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Diplomacy and Diplomats

Summary and Keywords

The diplomat is formed in certain socially specific ways, and is defined by the role they play within certain contexts in the field of international relations. Since it is human beings, and not organizations, who practice diplomacy, the diplomats’ social traits are relevant to their work. Historically, diplomats can be defined in terms of two key social traits (class and gender) and how their roles depend on two contexts (bureaucrat/information gatherer and private/public). Before the rise of the state in Europe, envoys were usually monks. With the rise of the state, the aristocracy took over the diplomatic missions. Nonaristocrats were later allowed to assume the role of diplomats, but they needed to be trained, both as gentlemen and as diplomats. From the eighteenth century onwards, wives usually accompanied diplomats stationed abroad, though by the end of the nineteenth century, a few women came to work as typists and carry out menial chores for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). As women became legal persons through performing such labor, they later became qualified to legally serve as diplomats. Meanwhile, in terms of context, the key context change for a diplomat is from “at home” (as in “my home country”) to “abroad.” Historically, work at home is the descendant of bureaucratic service at the MFA, and work abroad of the diplomatic service.

Keywords: diplomats, aristocrats, monks, bourgeoisie, women, context changes, diplomacy, diplomats’ social traits, diplomatic service

The old Roman rule, sede vacante, nihil innovetur, is arguably still valid.

Ragnar Numelin, diplomat and historian



Being a diplomat is often seen as playing a role, with “role” being “the group of norms to which the holder of a role is supposed to subscribe” (Boudon 1979:40). Alternatively, the diplomat may be considered not only as playing a role, but also as a human being whose imperative status is that of being a diplomat. If so, then being a diplomat is more than simply a set of norms which one may or may not follow; it is a subject position, a way of being in the world, an overarching part of one’s identity. Aron specifies the diplomat’s role as follows:

Inter-state relations are expressed in and by specific action, those of individuals whom I shall call symbolic, the diplomat and the soldier. Two men, and only two, no longer function as individual members but as representatives of the collectives to which they belong: the ambassador, in the exercise of his duties, is the political unit in whose name he speaks; the soldier on the battlefield is the political unit in whose name he kills his opposite number.

(Aron 1966:5)

The diplomat, then, is a human being who is formed, and forms himself, in socially specific ways. The definition at the head of all five editions of Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice gives us a clue to what these ways are: “Diplomacy is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states, extending sometimes also to their relations with vassal states” (Satow [1917] 1979:3; compare Nicolson 1963 and Sofer 2000). Hedley Bull specifies further by characterizing the diplomat as

uniquely skilled in gathering a particular kind of information that is essential to the conduct of international relations. This is information about the views and policies of a country’s political leadership, now and in the near future. It is knowledge of personalities rather than of the forces and conditions which shape a country’s policy over the long term. It is knowledge of the current situation and how it is likely to develop rather than of the pattern of past regularities. It derives from day-to-day personal dealings with the leading political strata in the country to which a diplomatist is accredited, sometimes to the detriment of his understanding of society at large in that country.

(Bull 1977:181)

Roles are context specific – their contents change with changes in time, space, and occasion. Furthermore, the role will, in some degree, be filled in different ways by different people. Personal traits will have an impact. Throughout modern diplomacy’s history, a special genre of writing on the “ideal diplomat” has tried to teach par exemplis by holding up a picture of the ideal diplomat (compare Satow’s definition above). Such ideals are unlikely to be fully realized, due both to the limits of socialization and to the field-working diplomat’s being a “professional stranger” (Sofer 1997). We have here a reminder that diplomats are persons, which is to say that they are human beings with specific social traits. Consequently, this essay will review who diplomats have been historically in terms of two key social traits (class and gender) and how their role depends on two contexts (bureaucrat/information gatherer and private/public).


Before the rise of the state in Europe, envoys were usually monks. With the rise of the state, the aristocracy took over the diplomatic missions, and so came to cover the two key roles mentioned by Aron.

In spite of its doubtful rewards and in spite of the haphazard manner in which its members were selected, a diplomatic career seems to have had a peculiar attraction for alert and inquiring minds. It can only have been the fascination of the game of high politics for its own sake which led men of talent and principle to accept and even seek posts as resident ambassadors.

(Mattingly 1955:238)

These are individual motivation factors that may still be observed; “from talking to young new nation diplomats, the reasons for joining their country’s foreign service emerge as fairly basic. The two most common reasons given by far were ‘It’s exciting’, and ‘It gives an opportunity for travelling’” (Clark 1973:247). As postings became permanent, the role transcended that of being on specific “embassies.” The resident diplomat needed traits which were

not contemplated at all in the older theory of diplomacy. He was the man counted upon to influence the policies, or perhaps simply the attitudes, of the government to which he was sent in a sense favourable to his own; to minimise frictions, to win concessions, to achieve co-operation (or, what was sometimes just as valuable, the appearance of co-operation), and, if the worst came to the worst, to sound the first warning that things were getting out of hand, and that other pressures were required.

(Mattingly 1955:253)

Contrary to monks, aristocrats have wives. In the Renaissance, these “were not expected to go on embassies, and by the Venetians not permitted to do so” (Hamilton and Langhorne 1995:51). From the eighteenth century onwards, throughout Europe, the bourgeoisie began to fill the service, and were usually admitted into the nobility for their work. Hamilton and Langhorn (1995:103) point out, however, that “the early Victorian diplomatic service was no more, nor no less, aristocratic than the traditional British political élite as measured by membership of the House of Commons” (Der Derian 1987).


