In virtually no time, sub-states from across the globe have warmly welcomed the notion of public diplomacy and have started developing it in high gear. Compared to national governments they are relative late bloomers, but they have been catching up by immediately striving for more contemporary approaches to public diplomacy. In the long run, pushing public diplomacy development at a breakneck pace is no blueprint for success, however. While the future of sub-state public diplomacy holds potential, there remain several challenges to overcome.




It has become commonplace over the last decade for the (new) public diplomacy literature to claim that states are not the sole governmental actors in public diplomacy, and that public diplomacy no longer resides solely within the sphere of governments.[2] Scholarly pleas to involve a multitude of players other than the ‘traditional’ actors of national governments in public diplomacy have resonated with sub-states. Though not the only newcomers in public diplomacy, they bridge the gap between state and non-state actors. Though like nation-states, sub-states cover territory within which the population and governmental structures are associated with their authority, their powers do not reach the threshold of traditional sovereign nation-states. Sub-states are diverse and run the gamut from the American states, the German and Austrian Länder, the Canadian and Italian provinces, the Belgian communities and Swiss cantons to the Spanish and Czech regions, and sub-states such as Scotland and Greenland, which are part of the UK and Demark respectively.

They have been shaped by specific socio-cultural and politico-economic climates, different constitutional structures and vary in their international relations competencies. While these intrinsic features make it hard to generalize such a diverse group, they nevertheless share common features in the field of public diplomacy. This essay briefly explains why sub-states show interest in public diplomacy, why their seeming disadvantages can turn out to be advantages, and why, though their future may look bright, it holds potential long-term pitfalls.




Broader Context and Narratives


Five years ago sub-states did not readily employ public diplomacy terms, yet in virtually no time several from across the globe have embraced the notion of public diplomacy and have started developing it rapidly. In little time it has grown to be an increasingly high priority on sub-states’ foreign policy agendas. With this in mind, while they may be considered relative late bloomers, especially when compared with national governments, they are not complete strangers to the practice of public diplomacy. Many activities related to public diplomacy developed in sub-states before the term ‘public diplomacy’ was adopted such as nation-building, (re)branding efforts and international cultural, tourism, economic and education promotion. When scholars consider sub-states to be newcomers, they are mostly referring to how public diplomacy has become an integral part of their foreign policy vocabulary, structures and strategies.

This magazine’s home state of California illustrates this. While since the 1970s it has been ranked among the world’s ten largest economies, and despite the Senate office of International Relations’ attempts at using a variety of non-binding policy tools (such as sister-state relationships and exchange programmes), this US state’s public diplomacy continues to be developed in a somewhat unsystematic and scattered fashion within its daily commitment to promoting political, economic, educational and cultural relations.[3]

This being noted, sub-states’ general interest in and rapid development of public diplomacy has to be understood within a broader context. Their interest in public diplomacy has not occurred in a vacuum.  Public diplomacy has been affected by broader tendencies in society that influence foreign-policy making and diplomacy, of which it is an intrinsic part.  It may in fact even be merging with diplomacy, as the latest round of public diplomacy scholarship increasingly suggests.[4] In brief, several tendencies have increased sub-states’ international exposure, such as: foreign policy democratization, decentralization, and the expansion of international policy competences to government levels that traditionally have had only a domestic mandate. While sub-state diplomacy (also previously labeled ‘para-diplomacy’) has come of age over the last decades, it is especially within the context of a so-called ‘third wave of sub-state diplomacy’ (referring to a blurring of boundaries in diplomatic activity between central and non-central governments)[5] that developing public diplomacy has gained traction among sub-states.

This is perhaps unsurprising when the underlying narrative behind sub-states’ interest in public diplomacy is exposed.  After all, effective public diplomacy increases the influence of those with little traditional power. Public diplomacy empowers them to influence and shape the international agenda in ways that go beyond their politico-economic capabilities and their lack of hard-power resources. It also allows them to increase positive perceptions of their distinctiveness at home (within the nation-state of which they are a part) and abroad. For sub-states, public diplomacy’s significance is threefold. It is a means of (1) self-legitimization and expansion of its international exposure and roles; (2) integrating and coordinating foreign policy initiatives and working more horizontally across sectors; and (3) building upon initiatives which come from their civil societies and of recognizing their contribution to the sub-states’ international relations and image. Moreover, with sub-states, less can become more as their apparent disadvantages can turn out to be advantages.

