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Summary and Keywords

Both historical and contemporary trends suggest that the meaning of diplomacy varies considerably over time and across space. Diplomacy is defined neither by the types of actors on behalf of which it is undertaken nor by the status of those actors vis-à-vis one another, in the sense of their being, for example, sovereign and equal. There are, however, four common threads underlying these historical variations on diplomacy. The first is an assumption about the necessarily plural character of social relations, namely that people live in groups which regard themselves as separate from, yet needing or wanting relations with, one another. The second is that this plural social fact gives rise to relations that are somehow distinctive to and different from relations within groups. People believe and feel themselves to be under fewer obligations to those whom they regard as others than to those whom they regard as their own. Third, therefore, if these relations are to remain peaceful and productive, they require careful handling by specialists who should be treated neither as one’s own nor, at least in the usual sense, as others. Fourth, these specialists develop a measure of solidarity as the managers of relations in worlds distinguished by the plural social fact. Where these four elements are in play, then there emerges a system of relations which can be recognized as having the character of diplomacy.

Keywords: diplomacy, plurality, social relations, diplomats, system of relations, states, state system


Diplomacy is conventionally understood to be a set of institutions and processes by which states represent themselves and their interests to one another in a states system or society. Relations between sovereign states bound by no common authority have been traditionally regarded as having a tense and potentially violent character and it is this that the priorities and the skills of diplomats have been developed to address and manage. Even in peaceful times, therefore, and even when relations are good, diplomacy and diplomats retain something of an aura of prestige in the public eye from their long association with the power and danger of interstate relations. However, since something like diplomacy clearly predates the modern European states system, since more and more actors besides states are increasingly said to be engaging in diplomacy, and since, as Bull notes, most of us have a notion of what it means for people to act diplomatically in everyday life, the exclusive association of diplomacy with the relations of states is untenable and becoming increasingly so (Bull 1977; Cohen and Westbrook 2000).

The historical record and contemporary trends both suggest that the answers to the questions “what is diplomacy?” and “who may properly be said to conduct it?” vary considerably over time and across space. That this is so raises two general questions. How have conceptions of diplomacy varied, and what, if anything, may be said to be common, or even essential, to all of them? The historical variation is considerable. Diplomacy is defined neither by the types of actors on behalf of which it is undertaken nor by the status of those actors vis-à-vis one another, in the sense of their being, for example, sovereign and equal. What all instances of it seem to presume and affirm, however, is the following four elements. The first is an assumption about the necessarily plural character of social relations, namely that people live in groups which regard themselves as separate from, yet needing or wanting relations with, one another. The second is that this plural social fact gives rise to relations that are somehow distinctive to and different from relations within groups. People believe and feel themselves to be under fewer obligations to those whom they regard as others than to those whom they regard as their own. Third, therefore, if these relations are to remain peaceful and productive, they require careful handling by specialists who should be treated neither as one’s own nor, at least in the usual sense, as others. Fourth, these specialists develop a measure of solidarity as the managers of relations in worlds distinguished by the plural social fact. Where these four elements are in play, we will find a system of relations which we would recognize as having the character of diplomacy.

While it is difficult to conceive of diplomacy existing or operating in the absence of these four elements, however, there exists great variation in people’s views of their significance, especially as to whether the plural social fact is a condition which should be viewed as permanent, ubiquitous, desirable, and good. Until recently, the majority of people who thought about diplomacy – echoing the majority of those who reflected on international relations in general – took it to be a universal, if not quite timeless, truth about human beings and one which somehow naturally resulted in a world of sovereign states as its most developed expression. One might embrace the world of states, like Herder, as an authentic expression of God’s diverse creation, or accept it reluctantly, as Wight and other traditional liberals did, as an arrangement which, in spite of its problems, represents the best that human beings can achieve, given who they are and the circumstances in which they find themselves (Wight 1991; Herder 1996). Whether one embraced the state system gladly or acknowledged it reluctantly, however, there it was, evolved in all its terrible glory and imposing its own distinctive discipline upon the relations of human beings.

