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1The eleventh installment of UNESCO’s collections of short Q&A-based notes includes an article on “The Soft Power of Culture,” which it defines as follows: “Cultural soft power—sometimes referred to as cultural diplomacy—is a form of soft power that strives to foster the exchange of views and ideas, promote knowledge of other cultures, and build bridges between communities.” This fundamentally idealist definition sets aside the strategic nature of soft power-related diplomatic practices that are ultimately aimed at defending national interests through the pursuit of economic or ideological goals. Following Nye’s works on soft power, culture has been elevated by many political scientists to the rank of a resource and a lever of influence in international relations, whether these take place between states or involve nonstate or interstate institutional actors such as international organizations. Because soft power values the communicative dimension of power over traditional resources such as the use of military force, it is associated with the idea of a pacification of international relations, echoing UNESCO’s raison d’être:


In a fragile world, political and economic arrangements of governments are not enough to secure the lasting and sincere support of the peoples. Lasting peace must be founded upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity, human rights and human dignity. It must be founded upon dialogue and mutual understanding. [2]

3Echoing the organization’s constitution, which came into force in 1946—that is, more than three decades before Nye’s work—UNESCO’s discourses clearly seem to speak of what would later be described as “soft power.” There is one difference, however. UNESCO’s discourses do not refer explicitly to the traditional meaning of “soft power” as an alternative tool that weaker actors can call upon to develop influencing strategies and promote their agendas. They confine themselves to likening soft power to a fundamental, or even exclusive, lever for pacifying international relations:


“Hard power” is not enough for peace—we need “soft power” also… Education, freedom of expression, intercultural dialogue…
(Irina Bokova, public lecture at LSE, London, June 2016)


UNESCO fulfils its mission through advocacy for peace and development and through the soft power of persuasion.
(UNESCO conference on Fostering Women’s Empowerment and Leadership, June 2017)


Education is our greatest “soft power” for peace.
(Side-event conference on education during the seventy-second session of the United Nations, September 2017)


UNESCO, a key actor in the “soft power agenda.”
(Irina Bokova, Bocconi University, Italy, 2017) [3]

8At these different conferences and events, UNESCO is presented as being an expert in and a guarantor of soft power: it is apparently a special meeting point for international actors, broadly defined, whose desire is to participate in global affairs while prioritizing discussion in the finest sense of the term.

9Paradoxically, recourse to the soft power argument strengthens the intellectual dimension of this international organization, a descendant of the League of Nations’ International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, part of whose objectives, as well as its archives, were inherited by UNESCO (Renoliet 1999). The argument reassures states that are concerned about the limited scope of soft power’s actions and how innocuous its means are. This tension was underscored by recently-appointed UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, who, in an interview with Challenges magazine, called on people not to be “naive about the use of soft power or the values conveyed.” [4]

10The organization’s claim to expertise in matters of cultural diplomacy has led it to present itself on its French-language website as a “laboratory of ideas… that sets international standards and manages cooperation programs to accelerate mutual understanding among cultures, the free flow of knowledge, and high-quality education for all.” [5] The English-language version of the site also evokes the idea that this organization “serv[es] as a laboratory of ideas,” while the Russian text specifies that “UNESCO acts as a laboratory of ideas” and the Chinese one presents UNESCO as the UN’s crucible of reflection; these elements are only not present in the much more succinct Spanish- and Arabic-language presentations.

11UNESCO intends to play a role as a laboratory of ideas in the pursuit of its fundamental objectives, and to this end it is surrounded by a set of actors brought together in particular via events. Out of these different actors, the expression “think tank” seems to uniformly apply to ones that are disparate in terms of their legal forms and modes of operation and governance, as well as in terms of their political projects and influencing strategies. The mention of think tanks, which are presented as organic stakeholders by UNESCO on its website, reveals a desire on the organization’s part to demonstrate its ability to create dialogue. These communicational objectives have also led UNESCO to sometimes refer to itself as a think tank.

12This article proposes to analyze the epistemic ambiguity surrounding the representation of the role of UNESCO and a nebula of organizations placed together under the denomination “think tanks.” It also describes an ecosystem whose meeting point is the defense of a democratic model of governance that ultimately aims to bring about pluralistic and informed civil societies, in the sense of their being educated and dynamic in terms of political participation.