Less is More


In the field of public diplomacy sub-states appear to have certain advantages over nation-states.

The fact that they are relative newcomers to the field can be a blessing in disguise. They can learn from national governments’ historical evolutions and know-how as well as their mistakes and initially avoid similar problems in coping with changes in diplomacy. They carry neither nation-states’ outdated bureaucratic baggage nor commitments to dated public diplomacy norms which have fallen behind the evolving environment and which hinder further progress.

The less power sub-states have in traditional terms, the greater the importance they place on public diplomacy in their foreign policy agendas. This provides them an alternative to traditional diplomatic paths and can help consolidate their position on the international stage. The fact that they have fewer (human) resources than nation-states not only forces them to bundle their efforts around specific niches, priority themes, audiences, and geographic areas, but also pushes them to rely on their citizens as partners in public diplomacy and move ahead with multi-actor approaches.

A few of the most telling examples illustrate how sub-states have sought to put public diplomacy into practice over the years. To a certain extent it also demonstrates the cascade effect in sub-states’ development of public diplomacy wherein sub-states influence one another through policy transfer.

Some Examples


One of the early trendsetters in a more systematic and strategic approach to sub-state public diplomacy has been Canada’s province of Quebec. In 2007, the Ministry of International Relations’ public diplomacy division developed a public diplomacy strategy and action plan wherein public diplomacy perceived as a “specific way of working abroad”: within pre-existing constructs; on a policy objective; with partners; through influence-networks and with follow-up and measures. In the implementation of this approach and the further maturing of its public diplomacy, Quebec aims to identify the links between pre-existing activities containing public diplomacy components and strategically connect them in a content-wise fashion to its international policy and its U.S. and European strategy. For example, the division launched two three-year long-term pilot projects focusing on climate change and the associated role of regional governments, including a series of complementary and issue-specific public diplomacy activities. Shorter term projects that link cultural activities to public diplomacy have also been developed. Public diplomacy therein needed to more strategically associate cultural activities of representations abroad with an international policy theme. Nowadays the distinction between short and long term has become less relevant through support for medium term projects while public diplomacy’s domestic and digital components have gained attention.[6]

Among sub-states, the Government of the Flemish community in Belgium utilizes far-reaching legislative competences in international relations. Partly inspired by Quebec, the Flemish department for Foreign Affairs’ communication branch has developed a public diplomacy plan with strong attention paid to economic, academic and cultural sectors. It reaches out to the international community through its customized and theme-related ‘Flanders Inspires International Visitors Program’ and a structural agreement with the Flemish expat organization ‘Flanders in the World.’ It recently established an agreement with the rectors of the universities in Flanders to support them through a coordinated action plan and by aiding them financially in liaising with peers abroad (Flanders Knowledge Area). Additionally, it has also delivered on efforts to broaden domestic public support for its foreign policy. Examples of this include the integration of a strategic advisory council of non-governmental experts in the department; a fixed budget for EU sensitizing actions prior to the Belgian presidency of the European Union Council; the remembrance of the 100th celebration of the great war of 1914-1918; and digital policy discussions held within the context of the Flanders in Action 2020 Pact.

The autonomous region of Catalonia in Spain, built upon Quebec’s and Flanders’ experiences while customized to its specific cultural context and constellation, dedicated numerous pages to public diplomacy in its Foreign Affairs Strategy of 2010-2015 wherein it suggested that its public diplomacy ought to face inwards and outwards at the same time and is transversal in nature. In the beginning, there were attempts by the recently unfolded directorate for ‘International Promotion of Catalan Organizations’ to institutionalize public diplomacy in an administrative unit in the government’s Ministry of External Affairs and Cooperation. A public-private consortium, the Catalan Council of Public Diplomacy (before April 2012 known as the Patronat Catalunya Món), is responsible for the creation, implementation, and generation of synergies between different public and private entities active in public diplomacy. Next to public diplomacy training for students of international relations, it currently organizes consultations, workshops, and public forums with stakeholders in various foreign policy areas to seek agreement on a public diplomacy action plan in which these civil society actors are simultaneously public diplomacy partners. Besides the ongoing and familiar support for the internationalization of Catalan sport, multilateral and other non-governmental partners, the modernization of Catalan communities abroad is another example of Catalan public diplomacy.

