Although no general consensus exists, public diplomacy is typically analysed in terms of the intent of a given country to influence the perception of foreign publics so that these come to hold a positive view of that country and increasingly share its founding values and, perhaps, political priorities. As a key instrument of soft power, the importance of public diplomacy is destined to increase in a globalized would where political influence increasingly comes through the soft power to shape situations and make friends, rather than through the hard power to coerce potential enemies into submission.

Putting the soft power instrument of public diplomacy to work is particularly pertinent for a European Union which has few hard power resources at its disposal for direct influence on the ground. On this point there seems to be a general consensus among analysts, reflected in the characterization of the EU as a civilian power,[1] normative power,[2] structural power[3] or, indeed, soft power.[4] Furthermore, as a new kind of political entity based on the redefinition of sovereignty in Europe, EU public diplomacy faces a communicative challenge which the nation states do not: apart from trying to influence global public opinion on specific policy issues, it is for reasons og legitimacy and recognition pertinent for the EU to communicate effectively which kind of entity it is and what the European Union is all about. This is a difficult task because of the highly complex nature of the EU.

The European Union as a Diplomatic Actor

EU diplomacy in general is not simply an additional supranational layer of activity added to that of the Member States. Rather, EU diplomacy, and EU public diplomacy as part hereof, exist as a consequence of the functional disaggregation of the Member States. Whereas each state continues to realize certain activities, other state functions are exercised jointly through the institutions of the EU, among them parts of diplomacy.

Perhaps the most notable feature of European Union diplomacy is therefore its organization in a network characterized by the continuing centrality of state actors and diffuse structures of legitimacy and political authority, but also by the increasingly common decision-making and implementation process. The actors executing EU diplomacy are of a different nature and have different sources of legitimacy. State governments, supranational political bodies, and both state and supranational administrative bodies participate in the network. Adding to the complexity is that the network functions differently depending on the specific international setting and it also functions differently depending on the political issue area in question.

EU Public Diplomacy

In consequence of the nature of EU diplomacy generally, and even if only considering the activities at the EU level, public diplomacy is carried out by many different actors and through activities of different budget lines, and even includes delegating communicative responsibility to NGOs through the financing of specific projects. Historically, the responsibility to communicate about the EU and its policies has been delegated out to desk officers working with different policy areas in the Brussels institutions and in the EU Delegations abroad, with central coordination taking place only at a very general level.

The coordination of public diplomacy has taken place within the Commission in Brussels, and has only been partially successful in making all the different actors of the EU diplomacy network communicate a more or less coherent message about the EU to the world, a fact reflected in the repeated calls for the EU to increase the coherence in its public diplomacy.[5]

So on one hand, the delegation of communications authority to desk officers and people ‘on the ground’ in other countries should in principle make for a better communication with local audiences, since EU representatives can this way easier adapt core EU messages and communication techniques to local audiences. On the other hand, the result of the extensive decentralization of EU public diplomacy has meant a general lack of uniformity in terms of both the content of the messages and the communicative practices. This is again related to obvious differences in funding and professionalization from one EU delegation to the next. In the US, the EU Delegation has an entire unit dedicated to public diplomacy and with funding to make a difference, whereas in many sub-Saharan countries, all EU public diplomacy is often handled by a single Press Officer.

However, the lack of an EU single voice is not merely a technical problem of EU public diplomacy that can be solved with better funding, coordination mechanisms or strategic planning. This maybe so with respect to improving the horizontal coherence of the EU, i.e. the coherence between different policy areas and the communication of a core EU message by all desk officers and EU representatives abroad. The challenge in this respect is to ensure coherence among each of the policy-specific messages and between these and the identity-driven messages of the EU. Coordination and strategic planning of communication should to some extent alleviate this problem, and there is a great scope for improvement. But another main obstacle to the EU having a coherent public diplomacy across the board is the lack of vertical coherence within the EU, i.e. between the EU level and each of the Member States. In policy areas where the Member States are not in agreement, there of course cannot be any single EU communication to foreign audiences, but rather a cacophony of voices. This has also meant that EU-level public diplomacy has traditionally focused on uncontroversial issues where the Member States are largely in agreement, such as human rights, climate change or identity-driven messages. This fact points to a general structural impediment to an efficient EU public diplomacy. Often, the EU cannot respond to the demand for communication of foreign audiences and engage in a dialogue about the topics they care most about, since it depends on the existence of a general agreement within the EU among the Member States.

