Knowledge diplomacy can play key role in this troubled era

There is no doubt that the landscape of international higher education (IHE) is changing, as is the world of international relations (IR). But the intersection of these two phenomena is vastly understudied. A comprehensive and interdisciplinary review of research on the role of IHE in building relations between and among countries and addressing global challenges reveals a number of important findings, misunderstandings and challenges.

Terminology chaos

Across the two disciplines, there are more than a dozen terms being used (and confused) to describe the relationship between IHE and IR. They include soft power, cultural relations and many different types of diplomacy such as science, public, education, cultural and citizen exchange, among others.

Many of the terms are quite specific and do not fully capture the breadth of contemporary IHE developments or the reality that non-state actors such as universities, research centres and think tanks play a key role in IR.

For example, the most frequently mentioned IHE activities in IR are traditional ones such as student mobility, scholarships and bilateral institutional events and agreements. This ignores recent developments such as knowledge cities and hubs, centres of excellence, international research networks, international joint universities, education-industry partnerships and others.

Knowledge diplomacy

A comprehensive review of the academic literature from both IHE and IR fields of study revealed that the importance of research and innovation in IHE’s role in IR has not been adequately acknowledged, except by the concept of science diplomacy, and that is most often in the context of science and technology.

Therefore, the term IHE is deliberately expanded to IHERI (international higher education, research and innovation) to acknowledge the importance of ‘research’ and ‘innovation’ in strengthening IR and addressing global challenges. This leads to the introduction of the term ‘knowledge diplomacy’ as a way to capture the breadth and importance of IHERI in IR.

The proposed definition of knowledge diplomacy – ‘the process of strengthening relations between and among countries through international higher education, research and innovation’ – is purposefully generic in order to apply to a diversity of geopolitical situations, issues and sectors.

This definition does not include rationales, activities and values that are intentionally used in a description such as ‘knowledge diplomacy involves diverse state and non-state actors involved in collaborative education, research and innovation initiatives, which are based on mutual benefits and reciprocity and designed to build and strengthen relations between and among countries to increase mutual understanding and address global issues’.


The misunderstanding of the intentions, values and outcomes of soft power vs diplomacy, especially by the higher education sector, needs to be addressed. The term soft power is essentially understood as the use of persuasion and attraction in international relations to achieve self-interests and competitive advantage through compliance or co-option.

Countries strategically use IHERI in a soft-power approach, but it should not be portrayed as a way to build trust and mutual understanding, which many IHE leaders, researchers and policy-makers believe in and promote. While IHERI actors and activities may be the same in soft power and knowledge diplomacy approaches, the values, modes of operation and outcomes are strikingly different.

Diplomacy in general, and knowledge diplomacy in particular, is about finding common ground, collaboration and negotiating conflicts, ensuring mutual but different benefits for partners, while still aiming to meet national self-interests. This differs substantially from soft power. While both approaches exist in using IHERI in IR, it is important to recognise that they have very different motives, values, strategies and outcomes.

A knowledge diplomacy approach

While the difference in using IHERI in a soft power approach versus a knowledge diplomacy approach is clear, distinctions between the role of IHERI in knowledge diplomacy and related diplomacies such as cultural, science and public diplomacy are subtler.

Cultural diplomacy is primarily oriented to international exchanges and events in all fields of the arts, education, sports and other cultural expressions. The goal of cultural diplomacy is to enhance cross-cultural awareness, trust and relations between and among countries.

When IHE is referred to as cultural diplomacy, the most common activities cited are student or scholar exchanges, language learning, joint conferences and cultural events. While cultural diplomacy includes a wide range of people-to-people education and cultural exchanges, it is not broad enough to include the central elements of IHERI, such as research and innovation.

A frequently asked question is whether science diplomacy and knowledge diplomacy are not one and the same. This question is worthy of consideration and depends on how broadly science is defined and used.

If science is broadly interpreted to mean knowledge as in the Latin word scientia, then there is a close relationship. But, traditionally, science diplomacy has been seen in terms of the natural sciences and, more recently, it has been placed within the framework of science and technology.

There is no doubt that this reflects the centrality of science and technology in today’s knowledge economy and the number of global challenges such as climate change, pandemics, biodiversity and water security, among others.

However, one must ask if the focus on science and technology excludes, to a large extent, other sectors and issues. For instance, it is unlikely that science diplomacy initiatives or negotiations would include social or humanitarian issues such as migration, ageing, refugees, gender, social justice, inclusion, poverty or human rights initiatives.

Thus, while full acknowledgement is given to the importance and role of science (and technology) diplomacy, it does not exclude the necessity of knowledge diplomacy, which is a more inclusive concept in terms of the production and application of knowledge to a wide range of global issues.

Public diplomacy has been described as a country’s efforts to create and maintain relationships with publics in other societies to advance policies and action. It is often linked to the idea of reputation building. This involves a wide range of state and non-state actors and can be applied to an equally broad spectrum of issues.

There is no doubt that public diplomacy can include IHERI related actors, issues and activities, but it is a wide umbrella concept, and the term knowledge diplomacy is more focused on specific state and non-state actors and their activities related to international higher education, research and innovation.

Current challenges

Knowledge in its broadest sense is a critical resource in addressing the diversity of national, regional and global issues. But it comes with many challenges. Knowledge security, as in protection from undesirable transfer and use of sensitive knowledge and technology, including international espionage, is increasingly at risk.

Another concern is the politicisation of knowledge to suit self-interests by a wide range of actors, including politicians, academics and researchers.

The democracy of knowledge, as in widening and respecting different types and producers of knowledge, is yet another challenge facing countries in both the Global North and South.

The risk of knowledge diplomacy being seen as ‘social washing’, as in a disconnect between perceived commitment to issues and genuine action and reciprocity, also needs monitoring.

IHERI faces the harsh realities of the more competitive, nationalistic and turbulent world in which we live. However, we must ask whether we can afford to ignore the potential of using a knowledge diplomacy approach to IHERI to contribute to the resolution of national, regional and global challenges and to strengthen relations between and among countries.

Jane Knight is adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. E-mail: This article is based on her publication Knight, J (2022) ‘Knowledge diplomacy in international relations and higher education’. Springer Nature. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.