In 2009 Greenland moved from ‘home rule’ to ‘self-governance’ status within the Kingdom of Denmark. With limited official representation abroad, it has undertaken public diplomacy action in cooperation with non-governmental organizations in order to profile itself internationally in specific niches such as international Arctic policy, indigenous rights and international fisheries agreements. Its government is currently considering creating positions for public diplomacy with a strong domestic component.  As has been the case in Greenland (prior to, during and after its self-governance referendum), a convergence of public diplomacy activity at home and abroad in moving towards greater autonomy can be expected to appear in other sub-states with similar ambitions, such as Scotland. As part of Great Britain, Scotland has mainly developed public diplomacy within the context of its broader nation branding strategy in the areas of culture, economics, tourism and education. Many of its public involvement actions, both at home and abroad, are also concentrated around its Action Plan on European Engagement, which is also a stepping stone in Scotland’s current quest for independence.

Sub-states’ public diplomacy may not yet have generated a critical mass of programs, has room for improvement and maturation, and non-Western cases need further exploration. Nevertheless, even a glance at some of the present examples indicates that once sub-states get the ball rolling, public diplomacy evolves quite quickly and boldly – in the sense that it has sought to think outside of the box of the so-called ‘old-style’ public diplomacy of linear communication with foreign audiences in favor of cooperation with a panoply of non-state actors on international issues of shared concern. The question of what to expect for the future of sub-state public diplomacy can be raised. At the risk of oversimplifying, the glass can be seen as half full or half empty.


Looking Ahead: Potentials and Pitfalls


From a forward looking – and somewhat optimistic – perspective, it can be expected that in the near future these examples will no longer be exceptions to the rule. Over the next decade it is probable that peers will follow suit, and more importantly, innovate. There are at least three likely developments for sub-states’ public diplomacy’s near future.

First, more sub-states will seek to move their public diplomacy beyond reputation management and the crafting of information tools towards foreign policy cooperation and networking. Second, more of them will develop overall strategies to add focus to pre-existing activities by aligning them to one another and foreign policy content, and by filling specific niches. Third, more of them will initially include a domestic dimension in their public diplomacy so as to turn at-home citizens into partners in the public diplomacy conducted abroad. While there remains dissent among scholars as to whether public diplomacy ought to include a domestic dimension, or said otherwise, involve its domestic constituencies both as publics and partners in foreign policy input and output processes, sub-states seem to show less tentativeness towards this evolution than national governments.[7] Due to limited representation abroad and a lack of resources, greater investments will likely go into alignment of public involvement practices at home and abroad as this could provide a competitive advantage to do more with less. Faster and more, however, is no guarantee of better.

Despite the potential, the distant future of sub-states’ public diplomacy will not necessarily be rosy. It could also become a flash in the pan, as there are several challenges to surmount. A few are mentioned below.

First, sub-states may be tempted to readjust somewhat outdated risk-averse practices of nation states in the implementation of their newly established public diplomacy strategies. Though there are many, the means with which to put public diplomacy into practice are not endless. While the ‘new’ (public) diplomacy literature has emphasized innovation from non-traditional actors, the most recent literature on the future of diplomacy also points towards a readjustment of national governments’ practices by new non- and sub-state actors alike. In short, understanding multi-actor and network relational public diplomacy ideals appears to be much easier than putting them into practice, even at the sub-state level. Trendsetting Quebec’s long-term pilot project designs reveal ambitions for policy networking and cooperation, but its execution has relied on comfortable formulae such as journalist visits and official government representation at conferences that have not been extended. The Flanders in Action policy e-discussions have also not appeared to have delivered the desired response, due to a lack of transparency and follow-up. There is also a risk that the long term projects which are fundamental in relationship building with foreign publics will be replaced by short-term ones that deliver quicker results.

