Knowledge diplomacy or knowledge divide?

The term ‘knowledge diplomacy’ is becoming increasingly popular and is being used in different ways. This is causing some confusion.

For instance, can advocacy for the benefits of international higher education and lobbying for further funding programmes be understood as knowledge diplomacy? Does increased competition in international higher education and research, defence of self-interest and a winner-takes-all approach constitute knowledge diplomacy? Can developing students’ international and intercultural competencies through study abroad be labelled knowledge diplomacy?

These are just a few examples of how the term knowledge diplomacy has been used, perhaps misused, by international higher education researchers and professionals over the last year. So what is the background to this confusion?

Changes in diplomacy and international HE

Contemporary diplomacy is changing at an unprecedented pace and is characterised by new actors, new issues and new functions. The shift from a state-based approach, typically centred on the role of ministries of foreign affairs and professional diplomats, to a multi-actor approach is a hallmark of the current changes.

Not only have a broad spectrum of government organisations – including higher education, science and technology agencies – become key players in diplomatic relations, so too have civil society organisations, multinational firms and expert networks.

Security and economic development have long been fundamental issues in international relations, but modern diplomacy includes new issues such as migration, health and the environment.

The landscape of international higher education and research is equally dynamic with the development of innovative global research networks, education or knowledge hubs, international joint universities, multi-sector partnerships, regional centres of excellence and new modes of academic mobility including programme, provider and policy mobility.

But how do the changing worlds of contemporary diplomacy and international higher education and research intersect? One link is knowledge diplomacy.

What is knowledge diplomacy?

The first step to understanding knowledge diplomacy is to answer the question – what is diplomacy? In short, diplomacy refers to the management or strengthening of relations between and among countries. Knowledge diplomacy is therefore understood to be the role that international higher education, research and innovation can play in the strengthening of relations between and among countries.

But knowledge diplomacy can also be seen as a two-way process by also focusing on how international relations can enhance – or hinder – international higher education and research.

Knowledge diplomacy recognises that many domestic issues are now global issues; and conversely, many global challenges are now domestic challenges. There is no question that our increasingly globalised, interconnected and interdependent world presents new issues, threats and opportunities that cannot be addressed by one nation alone. International collaboration is necessary.

Knowledge diplomacy can bring the expertise and research of the higher education sector, in partnership with other sectors or disciplines or actors, to address the pressing global issues that are beyond a single country’s capacity to resolve.

Knowledge as a source of power?

Yet, many see international higher education and knowledge as a source of power – in fact a form of soft power. When compared to the military force or economic sanctions of hard power, there is no question that knowledge as soft power is less invasive or destructive.

Yet, the values underlying any kind of power – hard power, soft power and smart power – in international relations are most often seen as dominance, authority and supremacy. Power is often framed as a vertical relationship between countries.

In contrast, diplomacy is seen as being about horizontal relationships between countries. Furthermore, diplomacy is framed in terms of values and functions such as negotiation, compromise and reciprocity.

Self-interest vs mutual interests

There is no question that the self-interest of countries and various actors are always at play in international relations. But in any power paradigm or relationship, self-interest and benefits dominate and often play out in a winner/loser scenario. It is different with a diplomatic framework as self-interest morphs into a mutuality or reciprocity of interests through compromise and negotiation.

While this may appear to be an oversimplification, there is a fundamental difference between the use of soft power and diplomacy in international relations. This in turn can lead to understanding international higher education and research as either the source of a knowledge divide between countries or as a knowledge diplomacy actor that can contribute to strengthening relations between and among countries to address global issues.

Risks and unintended consequences

As interest in and the use of knowledge diplomacy evolves there will be multiple interpretations of what it is, why it is important and what strategies can be used in its service. While knowledge diplomacy cannot be seen as synonymous with internationalisation of higher education, it does shine a bright light on the broader role and contribution of international higher education and research to international relations and vice versa.

Let it be clear that there are certain to be risks and unintended consequences attached to knowledge diplomacy, especially when knowledge is often seen as a source of power and dominance.

However, let us in the higher education sector try to use knowledge diplomacy as a tool to address global challenges and opportunities through enhanced international relations and to lessen the chance that international higher education and research become an instrument of the ‘knowledge divide’ between and among countries.

Jane Knight is adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Canada, and a distinguished visiting professor at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Email: The article is based on research being done for a new book on knowledge diplomacy and the role of international higher education’s contribution to international relations and how global challenges and opportunities are addressed.