The consequences of this “stateized” version of the plural fact are clearest in the realist tradition of international thought, where diplomacy is presented as an emanation of states: that is to say, necessarily inscribed with their priorities, interests, and assumptions about what is important. Thus, Morgenthau is remembered for his view of diplomacy as an instrument of foreign policy, not for the part it might play in the escape from anarchy, for which he also called (Morgenthau 1948). Kissinger views diplomacy as foreign policy and statecraft effectively and consciously conducted in accordance with certain principles inherent in any system of sovereign states (Kissinger 1994). And Aron, insofar as he may be regarded as a realist, presents the diplomat as an archetypal international actor complementing, and complemented by, the soldier (Aron 1966).

However, there are at least three alternative ways of understanding and evaluating this plural fact and its claims about the character of relations between groups, as opposed to within them, which have profound effects on the way diplomacy may be viewed. The most obvious and longstanding are those traditions of thought which regard it as neither natural nor permanent. In these views, the plural fact of human life, such as it is, exists in tension with another fact, that of human solidarity, which is presented as at least as important (Vincent 1974; Dunne and Wheeler 1999). People may live in groups for some purposes, but for others they may be regarded, and often regard themselves, as one species or family.

Indeed, their solidarity, in these senses, is often presented as a morally and practically superior condition, attainable perhaps, and desirable certainly, for human miseries such as war and exploitation can be traced back to people’s ability to regard one another as alien and, hence, not deserving of being treated as full human beings. To the extent that this is so, then all diplomacy, but state diplomacy especially, falls under a cloud of suspicion (Connolly 1915). While there is little disagreement with the conventional view set out above about what it does, there is great disagreement about its significance. Rather than as a practice for coping with the facts of humanity’s plural existence, diplomacy is seen as a means, equipped with its own rationale, for keeping people apart who might otherwise be together. It is a practice that helps alienate them from one another and, perhaps, from their own selves (Der Derian 1987). In these views, therefore, while diplomacy may have some permanent characteristics, the conditions that give rise to it do not, and human progress could conceivably involve its eventual disappearance.

In contrast, the second alternative way of viewing diplomacy results from those traditions of thought which regard the plural fact more positively and, indeed, exhibit a measure of suspicion towards solidarist claims when these are made in universal terms. The hallmark of these approaches, however, is that they reject the conventional assumption that pluralism finds its only possible, or best possible, expression in a system of sovereign states (Constantinou 1996). The case is made by appeals to history, reason, the exercise of moral imagination, and the facts of contemporary international relations as these are widely understood. There are now and have always been more actors than sovereign states engaged in international relations, and all the evidence suggests that we live at a time when the participation of “non-state” actors in international relations is on the increase.

An important implication of this view is that something, which we may usefully call diplomacy, can be seen to exist, in principle at least, separately from a sovereign state system. Indeed, a sovereign state system might be usefully viewed as but one example of a diplomatic system, one way of doing diplomacy. The qualifiers are necessary, however, because it remains extraordinarily difficult to describe this non-state diplomacy. What, for example, should we expect the diplomacy of a firm, a humanitarian organization or a religious movement to look like? Would it reflect a tendency of non-states, as they become actors with international standing, to act more like states concerned with multiple interests, together with their own independence and dignity? Or would the diplomatic relations, in an increasingly non-state world, start to become more like other relations and lose whatever distinctive qualities they might be said to have?

This latter possibility lies at the heart of the third alternative way of understanding diplomacy, namely in environmental or ecological terms. Here, the focus shifts from how people see one another to their relationships with the physical and biological world they inhabit, their scientific and technical responses to its challenges and opportunities, and the consequences of these responses for their relations with one another. The story from these perspectives is very often told in developmental terms. Yet, until very recently, nothing in these developments was thought to undermine the plural social fact of separate, hierarchically organized human communities living in bounded physical spaces. The increasing application of science to techniques of traveling, communicating, and sharing information may have changed the extent and scope of these communities. Whether they were hunter-gatherer bands, continent-sized national states, or something in between, however, all of them existed in a particular space and maintained a sense of what and who were inside and outside that space. And beyond a simple level of development, all of them exhibited hierarchy as the preferred method of effecting collective action.