In sum, the EU’s lack of hard-power resources, both in terms of material capabilities and political will, seems to indicate that public diplomacy, as a soft power tool, should be an area of specific attention for the European Union. Nevertheless, the structural impediments of the EU’s diplomacy in general have also impeded the EU from turning its public diplomacy effort into a soft power tool capable of making up for the loss of hard-power influence.

The European External Action Service and EU Public Diplomacy

With the Lisbon Treaty and the creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) in 2010, the European Union set off to solve the most pressing problems of its external relations. The EEAS was designed to unify the representation of the EU, which hitherto had been divided between the Commission (issues of EU competence, such as trade and development aid) and the Member State holding the rotating Presidency of the European Council (foreign policy generally). At the same time, the High Representative of the Union, which formerly was a representative only of the European Council and thereby the collective will of the Member States, is now also Vice-President of the European Commission and Head of the External Action Service. The potential for improved horizontal coherence is therefore great, since the representation of the different foreign policy issues is now unified in the same administrative structure. Nevertheless, the strategic planning still takes partially place in different Directorate-Generals of the Commission, as well as among the Member states in the Council structures, and it remains to be seen whether the new EEAS will be able to assume an authoritative position and lead the policy-making in areas with foreign policy implications. Also, it is still unclear how the new Service will handle public diplomacy. Initial plans included a Department within the EEAS dedicated to public diplomacy, but now this Public Diplomacy Unit has been located administratively within the Commission, on the margins of the EEAS. This raises questions of the extent to which it will be able to improve on the strategic planning and execution across all policy areas, thereby ensuring a greater degree of consistency. With respect to the public diplomacy emanating from the Union Delegations in third states and international organizations, the potential for enhanced coherence is even greater. Now these Delegations represent the EU in all policy areas, which should make coordination easier. Coupled with the reforms of the Brussels structures, this should reduce the complexity in the eyes of foreign publics and enhance the visibility of the EU. The real impact of the EEAS on public diplomacy, nevertheless, still remains to be seen.

Current Challenges to EU public diplomacy

Although institutional innovation potential increases the coherence of EU public diplomacy, it does not in itself address the principal challenge to EU public diplomacy in the short term, which stems from the fact that the EU lacks a firm and generally accepted and coherent message about itself and its role in the world. Without clarity in this respect, there is a limit to how much the recent institutional informs can do for EU public diplomacy, since the individuals executing public diplomacy will lack the ‘great picture’, without which communication will necessarily be fragmented. Clarity of message would reduce the need for coordination, since each person, to which communicative authority has been delegated, could easily fit in the specific policy-related message with a large narrative about the nature and purpose of the European Union.

In my view, the most basic challenge to EU public diplomacy currently stems from the fact that the EU is an ontologically insecure international actor. Following Anthony Giddens, ontological security can be considered as when an actor has a stable and positive view of self and is able to maintain a sense of order and continuity with regard to past experiences, current relationships and actions, as well as expectations for the future.[6] Currently, the EU is not able to connect in an overarching narrative the elements necessary to be an ontologically secure actor: A generally accepted and stable vision of the nature of the EU, its historical experiences, its current actions and future objectives. This is of course a problem when seeking to communicate about these issues through public diplomacy. The main tension is between the EU identity as a model for structural peace among states, which in the EU construction makes it a qualitatively different kind of international actor based on universal values, on one hand, and the increasingly assertive foreign policy behaviour defending EU economic and geopolitical interests ever more effectively through the EEAS, on the other, which seems a quite traditional, and not qualitatively different, approach to international relations.