Nonaristocrats needed to be trained, as gentlemen and as diplomats. Note that the most well known handbook on being a diplomat was written in the early eighteenth century by an established writer introducing people to life at the court, namely François de Callières. The earliest attempt at organized training also hails from this time (Keens-Soper 1972), although generally the introduction of training for diplomats only began in the mid-nineteenth century. Fully fledged diplomatic academies are a twentieth-century phenomenon. The academy cohort is a key network on which diplomats draw for rumors, particularly from home when abroad; it is the yardstick of how their careers are progressing, and is to some degree an ingroup from which one watches other cohorts, for example to review respective career advancements.

Nonaristocrats needed to be paid. The first British attachés received payment in 1815, with about half being salaried by 1860 (Anderson 1993:123). It was only after World War I, however, that the number of Etonian entries was halved. Exclusion now came to centre on “Jews, coloured men and infidels, who [. . .] [were] British subjects” (Hamilton and Langhorne 1995:171). This thinking was more or less in evidence throughout Europe, and extended to wives:

Before the First World War the German government considered the social distinction of the ambassador’s wife so important that when it wanted to name a certain Count von Hatzfeldt as ambassador to London, he was informed that before he could be appointed he would have to divorce his American commoner wife of Jewish extraction. Hatzfeldt refused, but eventually agreed to a legal separation for the duration of his assignment.

(Thayer 1960:231)

In Turkey and elsewhere, diplomats who marry foreigners still have to quit the service.

The rise of the bourgeoisie was tied to the rise of nationalism. Nationalism put an end to the practice of recruiting diplomats with foreign citizenships. The same went for soldiers. Remnants of the practice remain in the honorary consul and in the mercenary. With the arrival of the bourgeoisie came additional pressure for openness in the diplomatic and, even more strongly, in the consular service. Sweden published a list of its consuls in 1824, and a full annual list of serving diplomats and employees within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) from 1870 onwards (Anderson 1993:114). Others followed suit, but as with most aspects of openness, Russia is particularly reclusive, and has yet to publish such lists. The merging of European diplomatic, consular, and MFA services which started in Sweden in 1906 further undermined the grip of the aristocracy because, except for its heads, MFA employees had generally been bourgeois from the establishment of those organizations in the eighteenth century (see Hocking 1999; Neumann 2007).


From the eighteenth century onwards, wives usually accompanied diplomats stationed abroad. By the end of the nineteenth century, a few women worked as typists and carried out menial chores. As elsewhere in working life, the typewriter may stand as a symbol for an almost complete re-gendering of the lower writing ranks of the MFAs. As long as writing was an integral part of diplomatic work, it was treated as handling of secrets, and women were not let in on it. With the emerging practice of typewriting, which led to a separation of the authorship of and the writing up of documents, a new social space opened up for women. Note that these were bourgeois women, often recruited by word of mouth.

As women became legal persons, after a lag period they could also legally serve as diplomats (Neumann 2008). American women became legally entitled to be diplomatic and consular civil servants in 1922 and French ones in 1929. In the Scandinavian countries and in Britain, this happened around the time of World War II. During the following decades, the legal barrier to female diplomats was done away with throughout Europe. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, in Scandinavia, half the entries were women.

Two interesting trends from the last two decades are the beginning of an upsurge in the recruitment of people with a minority background, and the headhunting of political activists to join the MFA in mid career.

Context Changes

Barring perhaps the context change from “at home” (as in “home and hearth”) to “at work” (i.e., public/private; see Neumann 2005 and Constantinou 2006), the key context change for a diplomat is from “at home” (as in “my home country”) to “abroad.” Historically, work at home is the descendant of bureaucratic service at the MFA, and work abroad of the diplomatic service.

Work at home has the advantage of being close to the political leadership and to a great number of colleagues, which means that one is well placed to climb the job hierarchy. A key disadvantage is the ever-present risk of being seen simply as a bureaucrat. In France, diplomats do not have their own academy; instead, state servants receive uniform training. This is experienced as a humiliating prospect by diplomats elsewhere. Work abroad, by contrast, offers specific diplomatic work.


Since it is human beings, and not organizations, who practice diplomacy, the diplomats’ social traits are relevant to their work. For example, Meinecke made the point that “It was the diplomat, sending in his reports, who was the acknowledged discoverer of the interests of states [. . .] he found himself compelled to try and bring events, plans, and the possibilities at any particular time, over one common denominator” (Meinecke quoted in Der Derian 1987:103; compare Watson 1984). One way of seeing the field-working diplomat at work is as the producer of the reason of state. Different people, with different social traits, will report different things. A key issue in sociological research, therefore, is to what degree these differences make for different outcomes. It may be that the organizational structure and other people’s expectations about how persons will act are so strong that the importance of personality traits is canceled out. One way to investigate this would be to study foreign representatives of state development agencies, transnational organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations. Such studies would also be comparatively useful, inasmuch as they would illuminate whether the role of diplomat is spreading beyond MFAs and help discussions of topics such as the character of new diplomacy and the continued relevance of MFAs.

Organizations inculcate discipline, bodily comportment, action register. Like all professionals, diplomats try to hold their turf against all comers. For example, they dislike “the spoils system,” by which ambassadorial posts are filled by people from outside the service (this is the rule in the US). And, just as in many other professions – e.g., that other key profession of international life, namely the military – commonalities in organization, training, and practices make for a certain uniformity throughout the globe. In this sense, Hitler was right in complaining that “Diplomats do not represent their countries, but an International Society clique” (quoted in Irving 1978:166). Diplomats specialize in order. That makes them a conserving element of international life.


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                                              Centre for Diplomatic and International Studies at the University of Leicester. At, accessed Apr. 2009. Presents work in the field of diplomatic practices.

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                                              I should like to thank Paul Sharp and David Clinton for comments.