Now, however, we can see the emergence of non-spatially bounded human communities that have come into being as it has become easier to transfer large quantities of information cheaply and instantaneously over great distances. One consequence of these developments has been a degree of disaggregation of many long-established types of human groups and communities. Nevertheless, new aggregations have emerged and continue to do so, and thus the possibility of something recognizable as diplomacy under such conditions still exists, although we might have to become re-used to the idea of diplomatic relations in the vertical as well as the horizontal plane. It might also be, however, that under these developing conditions, the plural fact of people living in groups is giving way to social life in networks whose nodes are too transient and unstable to acquire the fictive identities of collective personalities between which diplomacy can be and needs to be conducted (Morse 1976; Hocking 1999).

Widely divergent views of diplomacy exist, therefore. However, the distinctions set out above as to what it may properly be said to be, its significance, and where it might be heading, although real, should not be overdrawn. To be sure, students of diplomacy have their hunches and prejudices about what should and should not be emphasized, and many of them have strong preferences concerning how diplomacy ought to be conducted and what it ought to be about. However, they do not gather in schools or tendencies insisting upon one or other of the approaches above. Rather, most of them, much like people in the world they seek to describe and understand, move back and forth between both the different usages of the term “diplomacy” set out above, and the different orientations that it is possible to hold towards it. Indeed, it is the protean character of the term and the practices associated with it, which make the study of diplomacy at once so fascinating and so frustrating. One cannot pin it down, and yet ever since Edmund Burke anglicized the French term diplomatie in 1796, and despite the great changes which have taken place in what, from about the same time, became known as international relations, people have sought variously to praise, privilege, criticize, and condemn a wide range of human actions by calling them diplomacy. This should be kept in mind when reading what follows.

Diplomacy Before States

It is customary for studies of diplomacy to begin with an attempt to imagine its origins in the relations between simple communities of human beings living in the long distant past or in more recent, but less developed, parts of the world. The study of prehistory and anthropology leads us to suspect the validity of such accounts, especially the notion of whole, pristine, and separate communities encountering each other for the first time (Diamond 1997). Nonetheless, they are useful for highlighting the problems posed by the presence of strangers in a community (Sofer 1997) and the development of what we would recognize as notions of immunity to address this problem (Nicolson 1969; Langhorne 2004). More empirically based studies provide strong evidence for the near-universality of this particular variant of hospitality rules concerning strangers and travelers. Strangers carrying messages between communities should be protected and well treated, even when relations with those who sent them are not good (Numelin 1950).

Among our earliest written records of something resembling diplomacy, however, are the Amarna tablets discovered in Egypt in 1887. These contain a record, an archive even, of messages to the Pharaohs Amenophis III and his son Akhenaten in the fourteenth century bce, from the leaders of their clients in what was later called the Levant, and from the rival Great Kings of Babylonia, Assyria, Hatti, and Mitanni to the north and northeast. The correspondence deals with attempts to arrange marriages, the exchange of gifts, extended visits of senior advisors to other courts, and appeals for help from minor leaders to their suzerains. This earliest of records suggests some themes which continue to be important in the study of diplomacy. Its intimate relationship with commerce is highlighted by the fact that missions traveled along caravan routes. We get intimations of the importance of prestige, status, and the desire to obtain intelligence about what is going on (Cohen and Westbrook 2000). However, the Amarna record also provides material for the debate about what may properly be regarded as diplomacy, noted above. For some the family resemblances are sufficient for Amarna to be presented as the first diplomatic system in human history (Cohen and Westbrook 2000). For others, it lacks critical attributes of what they believe such a system to require: for example, continuous relations (Berridge 2000) and a sense of self-restraint and forbearance in the interests of the system as a whole (Butterfield 1970).