Drawing on Brent Steele’s work in Ontological Security in International Relations,[7] the notion of ontological security helps define four elements of that are vital for EU public diplomacy to be efficient. First of all, there must be clarity about identity, which involves the capacity of the EU to link its historical experiences with its present configuration as a political entity. It is fundamental for public diplomacy to be based on a stable and generally accepted biographical narrative. Second, to communicate about a specific topic, there must be clarity about causality, in the sense of a stable perception about what drives developments within a specific policy area (and thereby what the effect of different lines of action will be). Third, there must be strategic clarity, in the sense of how EU identity leads it to have certain strategic objectives and interests within that policy area. Fourth, there should be tactical clarity, in the sense of which policies should be pursued as a logical consequence of the former three elements: clarity of identity, the understanding of how a policy issue area develops and the EU’s most basic interests in this area.

The main point here is that particularly for an actor as decentralized as the EU, the ontological security stemming from clarity on the four dimensions is vital for the individuals that design public diplomacy initiatives and execute them around a specific event or a given policy area. First, clarity on the 4 elements reduces the need for hierarchic control or horizontal coordination. For instance, an official of the Commission’s Directorate General TRADE can adapt her public diplomacy initiatives and communication lines to the overall narratives, as can a DG DEVELOPMENT or an EEAS official. Thereby, the execution of EU public diplomacy by a decentralized network will be less problematic, and the challenge of coordination will be reduced (except for cooperation with the aim of achieving synergy effects of various initiatives).

Second, the literature on public diplomacy generally stresses the importance of dialogue and taking two-way communication seriously. The EU can only do this if it is ontologically secure. If, as now, there is no overall clarity on the four elements identified above, it will be difficult for an EU public diplomacy official to engage in a dialogue, for instance at public events or via social media. A true dialogue requires the ability to think on ones feet and respond immediately to questions or affirmations of foreign publics. Obviously, this can only be done well if there is clarity about the core EU biographical narrative as well as the policy-specific narratives, true not only for the European Union, but all actors engaging in public diplomacy.

Dr. Steffen Bay Rasmussen is a researcher at the University of the Basque Country, Spain. He holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Southern Denmark, and an MA and PhD in International Relations from the University of Aalborg and the University of the Basque Country, respectively. His current research focuses on EU diplomacy and diplomatic theory, including public diplomacy and diplomatic ethics. On EU public diplomacy, he has also published  “The messages and practices of the European Union’s public diplomacy”, Hague Journal of Diplomacy, vol. 5, no. 3, 2010, pp. 263-287.


[1] Term coined by Duchêne. See F. Duchêne, “Europe’s role in world peace”, in R. Mayne (ed.), Europe tomorrow: Sixteen Europeans look ahead, London, Fontana, 1972, pp. 32-47.

[2] I. Manners, “Normative power Europe: A contradiction in terms?”, Journal of Common Market Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 2002, pp. 235-258.

[3] S. S. Keukeleire et al., “Reappraising diplomacy: Structural diplomacy and the case of the European Union”, Hague Journal of Diplomacy, vol. 4, no. 2, 2009.

[4] J. S. Nye Jr., Soft power: The means to success in world politics, Nueva York, PublicAffairs, 2004.

[5] For studies dealing particularly with the issue of coherence, see: P. Fiske de Gouveia, European infopolitik: Developing EU public diplomacy strategy, Foreign Policy Centre, 2005; D. Lynch, Communicating Europe to the world: what public diplomacy for the EU, EPC working paper no. 21, European Policy Centre, 2005; A. Michalski, “The EU as a soft power: The force of persuasion”, in J. Melissen (ed.), The new public diplomacy: Soft power in international relations, Houndsmills, Palgrave Macmilllan, 2005, pp. 124-144.

[6] See A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford University Press, 1991.

[7]This section is inspired by the theoretical reflections by Brent Steele, see:  B. Steele Ontological security in international relations, New York, Routledge, 2008.