In an earlier contribution on this matter,[8] it was noted that there remains a risk that sub-states will become mired in the means by which they conduct public diplomacy. Namely, that identity-related public diplomacy risks becoming a euphemism for marketing communication; institutionalized public diplomacy for corporate communication; and public diplomacy’s domestic dimension for public affairs. Over the years these last two have been shown to be less troublesome than the first. Sub-states’ current attention to nation branding approaches of public diplomacy (e.g. Catalonia, Scotland and Flanders’ brand policies and Quebec’s ‘gestion de l’image’ plan to provide a more integrated image of the region) holds potential for extensive public consultation and bottom-up involvement of civil society stakeholders to reach out to foreign peers on shared foreign policy concerns. It also runs the risk of being solely developed as a quick fix for internal social issues and for ‘rectifying’ a specific international image – as per the desires of the government – and if developed as such will struggle to succeed.

Second, sub-states tend to develop public diplomacy out of identity-related interests, but appear to have difficulty stepping away from the idea that their society’s nature and identity is not as homogeneous as it once was.  After all, sub-states are not disconnected from larger tendencies in societies which are growing more heterogeneous and which increasingly consist of more diffuse populations such as diaspora communities. Civil societies are also believed to be gradually evolving into more pluralistic and transnational areas of personal interest, which challenge notions of distinctiveness founded solely on traditional geopolitical grounds.[9] Contemporary or future (public) diplomacy is arguably also evolving from territoriality towards more virtual forms of authority grounded in symbolic systems, such as expertise which is not necessarily related to a specific territory.[10] The future of sub-states’ public diplomacy will presumably encounter the need to increasingly learn to deal with identity pluralism, rather than distinctiveness on the basis of past identities, in the input and output phases of foreign policy making. While there is no space to go into detail here, this begs further research on how future sub-state public diplomacy will challenge tensions along the lines of territorial versus non-territorial representation, or whether it will put these tensions into greater perspective.

Third, the strategy of creating distinctiveness through public diplomacy may for other reasons not offer a long-term solution. To avoid becoming counterproductive in the long-term, sub-states – and indeed any governmental actors – need to look at the bigger picture of public diplomacy which offers no venue for competition increases. Governments, regardless of level, are trying to reach out to their sometimes overlapping foreign publics and their ‘own’ citizens, but this sometimes appears to interfere with interactions between governments despite pre-existing consultative bodies within the political system. Parallel development of public diplomacy risks failure when it is directed at the same public opinion but serves different international agendas and strives for different kinds of social cohesion. In the long term this can hamper efficiency and damage credibility. Bluntly put, though this might stand in opposition to common sense, thinking ahead to further progress in the development of the public diplomacy of sub-states also means stressing the necessity of centering the pendulum. Adoption of a multi-actor model which outsources to non-governmental actors should not be detrimental to interaction between governments.

The ‘new diplomacy’ literature has put much focus on the potential of non-traditional actors such as sub-states and their difference from and even power to undermine or replace traditional actors (nation-states). More recent contributions to this debate on the future of diplomacy, which is gradually finding its way into public diplomacy literature, better puts this view into perspective. It increasingly describes traditional and non-traditional (public) diplomacy actors as part of an evolving configuration of social relations wherein old and new practices coexist in a mutually constitutive relationship.[11] The latter lies at the core of the future of public diplomacy and moves beyond categorical thinking of ‘old’ and ‘new’ towards the development of insights on the intersections and relations between actors in public diplomacy.

Finally, when looking to public diplomacy’s future and the enthusiasm it sparks among ‘new’ actors such as sub-states it is also worth mentioning that despite its popularity and functional value, public diplomacy may also slowly become a victim of its own success. The more popular it has become and the more it has been a fertilizer of change, the more it has been applied to different contexts and by different actors; gradually turning it into a blanket term and hollowing out its meaning. The more it is considered to be ‘a way of working’ in the diplomatic practices of various actors, the less relevant distinguishing the term from diplomacy, or even considering it as a totally separate field, becomes.