In a similar way, diplomacy can be seen (or not) in some of the narratives of the great religious texts. The attempt by the Assyrian representatives to go “over the heads” of their Israelite interlocutors by speaking in Hebrew, rather than Aramaic – the language of diplomatic intercourse at the time – so that the inhabitants of Jerusalem might hear their fate debated, is a noteworthy example from the Old Testament of the Bible. The account was probably not written before 600 bce, but it purports to capture events occurring “only” 400 years or so before those related in the Amarna archive (2 Kings 1:6–7). Diplomacy can also be read in the Koran, although the latter’s poetic, rather than narrative, style places a heavier burden on authoritative interpretation to match its general observations with specific events (Iqbal 1975; Siddiqui 2002). The Koran may be regarded as a recent document in terms of the other sources being cited here, yet between it and the biblical example cited above we have a host of evidence and records of relations between peoples of the ancient empires of the Middle East, south Asia and east Asia (Wight 1977; Watson 1992).

In terms of a western European story of the diplomacy of the ancient world, these accounts culminate in the Greek and Roman experiences. The former has been conventionally presented as interesting – in terms of the attempt to maintain a political and civic pluralism in the context of a broader cultural Hellenic unity presented as both underlying and overarching (Nicolson 1954) – and curious: in terms, for example, of the use of local citizens (proxenos) to represent the interests of other cities, and the relative rarity of representatives with plenipotentiary powers (Hamilton and Langhorne 1995). In addition, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars of the third century bce – especially in its seventeenth and twentieth century English translations – is sometimes presented as capturing all the dynamics of international relations and conflict about which one needs to know. Indeed, a particular account – the Melian Debate/Dialogue – has achieved iconic status in both realist presentations of why power politics must prevail and arguments as to why they do not. Rome, in contrast and like China, is presented as being less interesting as far as diplomacy is concerned. Both are viewed as civilizations with malign solidarist outlooks coupled, in the case of Rome, to universal ambitions of conquest and, in the Chinese case, to a Ptolemaic-like preoccupation with itself as the center of the universe and measure of all significance (Nicolson 1954). In both its Roman and Chinese variants, this universal outlook is said to be inimical to the prospects of the weak remaining independent and diplomacy making its contribution to the smooth conduct of relations and the peaceful resolution of disputes. It is also said to be bad for those who live by it for, as the experience of Papacy and Empire in medieval Europe bears out, the outlook is ultimately unsustainable (Mattingly 1955).

Four general themes emerge from pre-state diplomacy and reflections on it. The first is the “family resemblances” noted above. When we look at the relations of bands, tribes, kingships, empires, and, perhaps, even of civilizations as these have been conveyed to us, we can see things that remind us of diplomacy (for example, envoys with rights and duties, negotiations, and court ceremonial) as it is conventionally understood today. However, these reminders prompt an irresolvable argument about whether or not what we see in these highly mediated accounts of relations in prehistoric and ancient worlds can be properly regarded as diplomatic systems. Perhaps the wisest course of action is to ask what distortions of understanding and errors of interpretation are courted by assigning the term “diplomacy” to these relations, and what distortions and errors are courted by not doing so.

The second theme concerns the way in which the term “diplomacy” can stand in place of, and do the work of, other terms, such as foreign policy, statecraft and, most importantly, international relations. The distinctions between these terms which, until recently at least, have seemed so important in the study of contemporary international relations, do not seem to matter so much when we examine the distant past. In a sense, this is not surprising since they are all terms that we are happy to apply to past worlds which lacked nations, states, hard boundaries between domestic and foreign relations, and conceptions of policy as goal-directed rational action sets. There is a puzzle, however, for it is not clear whether it is merely historical distance or the senses in which these worlds were different from ours which allows this sort of lumping of terms to take place. Can all the relations or, more dangerously, important relations between Greek cities, for example, be called diplomacy in a way in which it is generally held that the relations between contemporary international actors cannot?

