“Quiet diplomacy” refers to one state’s efforts to influence the behavior of another state through discreet negotiations or actions.
Quiet diplomacy operates behind the scenes and may rely on back channeling rather than on public talks. It may also involve deal making and strategic partnerships, involving more carrots than sticks. Quiet diplomacy can also bringing indirect influence to bear on a nation’s leaders through meetings with members of civil society.
Small nations often rely on quiet diplomacy, because they don’t have the military or economic clout to intimidate other nations. But large, powerful countries like the United States also use quiet diplomacy. The expression is close to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous suggestion, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Quiet diplomacy allows powerful countries to offer carrots while still reminding others that the stick is still there.
Back in 2007, for example, the Bush administration was looking to expand its influence in South America and counter the influence of Venezuela’s left-wing president, Hugo Chavez. President Bush went on a tour of South American nations, meeting with leaders to tell them about the kinds of aid the United States could offer them.
“I would call our diplomacy quiet and effective diplomacy — diplomacy all aimed at helping people, aimed at elevating the human condition, aimed at expressing the great compassion of the American people,” the president said at a press conference in Uruguay. The message behind the tour was never spelled out, but it was clear: partnership with the United States could benefit Latin America more than partnership with Chavez.
Quiet diplomacy can be controversial; it’s not always appreciated. In 2011, Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State and was coming under pressure to support women’s rights groups in Saudi Arabia. Clinton routinely described herself as a strong supporter of women’s rights, but she did not use her platform to speak out about the issues affecting women in Saudi Arabia.
Her critics said that she was cowed into silence because of America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. Clinton’s spokespeople, on the other hand, said that she was simply practicing quiet diplomacy. “I don’t think anybody can question the secretary’s commitment to universal human rights for women,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. “I think she is making a judgment on how best to support universal human rights for women. There are times when it makes sense to do so publicly, and there are times for quiet diplomacy.”
President Trump was not generally regarded as a quiet president, but his administration also used quiet diplomacy when necessary. In 2017, the Associated Press reported that the administration was quietly negotiating with North Korea.
In this case, the AP suggested, the president’s “bluster” was also serving as a smokescreen so that back channel talks could continue: “Beyond the bluster, the Trump administration has been quietly engaged in back channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months, addressing Americans imprisoned in the communist country and deteriorating relations between the long-time foes, The Associated Press has learned.”