Clarifying misconceptions about knowledge diplomacy

Knowledge diplomacy refers to the role of international higher education, research and innovation, or IHERI, in building and strengthening relations between and among countries. It presents a new approach to exploring the relationship between IHERI and international relations.

As such, the term is interpreted in different ways as it becomes part of the higher education and international relations discourse. For instance, knowledge diplomacy is being used interchangeably and is being confused with terms such as soft power and cultural, education and science forms of diplomacy.

It is also incorrectly used as a synonym for the commercialisation of IHERI or the race for global talent in the knowledge economy. There are instances where knowledge diplomacy has been inappropriately described as a way to lobby for more national and regional government funding for IHERI.

It is important to understand knowledge diplomacy as a more comprehensive process than individual traditional higher education internationalisation activities, such as student and scholar mobility. As with many new concepts, the misconceptions of knowledge diplomacy are leading to confusion about the use and interpretation of this new term.

Broader than cultural diplomacy

Cultural diplomacy has been a popular term for decades. It primarily refers to international exchanges, exhibitions and events in the arts, music, theatre, literature, film, media, architecture and sports as well as other cultural expressions. The goal of cultural diplomacy is primarily to enhance cross-cultural awareness, trust and relations between and among countries.

When higher education is referred to as part of cultural diplomacy the most common activities cited are student and scholar exchanges; language learning; international sports, debating and competitions; and cultural events.

While cultural diplomacy can include a wide range of people-to-people education and cultural exchanges, it is not broad enough to include the central elements of higher education, such as research and innovation.

More comprehensive than science diplomacy

The increasing importance of science diplomacy, as evidenced in both national government science policies and international summits, begs the question of whether science and knowledge diplomacy are not one and the same. This is a question worthy of consideration and depends on how broadly the term science is being defined.

If science is broadly interpreted to mean knowledge, then there is a close relationship.

Traditionally, however, science diplomacy has been seen in terms of the hard sciences. More recently it has been placed within the broader framework of science, technology and innovation. There is no doubt that this reflects the centrality of science and technology in today’s knowledge economy.

However, the focus on science and technology excludes, to a large extent, other sectors, issues and disciplines related to the social sciences and humanities. For instance, it is highly unlikely that science and technology diplomacy initiatives or negotiations would include issues such as refugees, humanitarian aid or human rights initiatives.

Thus, while full acknowledgement is given to the importance and role of science diplomacy, it does not overrule the necessity of knowledge diplomacy which is a more inclusive concept in terms of the diversity of disciplines and sectors involved as well as its focus on education and the production and application of knowledge.

Why not use the term education diplomacy?

The term education diplomacy is usually applied to basic education and is linked closely to advocacy. The Association for Childhood Education International has adopted this term and believes that "education diplomacy uses the skills of diplomacy grounded in human rights principles to advance education as a driver for human development”.

In contrast to education diplomacy, knowledge diplomacy includes the production and use of new knowledge for innovation, two areas not usually associated with basic education.

Furthermore, the drivers and outcomes differ. Education diplomacy is oriented to human development while knowledge diplomacy focuses on addressing and solving common societal issues which face countries in all regions of the world and on strengthening international relations.

Knowledge diplomacy is not soft power

In the mid-1990s the term soft power was introduced as a distinct and viable alternative to hard power. Soft power was described as “the ability to influence others and achieve national self-interest through attraction and persuasion”.

It is different to hard power, which uses coercion through military force and economic sanctions to achieve national interests. The concept of smart power emerged later and is a calibrated combination of soft and hard power strategies used to achieve a country’s goals.

Fascination with the term soft power resulted in its application to many sectors and types of bilateral and multilateral relationships. Higher education is no exception. The debate and articles about higher education as an instrument of soft power sky-rocketed in the mid-2000s. Even longstanding collaborative academic programmes, capacity building and development projects were framed as soft power initiatives.

International higher education was solidly positioned as part of the competitiveness and power agenda of individual countries. The popularised term of soft power was used to inappropriately describe collaborative higher education partnerships as being about competitiveness, dominance and a power dynamic, while in reality many were rooted in the notion of cooperation, reciprocity and mutuality of benefits.

In many ways, the term knowledge diplomacy has emerged as a counter-balance to notions of soft power. While some international higher education initiatives may be based on competitiveness and dominance, and are correctly labelled as soft power, this is certainly not true of all.

It is imperative that the difference between higher education as an instrument of soft power and knowledge diplomacy is clear.

A recent report published by the British Council explores the differences among these terms more fully, identifies key characteristics of knowledge diplomacy, presents eight case studies of knowledge diplomacy in action and discusses some of the challenges ahead.

Jane Knight is adjunct professor in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the University of Toronto, Canada, and distinguished visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.