The full implications of this question are drawn out by the third theme, the identification of practices in the past which challenge our present understanding of how a diplomatic system develops and what it must involve. It is conventionally assumed, for example, that the dynamics of reciprocity drive even those unwilling to accept strangers at court into diplomatic relations (Frey and Frey 1999). It is also conventionally assumed that diplomacy can only exist in the horizontal plane of social relations between those who regard each other as, at least formally, independent and equal (Callières 1717; Nicolson 1969; Keens-Soper and Schweizer 1983). Neither is necessarily the case. Pre-state actors might be perfectly content to receive strangers at court without feeling the need to send their own ministers to lie abroad, as the Ottoman and Chinese experiences of the early modern period confirm (Berridge 2004b). In medieval Europe, subordinates like universities and vassals might send envoys to the court of their sovereign in the same way as another sovereign might send its own representatives there (Hill 1905; Mattingly 1955). The idea that diplomatic systems can only be fully developed when continuous relations under the supervision of resident missions are in place, and that this happened for the first time in Italy during the fifteenth century, spreading from there to northern Europe and eventually the rest of the world, is similarly undermined by encounters with the past. As any survey of relations between pre-state peoples reveals and a moment’s reflection renders obvious, neither claim can be sustained. All sorts of peoples have maintained continuous relations to the best of their abilities and many have employed residents, in the form of hostages, traders, relatives, and other permanent guests, to this end (Numelin 1950; Jennings et al. 1985).

That this is so suggests the fourth theme, the extent to which our understandings of the pre-state relations of people are mediated and, indeed, formed by accounts which are best viewed as “prequels.” That is to say, our most prominent accounts of diplomacy have been written less with a view to exploring the different ways in which peoples have and might conduct relations with one another, and more with a view to demonstrating how one particular system of diplomacy, the modern one between territorial, sovereign European states, emerged or was contrived, and how it (and, thus, a system of states) might best be maintained. For obvious reasons, we are becoming more interested in the roads less traveled as the modern states system encounters stronger challenges to the terms on which it organizes international relations. Nevertheless, the story of modern states and their diplomacy remains central to the story of diplomacy as a whole. This is so even if some of the versions of that story are acquiring the character of “prequels” themselves as their authors detect, imagine, and argue for what may follow the world of states.

Diplomacy and States

We come then to accounts of what is variously and confusingly called modern, classical, traditional or old diplomacy (Hardinge 1947; Anderson 1993). This began to emerge in fifteenth century Europe, flourished in the eighteenth century, and then started to change, mutate, and decline whilst simultaneously spreading around the world as the pre-eminent way of conducting relations, or political relations at least, between communities of human beings which regard themselves as distinctive, separate, and independent of one another. In most, but significantly not all, respects these stories mirror those about the states which this diplomacy was intended to serve and, as such, they continue to dominate the discourse about diplomacy, albeit with far less coherence and confidence than they exhibited in the past. The literature may be usefully summarized as addressing three questions.

  1. 1 Who is to be represented in international relations, and how is representation to be undertaken when material or social facts undermine the prevailing consensus about how to answer this question?

  2. 2 How is representation to be best undertaken, and what implications do answers to this question have for how international relations might most usefully be organized?

  3. 3 How are the tensions between multiple identities, on the one hand, and multiple claims to a transcendent human solidarity, on the other, to be managed, and how are diplomats to serve both the interests of those they represent and broader conceptions of the general good or peace?

The question of who is to be represented was initially examined in the context of both the Papacy’s and the Empire’s claims to authority over others in Europe. The answer, that it should be sovereigns, and increasingly sovereign states, is more asserted than argued (Commynes 2004). The sense that it could be something else, and especially something bigger than states, receded into a general concern with peace and the difficult dilemma presented by sovereigns asking their diplomats to undertake things which the latter consider to be immoral (De Vera 2004). This dilemma itself was made possible by two assumptions, however. The first was that the relations of sovereigns were best handled by a special class of people, variously called ambassadors, envoys, ministers, and legates, who – by temperament and training – were best suited to the job. The second was that the relationship between these people and their sovereigns, both those who sent them and those who received them, posed difficult challenges for political theory and moral philosophy which needed to be addressed. In line with these assumptions emerged considerable literatures on the personal qualities and virtues required in effective ambassadors (Callières 1717; Pecquet 1737; Gentili 2004; Hotman 2004; De Vera 2004), the art of negotiation, especially with sovereigns (Wicquefort 1680; Callières 1717; Guicciardini 2004; Bacon 2004), and the working conditions in which diplomats might be most effective (Gentili 2004; Hotman 2004). The consensus read into these various efforts might be summed up by the image of intelligent, sensitive, and prudent men capable of clarity and discretion operating from within resident missions and enjoying immunity from the application of local laws.

