutes which have been closed in the past 5 years based on claims of a hidden agenda and lack of respect for academic freedom on the part of Chinese.   

Other soft power approaches include scholarships for international students, which are usually framed as goodwill deeds, though soft power motives of self-interest are often at play. Positioning university rankings as a tool of soft power is another interesting perspective.  

It is important to note that many IHERI activities can serve and be labeled as either soft power or knowledge diplomacy initiatives. It depends on the intention and expected outcomes of the sending country, the values and principles (collaboration, reciprocity vs. dominance, self-interests first) which underpin the activities, the strategies (collaboration vs. cooption through attraction and persuasion), and the degree of mutuality of benefits for both partners. 

Challenges and Issues with Knowledge Diplomacy

As knowledge diplomacy becomes more commonplace it risks 1) becoming a buzzword to camouflage national and regional ambitions to promote self-interest at the expense of mutual interests and benefits, and 2) creating unrealistic expectations about its role and contributions to international relations. 

Already there is significant confusion between the role of international education, research, and innovation in knowledge diplomacy and soft power, as well as related terms such as cultural, science, and public forms of diplomacy. “Knowledge diplomacy” should not be used as a catchall phrase, thus undermining its true value and contribution to both higher education and international relations; the same applies to the ubiquitous and often misunderstood term “soft power.”

From study abroad advisers and international student recruiters to senior international officers and provosts, international educators should understand the politicization of higher education and how the field intersects with international relations and geopolitics. The meaning and use of the terms diplomacy and soft power  informs many facets of partnership and program development, from scholarships and university rankings to institutional partnerships.  •

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