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Blog Post | Public Diplomacy and the Politics of Uncertainty

In this blog post, Paweł Surowiec and Ilan Manor draw on insights from their edited volume Public Diplomacy and the Politics of Uncertainty.

Populisms, nationalisms, illiberalism and de-democratisation are trends that have fallen on a fertile ground of a culture of connectivity, and have been amplified thanks to the proliferation of digital media platforms. As world politics moves towards hetero-polarity, this shift is accompanied by rage and anxiety. We argue that this latest wave of uncertainty is marked by international politics being consumed with perpetual crises. Due to the simultaneity of emergence of ‘old’ diplomatic tensions and their interplay with ‘new’ digitalised modalities enabling disruption of power relations among diplomatic actors, international politics progressively resembles a networked set of hyperrealities. These conditions are a departure point for the problematisation of public diplomacy as discussed next.


Uncertainty is inherent to international relations (Bas, 2012). But the simultaneity of political shifts brings transnational trends to the forefront. In the conduct of foreign policy, uncertainty affects decision-making and resonates among policy-makers, businesses, consumers and citizens alike, all of which are stakeholders of public diplomacy. Apart from recent hallmark political events that underpin the latest wave of uncertainty – e.g. the annexation of Crimea, Brexit, or Covid-19 global health pandemic - we underscore that hyperrealities of events unfold along multiple communicative trajectories, including grassroots campaigning on foreign policy issues, mediated by public diplomacy, and reported by news media. Mirrored by hybrid media landscapes, these hyperrealities add more credence to ontology for (un)masking the political ‘other’, and terms as ‘global power of simulation’ (Der Derian, 1994). For example, Armenia, Nicaragua and Belarus recognise the newly proclaimed Republic of Crimea, whereas Western Ministries of Foreign Affairs do not.

Second, intrigued by the paradoxical promise of certainty, defining the ‘instrumentarian power’ of digital media technology giants as ‘the certain solution to uncertain societal conditions’ (Zuboff, 2019, p. 384), we consider the role of digitalisation in evoking global uncertainty. Indeed, hierarchical state power is ‘disrupted’ by the logic of digital networks and big data. In the interaction with diplomacy and statecraft, they reconfigure ‘soft power’ as collaborative but increasingly formless, unstable, and disruptive (Owen, 2015). Herein lies the paradox: as the promise of certainty and opportunities for global ‘diplomatic’ conversations became the mantra in the study of public diplomacy - fragmented news stories, the exposure to which is altered by algorithms, fracture users’ media diets as well as political realities. Segments of the population can be targeted by external campaigns causing societal discord (Hall Jamieson, 2018).

Third, the growing complexities of crises oftentimes lead to paralysis in the institutions tasked with ensuring stability of the world order, e.g. the UN Security Council cannot solve the Syria and Yemen crises; the European Union (EU) is obstructed by illiberal political trends in Poland and Hungary; the Organization for Security and Cooporation in Europe (OSCE) is paralysed by the Crimea crisis; and the Trump presidency left NATO’s fate unclear. These developments unfold at a time when US leadership and public diplomacy are severely underplayed (Surowiec and Miles, 2020). In the United Kingdom, France, Germany and even Japan, long-held political values and democratic institutions undergo internal shocks due to external events. In other cases, the established political actors weaponise uncertainty to obtain their goals. Similarly, populist political actors undermine diplomatic relations, disrupting agreements, and launching disinformation and propaganda campaigns overseas (Bjola and Pamment, 2018).


In order to situate this practice within its present-day milieu and put the ‘political’ back in public diplomacy, we define ‘the politics of uncertainty’ as the episteme foregrounding hyperrealities of a heteropolar world order characterised by the weakening of global leadership, competitive struggles of regional powers, highly particularised interests of political actors and the governance modes focusing on a perpetual crisis. As a sociality in international politics, uncertainty in these settings is amplified by fragmented realities endemic to a global hybrid media landscape, and by an inherent incalculability and interdeterminacy of the outcomes of diplomacy and statecraft.

So What?

The evidence provided in our volume points to complex challenges faced by public diplomacy. Notwithstanding the crisis of soft power associated with being hijacked by authoritarian statecraft (Walker, 2016), we find that state and non-state public diplomacy actors face strategic cultural challenges in overcoming sensibilities of the politics of uncertainty, which are captured by four distinct themes. First, the emergence of international narratives of uncertainty goes beyond the manipulative traits of propaganda practice, as it focuses on making an enemy of the truth – not merely undermining it. For example, following Trump’s presidency, defined by public attacks on political realities, the US could not adapt foreign policy, unless it contested its role in international politics, and articulated a new strategic narrative.

Second, the reduction of trust on national levels reinforces the need for public diplomacy. In a globalised world, characterised by free flow of people, goods, services and capital, trust is imperative. By the same token, lack of trust breeds suspicion and impairs international collaborations. For example, since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the UK has been trying to re-forge its reputation, from the ‘petulant child’ of the EU, to becoming a ‘freelance global player’. Third, the theme of blurring boundaries in public diplomacy, first marked by affordances of social media, is extended by public diplomacy of cities embracing existential foreign policy issues, shifting the boundaries of the practice and warranting consideration from its practitioners. Four, the nexus of uncertainty – ways in which individual, national and global uncertainty affect one another, are reshaping landscapes in which public diplomacy must be practised. These processes manifest themselves in a myriad of ways ranging from nations’ inability to adopt shared narratives to the rise of autocrats capitalizing on feelings of fear and insecurities.

We argue that the study of public diplomacy requires wider ontological, epistemological and axiological conceptualisations that capture and explain power relations driven by this process, going beyond the nitty-gritty of digitalisation. What is more, existing taxonomies of public diplomacy (Efe, 2017; Ayhan, 2018; Cull, 2019) require expanding beyond foreign policy goals or actor-specific approaches, to frameworks that consider particularities of media landscapes and socialities transcending international politics.

With the burgeoning discussion on the politics of uncertainty (e.g.  Scoones & Stirling, 2020) illustrating that uncertainty pertains to complex constructions of knowledge, resources, experiences and values, public diplomacy needs to go beyond narratives and focus more on diplomatic action, rather than merely depicting diplomatic action online. Moreover, combating uncertainty may be obtained by helping publics make sense of a world that seems prone to crisis and paralysis. Public diplomacy must adopt a new language that mediates and demystifies global events such as China’s Soft Rise or the ‘The New Game’ in Southeast Asia.

This post draws its insight from the recent book Public Diplomacy and the Politics of Uncertainty published by Palgrave Macmillan edited by Surowiec and Manor.

Paweł Surowiec, PhD, (@PawelSurowiec) is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield, UK, specialising in strategic communication, public diplomacy and political campaigning in the context of international politics. He is the author of ‘Nation Branding, Public Relations and Soft Power: Corporatising Poland’ (Routledge, 2017), and editor of ‘Social Media and Politics in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Routledge, 2019) and ‘Public Diplomacy and the Politics of Uncertainty’ (Palgrave, 2021).

Ilan Manor, PhD, (@Ilan_Manor) is a member of Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group and is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Communication. He is the author of The Digitalization of Public Diplomacy (Palgrave, 2019) and Are We There Yet? Have MFAs Realized the Potential of Digital Diplomacy (Brill, 2016).

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