The contemporary value of this literature has been widely doubted on a number of grounds (Melissen 1999; Hocking and Lee 2006). It is anachronistic, in that its focus is upon the conduct of gentlemen-at-court, conditions which do not dominate the environment in which most contemporary diplomacy is undertaken. It is platitudinous to the extent that it suggests that relations between sovereigns are best conducted by the good, the wise, and the brave, and inaccurate to the extent that it suggests that these virtues actually do prevail in effective diplomacy. There also exists a sense that these qualities have, until quite recently, been used to privilege diplomacy and diplomats by suggesting that both are testimony to the high and esoteric standards of an elite which most people are unable to grasp, let alone meet. There is something to all these criticisms, as there is to the rejoinders that “tact and intelligence” (Satow 1922) remain important and that many modern insights – for example, on the importance of “ripeness” or body language in successful negotiations – are to be found in writings now several hundred years old (Berridge 2004a). Much of the “ideal diplomat” genre is certainly dated. However, in a time when diplomacy is widely held to be undergoing a process of transformation, we might say that it was prompted by questions which remain important and are becoming more so. What kinds of people do we want as diplomats today, and what qualities are likely to make them successful and effective?

The focus on the ideal diplomat in the early modern literature was very quickly supplemented and, to a degree, subverted by two developments. The first was the erosion of the unity between sovereign, government, and state which had been inherited from medieval political thought. Even before sovereignty had completed its journey from the cosmopolitan and universal locations of either Papacy or Empire to the plural sites of empires, kingdoms and republics, arguments about its proper location within the new sovereign polities were well developed. These had important consequences for the authority, legitimacy, and priorities of ambassadors who had previously been regarded as directly representing the person of their sovereigns and as entitled to being treated as such (Mattingly 1955). As it became increasingly accepted that sovereignty resided in the state and, later, the people, on behalf of whom the monarch or government exercised it, then loyalty to the monarch and effectiveness at court became less valued. Instead, attention shifted to the part that diplomats might play in resolving tensions between the still-powerful, but declining, individual sovereigns, and an emerging sense that the state, and the state alone, had, and should have, its own interests and own reason which should be regarded as supreme (Richelieu 1689; Butterfield 1975).

The second development was the emerging sense of diplomats as a distinctive class of persons and diplomacy as a distinctive profession with its own outlook on and priorities in international relations. The shift from occasional and issue-specific diplomatic missions to the system of resident embassies contributed to this by creating communities of diplomats in capitals of the European powers (Mattingly 1955). Thus the move away from concern with how best to relate to sovereigns is mirrored by a shift in the literature on the terms and conditions in which diplomats worked best. Concerns about the immunities and privileges needed to protect the work and the reputations of individual diplomats increasingly found expression in terms of how the whole body or corps of diplomats at capital might be safeguarded and facilitated (Pecquet 1737; Berridge 2007; Sharp and Wiseman 2007).

By the seventeenth century, this functional sense of the diplomatic corps as a sort of “freemasonry” was shading into the notion of diplomats themselves as both constituting and giving expression to a European republic of shared interests and shared ways of seeing the world (Callières 1717; Vattel 2004). And by the eighteenth century it was possible to identify the idea of la raison de système serving initially as a descant to la raison d’état. States’ interests must be served, but with minimal harm to the effective operations of the system as a whole if at all possible. This was increasingly challenged, however, by a more expansive version of la raison de système which takes priority over state interests or, at least, their legitimate interests (Watson 1983). The latter, the argument ran, could not be effectively served except in a system which safeguarded the liberties and rights, and insisted on the duties and obligations, of all states.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, it was possible to identify a system of modern European states with a corresponding diplomatic system of bilateral relations, undertaken primarily through resident embassies and foreign ministries staffed by personnel who were animated by a strong sense of themselves as both servants of their respective states and guardians of the society of which their states were members. Diplomats might be heavily involved in foreign policy, but diplomacy and foreign policy, as Nicolson was later to argue, were emphatically not the same thing (Nicolson 1969; James 1993).