Sub-states have an interest in public diplomacy because it allows them to expand their international exposure and increase awareness of their distinct identity. They may be late bloomers, but have begun to catch up by immediately aiming for more multi-actor and network relational modes of public diplomacy, which are more in tune with the demands of a global governance agenda in which national governments are no longer the sole players. In the near future it can be expected that much more sub-state public diplomacy will be seen, but in the long run faster and more programs are not necessarily a guarantee of better public diplomacy. While innovation in public diplomacy can come from the least expected of corners, if sub-states fail to address the potential big picture speed bumps of a collaborative public diplomacy then they risk merely being part of the public diplomacy crowd rather than the drivers of change in the future of public diplomacy.


Ellen Huijgh is a visiting scholar at Carleton University in Canada and conducts doctoral research through the University of Antwerp in Belgium and the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael. She has worked with several governments, especially at the sub-national level, to establish and implement their public diplomacy and domestic outreach strategies.


[1] This essay builds upon the author’s interviews with representatives of sub-national governments and speeches on the future of sub-state public diplomacy, such as from the Association of Public Diplomacy Scholars Conference on The Future of Public Diplomacy (University of Southern California, 6th April 2012), the International Studies Association Annual Conference’s panel on 21st Century Public Diplomacy: Looking Ahead (Montreal, 17th March 2011), the EU Committee of the Regions International Workshop on a ‘third wave’ in Sub-State Diplomacy (Brussels, 19th January 2010). The author wishes to thank several sub-national governments, particularly California, Catalonia, Flanders, Greenland, Québec and Scotland for their cooperation and their sharing of insights and information.

[2] See Jan Melissen “Public Diplomacy,” in Pauline Kerr and Geoff Wiseman (eds.) Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[3] See Ezilda Samoville, speaking notes of the Director, California State Senate Office of International Relations, on California’s public diplomacy at the seminar on ‘Foreign and External Relations of Federated Entities,’ organized by the Conference of European regions with legislative power and the Forum of Federations, 19 September 2009; Jian Wang, “Localising Public Diplomacy: The Role of Sub-national Actors in Nation Branding”, Place Branding (2006) 2, pp. 32–42.

[4] See for example Bruce Gregory, “American Public Diplomacy: Enduring Characteristics, Elusive Transformation,” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy (2011) 6, no. 3-4, p. 353.

[5] See David Criekemans (ed.), Regional Sub-state Diplomacy Today (Leiden-Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2010).

[6] See Ellen Huijgh, “The Public Diplomacy of Federated Entities: Examining the Quebec Model”, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy (2010) 5, no.1-2, pp. 125-50 and “S’ouvrir aux public étrangers: la diplomatie publique Québécoise”,  Québec Studies Journal (2011) 52, pp. 137-152.

[7] See Ellen Huijgh “Changing Tunes for Public Diplomacy: Exploring the Domestic Dimension,” Exchange: Journal for Public Diplomacy (2011)2, no. 1, pp. 62-74.

[8] See Huijgh (2010) Public Diplomacy of Federated Entities, pp. 137-140.

[9] Beate Kohler-Koch, “Civil Society Contribution to Democratic Governance: A Critical Assessment”, In Beate Kohler-Koch, Dirk De Bièvre, William Maloney (eds.), Opening EU-Governance to Civil Society. Gains and Challenges (Mannheim: Connex, 2008) p. 12.

[10] Ole Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot and Iver B. Neumann, “The Future of Diplomacy,”  International Journal (2011)66, no. 4, p. 537.

[11] Sending, Vincent Pouliot and Neumann (2011) Future of Diplomacy, p. 535; Stuart Murray, Paul Sharp, Geoffrey Wiseman, David Criekemans, Jan Melissen, “The Present and Future of Diplomacy and Diplomatic Studies,” International Studies Review (2011)13, no. 4, pp. 709–728.