The field of cultural diplomacy, which looms large in present-day cultural policy and discourse, has been insufficiently analysed by the cultural disciplines. This special issue of the International Journal of Cultural Policy engages with the task of filling the gap. The present essay sets out the terms in which the authors have taken up this engagement, focusing principally on Australia and Asia. Distinguishing between cultural diplomacy that is essentially interest-driven governmental practice and cultural relations, which is ideals-driven and practiced largely by non-state actors, the authors pursue a twofold aim. First, to demystify the field, especially when it is yoked to the notion of ‘soft power’; second, to better understand how actually-existing discourses of cultural diplomacy and/or cultural relations operate in different national contexts. The essay seeks in particular to scrutinize the current confusion surrounding cultural diplomacy and, in the context of the changing role of the nation-state, to explore its possibilities as an instrument for going beyond the national interest.