It would be a mistake, however, to regard this period as a heyday from which diplomacy entered into a long decline, battered by a series of exogenous social and scientific revolutions and the huge expansion of productive, destructive, and communicative capacities in which these developments resulted (Mayall 1990). Even in its heyday, the system of modern or old diplomacy was never as settled or as universal as it was often presented. The consequences of the great changes which began with the political revolution in the Americas, the social and political revolutions in France, and the agricultural and industrial revolutions in England, were not unidirectional in the sense of only undermining states and the diplomacy by which their relations were conducted. Most importantly, neither diplomacy nor diplomats were restricted to passive roles in the stories of these great changes. Both also played active parts in imagining consequences of these changes and promoting them.

This is usefully illustrated by the two great channels which diplomatic thinking about la raison de système carved out for itself. The first of these strongly identified diplomacy and diplomats with the idea of the balance of power: that is to say, the tendency – automatic or contrived – for sovereign states to counter, by building up their own strength and entering into alliances with one another, any one of their number which was becoming strong enough to threaten the independence of all the others (Fénelon 1759). In this view, the main tasks of diplomats was to get those they represented to act with restraint – self-restraint where possible and external restraint by deterrence through threats where necessary (Kissinger 1994). This idea always attracted controversy on both empirical and moral grounds, but nothing in the great scientific and social revolutions at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries undermined it in principle (Butterfield 1966; Wight 1966). Over-stimulated and over-endowed national and populist states might suffer restraints on their practical and moral ambitions less gladly, but getting them to accept these restraints made as much sense, perhaps even more, in the new century, and indeed today, as it did in the eighteenth century.

Associating diplomats and diplomacy with the balance of power also preserved the close relationship, even overlap, between diplomacy, on the one hand, and international relations, statecraft and foreign policy, on the other. International relations, it could be claimed, consisted of managing balances of power between states through statecraft and foreign policies implemented by diplomats under the rubric of diplomacy. There were always problems with lumping these notions together in this way. Neither states nor their servants ever exerted the complete monopoly over all international relations suggested by the highly political claims that they ought to and actually did. More prosaically, not all the representation, reporting, bargaining, information-dissemination and intelligence-gathering activities of diplomats could be interpreted in terms of their contribution to maintaining balances of power. To put it simply, there was always a lot more going on in international relations, even if the paucity of international interactions and information about them, relative to today, made this sort of lumping at least plausible, and possibly understandable. The difficulties with so doing, however, were made more pronounced by other consequences of the major trends in international relations during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The material and social technologies of the nineteenth century expanded the power and claims not only of states and their servants, but of others too. Sometimes, these consequences had a dialectical character, as when, for example, the expansion of force was accompanied by an expansion of doubt about the use of force and the moral claims made on behalf of states in this regard. In other cases, the balance of benefit – for example, of the lowering costs and greater availability of both travel and communication – was skewed towards those who had formerly been disadvantaged in this regard. Sovereigns and their diplomats might travel more easily, embassies might have more and easier access to information than they had in the past, but now and increasingly, so did other people too. And in so doing, they also developed a greater say in what international relations were, and ought to be, about.

All these changes, therefore, provided a powerful impetus for the development of the second great channel in diplomatic thinking about la raison de système, the consequences of which we are in the midst of today. This is to see the system as more than merely one of states justified on the grounds that states cater to all other needs. It is to see it as a system of states and others in which the others are becoming more important and states and their servants may take on a residual, and possibly even obstructive, character.