The intellectual diplomacy of think tanks: An action model for disseminating knowledge

13Setting out from the premise of a semantic confusion between the various bodies that produce ideas and the use of the term “think tanks” in UNESCO’s description of itself, the meanings given to this name and this label by and within UNESCO’s framework are enlightening, even if a large part of the hundred or so occurrences identified on UNESCO’s site come from documents that this international organization has not produced but rather simply given visibility to.

14Beyond UNESCO’s symbolic mission of “building peace in the minds of men and women,” its main remit encompasses both the management of projects and the mediation of knowledge (Rondot 2015a). The organization is a meeting place for various specialists who come together within it to exchange and participate in the production of a body of knowledge, but it also seeks to be recognized for producing knowledge itself via the specialists from its own major programs. UNESCO’s website embodies these two competences: it is able both to mediate (in the sense of mediation) and to mediatize knowledge. It is therefore a particularly fruitful object of study when it comes to observing how UNESCO’s soft power manifests itself, as it offers both proof of and the argument for the organization’s soft power. It provides proof of soft power because it allows the organization to highlight its activities on the international scene, and it provides an argument for it because it shows the immeasurable and unique nature of UNESCO’s own resources, and in particular its power to mobilize. In this regard, the device opted for, a website, plays an important role in staging the organization’s performance. It allows UNESCO both to turn to technical properties (storage that is a priori unlimited, scalability, multilingualism, and so forth) and to be associated with the digital values of freedom, empowerment, reduction of physical distances, and so forth.

15The appearance of the expression “think tank” on UNESCO’s webpages allows the organization to stage itself as the conductor of intellectual diplomacy, which has been defined by Thierry de Montbrial as “a nonstructured form of track II diplomacy” (Montbrial 2011, 16)—that is, an opportunity to demonstrate think tankers’ talent for entering into exchanges not only with their counterparts but also with diplomats and forces labeled as “opposition.” Evoking think tanks makes it possible to summon laudatory images: scientific rigor, debate, innovation, and production of socially useful knowledge on the one hand, but also dynamic engagement in the theater of a “war of ideas,” a violent expression that is hardly compatible with soft power, on the other.

16Most of the references to think tanks on UNESCO’s website appear in documents produced within the framework of specific programs or events. Think tanks most commonly appear on the site on lists, within which they are in a sense equated with a disparate set of actors: “Diplomats and representatives of a range of government agencies, research organizations, think tanks, educators, farming interest groups, NGOS, and UN regional agencies.” [6] In the events program, their presence demonstrates UNESCO’s capacity to mobilize a number of state and nonstate actors that are deemed to be important. This capacity, which is recalled within summary documents, provides a sort of polyphonic gloss to the organization’s discourses, as well as a kind of external guarantee to them. The words of experts therefore demonstrate the organization’s capacity to open up to a given subject’s most sophisticated specialists. Moreover, owing to the exclusion of think tanks from the fuzzy category of “other actors from civil society,” they exist with the same intensity as historical diplomatic actors, and this amounts to an institutionalization of their role in UNESCO’s soft power strategies and indirectly to a certification of the sought-after nature of this label.

17When think tanks are defined in the body of documents that specifically deal with them, they are characterized by their capacity to act in a complex context. The World Social Science Report 2010 (UNESCO 2010) provides illuminating testimony in this regard, via a subsection of a chapter on “Knowledge brokers and think-tanks.” Two articles written by researchers comprise this subsection: “Social science research outside the ivory tower: the role of think-tanks and civil society” by Helmut Anheier, described as the holder of a PhD from Yale University and dean of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin; and “The collapsing space between universities and think-tanks” by Thomas Asher and Nicolas Guilhot, program director at the Social Science Research Council in New York and a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research. Because these articles are written by academics, they are meant to be legitimate in terms of their discourse that denigrates academic research and calls for the production of knowledge that is useful on the basis that it is resolutely axiological and belongs to competition systems aimed at getting the attention of members of decision-making circles and journalists. Traditional media are in effect perceived as powerful echo chambers. Think tanks seem to be legitimized as producers of innovative ideas, because their organizational form is atypical and allows for a great diversity of forms of affiliation, engagement, and participation; modalities for collegial writing; and a diversity of discursive regimes, rhetorical strategies, and editorial formats. This argument is reappropriated by UNESCO when it presents itself in the following terms:


In order to contribute to the development of public policies that will correspond better to changes in society today, UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector acts as a think tank for the world’s nations, with the aim of associating all those concerned by its actions in their formulation and implementation. [7]

19The use of the qualifying expressions “think tank” and “laboratory of ideas” to describe UNESCO could stem from a simple case of an opportunistic semantic confusion combined with indecision over spelling (that is, variability in terms of dashes and capitalization). This use places two objects that are totally different on a footing of equivalence and, in a transversal manner, conveys a particular modality of international public action. Thanks to think tanks, the organization can demonstrate its ability to bring together—and thus to govern—within a political system that is complex, since it includes state and nonstate actors. In claiming for itself the right to describe itself as a “think tank” or a “laboratory of ideas,” it shows its ability to act, and reinvents the axiological dimension of its action. UNESCO must show that it is active by drawing on its universalist values and its highly symbolic purposes, as these are defined in its constitution (Rondot 2015b). The synecdochic effect by which UNESCO claims to be a think tank has a rhetorical power through which the active dimension of an organization besieged by criticism—regarding its immobility, inefficiency, opacity, politicization, and so forth—is implicitly recalled.

20In addition, although the expression “think tank” was a frequent presence in UNESCO’s discourse until 2010, it has appeared more sporadically since then. It has even disappeared from the global reports on the social and human sciences. This disappearance may be considered in the light of the complicated relationship between the United States and UNESCO. In 2010, the United States—that is, a corporatist democratic country that prides itself on its many dynamic and influential think tanks—suspended its financing of UNESCO. The long-dominant discourse that has placed think tanks in a positive light may have been linked to US political benchmarks, which are now contested.

Organic diplomatic relations and mutual legitimation

21In the footsteps of the works of Kelstrup (2016), who questions the heterogeneous category of organizations grouped together under the name “think tank,” there are ambiguities between the political and social functions assigned to think tanks by journalists and members of political decision-making nodes on the one hand, and those to which think tanks make a claim on the other. These permanent organizations that produce and publicize analyses and policy proposals assert the rigor of their methodologies and a certain financial autonomy, as well as an intellectual independence vis-à-vis the public authorities, special interests, and intermediate bodies (political parties, companies, unions). Their legitimation strategy as suppliers of in-depth analyses and analyses of new ideas and relevant operational proposals has its basis in the dynamism of their activity as publishers of a very diverse range of documents (for example, reports and notes). Disseminated via many devices (print, internet, social media), these documents circulate in a media space that knows no national borders. They make a de facto contribution to the intellectual influence of the countries in which they are established. Researchers affiliated with a think tank called the Australian Institute of International Affairs have very keenly asserted the crucial diplomatic role of think tanks in a multicentered world. They evoke: their mediation activities in the context of negotiations and information collection focused on international themes and terrains; the links that they forge with their foreign counterparts, including through transnational cooperation; and their efforts in disseminating their ideas to a wider audience beyond national borders—that is, policy makers and ordinary citizens (Tyler et al. 2017). Think tanks are also active in terms of parallel diplomacy, which indirectly strengthens nation-states’ soft power. Think tanks’ contributions to UNESCO’s events and working groups can in this sense be analyzed as a coherent strategy consisting in the extension of their diplomatic activities. They may present themselves as providers of technical expertise, unofficial spokespersons of their states, and, sometimes, as engaged political actors. The organization offers them an arena in which to make their voices heard, but in addition to this, it cites them extensively, whether or not they are official or informal ventriloquists’ dummies (Cooren 2012) for their countries’ diplomacy.

22In requesting the presence of think tank representatives at its very many forms of activities (working groups, thematic committees, and conferences), UNESCO can delegate to them an important and consensual active role as relays for disseminating or even implementing some of its ideas and projects. Furthermore, this presence is a manifestation of the diversification of UNESCO’s information sources, and it enjoys a form of transferal of authority from think tanks to itself. Against the backdrop of the dissemination of fake news and “alternative” facts for strategic purposes, and in the midst of the traditional media’s experiencing a crisis of authority, think tanks make claims to objectivity and rigor, which makes them appear as providential institutions for the purposes of establishing the authority of a discourse, and this is oddly so both thanks to and in spite of their ability to handle what Øyvind Ihlen (2015) calls a strong symbolic and affective “rhetoric of persuasion.” Although most journalists assert that they take a step back from the texts that they receive from businesses’ communications managers (Kochhar 2018), a handful of them only question the category and the name “think tanks” or go as far as criticizing what think tanks produce in terms of epistemological rigor, objectivity, and instrumentalization by private or elected interests. In the academic sphere, by contrast, Diane Stone (2007) compares think tanks to “recycling bins” for ideas, and Martin Thunert (2000) demonstrates their organic links with stakeholders such as political parties and trade unions. Other researchers have evidenced the overrepresentation of supporters of neoliberal ideology and so-called austerity policies among the ranks of think tanks funded by the philanthropic sector (Plehwe et al. 2018). Although this critical discourse on think tanks remains largely unknown to the general public, their participation in UNESCO’s activities reinforces the image of an organization that serves the dissemination of research output.

23In a subtler way, the organic nature of the link between UNESCO and think tanks allows this international organization to demonstrate its openness to a highly diverse range of actors, and in particular actors from civil society that are supposed to embody modernity and democratic pluralism. The potential for them to exist and their increasing numbers have been analyzed as indicators of countries’ democratic development (McGann and Weaver 2000), which obscures the diversity of their organizational forms and the policy issues that they crystallize, and in particular the ability of authoritarian regimes to create think tanks that they rely on as part of influencing strategies stemming from soft power. These analyses run up against the diminishing presence of US think tanks at UNESCO events to a degree proportional to the United States’ financial disengagement and subsequent departure.

24The organic nature of relations between UNESCO and think tanks stems from the mutual reinforcement of their authority as institutions that are scholarly in nature but open to citizens’ voices, involved but not politicized, and innovative but capable of conveying universal values such as education, knowledge, peace, and pluralism. Discursive analysis of the enunciatory forms and rhetorical strategies present on UNESCO’s website shows that this organization promotes a depoliticized representation of think tanks as primus inter pares within civil society and as bodies that work rigorously and objectively to produce and disseminate immediately applicable political ideas. Borrowing research-writing and political-influence practices alike, these organizations have to present themselves as apolitical to qualify for the status of independent experts (Jezierska 2018). In return, owing to the mere evocation of their participation in a whole series of events, think tanks seem to play a passive role in promoting a certain model of pluralist democracy, which is part of UNESCO’s most sensitive objectives in view of the inclusion of a wide range of political regimes among this organization’s member countries. Beyond the scrubbing out of the subtly prescriptive (Desmoulins and Seignobos 2017) and involved aspects of the literature published by think tanks, the absence of an individual visibility of think tankers in events programs denotes the limited attractiveness of their specific intellectual contributions. Their presence seems more to arise out of a rhetorical and argumentative effect and an opportunity to capitalize on the representations—between expertise and action—associated with them. This pair of arguments seems sensible when it comes to publicizing the organization’s usefulness and thus preventing the risk of insignificance (Devin and Smouts 2011).



UNESCO has an organic relationship with think tanks, one that involves a mutual reinforcing of their respective authority as educational, cultural, and scientific institutions that are open to the voices of citizens and are both involved in world affairs and apolitical. Participating in the activities of an international organization that calls itself a laboratory of innovative ideas and also plays this role, think tanks promote a model of democratic debate, irrespective of the originality and relevance of their proposals.

Reference list

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Lucile Desmoulins
Lucile Desmoulins is an assistant professor of information and communication sciences at Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, and she is affiliated with the Dicen-IDF laboratory. She works on the connection between organizational and strategic communication.
Camille Rondot
Camille Rondot is an assistant professor of information and communication sciences at Celsa Sorbonne Université, and she is affiliated with Gripic. She works on issues related to digital mediations and their corresponding political challenges, particularly in cultural and knowledge institutions.
Uploaded on on 29/08/2019
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