The principal consequences of seeing international relations in these terms are said to be the multilateral diplomacy and conference diplomacy which appeared in the late nineteenth century and gathered strength in the aftermath of the world wars of the twentieth century (Nicolson 1969). Both the participation of multiple actors in negotiations and their doing so for a period of time in a shared space, of course, predate this period. Indeed, as the Councils of Constance and Trent demonstrate, they predate the emergence and consolidation of the European states system. However, they all may be regarded both as symptoms of a prevailing sense that existing arrangements were not working well and as efforts to reform them. The European Congresses of the early nineteenth century, for example, sought to improve the great powers’ attempts to maintain international order on their own terms. The Hague and Geneva conventions at the start of the next century attempted to reduce, respectively, the prospect of war and the evil consequences of those wars still fought. And the League of Nations and the United Nations sought first to regulate, then to reform, and finally to restrict the conduct of their individual member states by encouraging multilateral collaboration in the service of shared and often new goals.

These new goals, however, not only reflected the disasters and opportunities which technical developments in warfare and communications had made possible in relations between states. They also reflected changes in the character and priorities of states themselves – most significantly, the importance of economic development in the construction of both state power and state legitimacy. To be strong, states needed to be developed and rich. To be rich, they needed their populations involved to an unprecedented extent in economic activity. And to secure their populations’ compliance and effectiveness in this regard, they had to be seen to offer them something in return: economic security certainly, economic prosperity possibly, and the promise, at least, of political representation. The consequences for diplomacy and diplomats of the old failings and the new needs of states were profound and continuing. Bilateral diplomacy directed at reconciling the interests of particular states was supplemented and overlaid, but not supplanted (Rana 2002), by multilateral efforts directed at seeking to ease common problems and improve the wellbeing of all. To the issues of disarmament and arms control were added those of liberalizing trade and investment, coordinating production, fostering economic development, safeguarding human rights, improving communications and, latterly, protecting the physical and biological environments put at risk by human activities. A sense that most problems could be better handled cooperatively was supplemented by a sense that some problems could only be managed by collective action.

The growth of multilateral and conference diplomacy, together with the changes in the character and priority of states, also resulted in changes in the status of certain established types of diplomat, gave rise to some new sorts of diplomats or, at least, new sorts of people engaged in diplomacy, and encouraged some types of diplomatic interaction while discouraging others. Consular diplomacy, concerned primarily with the interests of private citizens, attracted more resources and eventually began to lose some of the secondary status it had enjoyed in relation to political work on questions of war, peace, and good relations between states (Leira and Neumann 2008). The cultivated and broadly educated “generalists,” gifted at a certain kind of human relations, were increasingly supplemented by experts who had a grasp of the complex technical issues which increasingly became the subjects of negotiations (Winham 1986). And the autonomy and negotiating capacity of the ambassador in the resident mission were widely seen to decline as a result of the emergence successively of the telegraph, the telephone, and air travel. A profession said to be based on information scarcity and the costliness of communications in terms of both time and money was regularly presented as facing existential challenges from innovations which made information accessible, communication cheap, and travel swift (Fulton 1998).

If we can present a story of one branch of la raison de système’s complicity in the transformation of modern diplomacy, however, two points are worth noting before an assessment of these changes is possible. The first is that it is equally possible to present a story of the continued consolidation and expansion of something bearing strong family resemblances to the diplomacy of the modern state system. Thus, over the same period of time in which the League of Nations, the United Nations, and other international organizations emerged, we see a series of expansions of the modern state system from the early nineteenth century onwards (Bull and Watson 1984). In each of these, new members have hurried to acquire the attributes and symbols of statehood, including a diplomatic service, resident missions abroad, and corps of professional diplomats in their own capital, to confirm (often in the teeth of much contrary evidence) that they have achieved a place among the nations and, more particularly, a place as a state among states. No one, with the possible exception of some members of the European Union, rejects the trajectory that peoples become nations and that nations should enjoy the right to become states, even if they may not choose to exercise it. Indeed, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), confirming both who has the right to representation through embassies, and the rights and duties of those embassies, was achieved with relative ease by states which disagreed strongly on a great range of other subjects at the height of the Cold War in 1961.

Secondly, and perhaps because of this thread of continuity in modern diplomacy, it is possible to note an almost complete absence of innovation in diplomatic writing throughout the period of these great changes, at least until very recently. One can identify a great burst of innovative thinking in diplomacy, beginning in fifteenth century Europe and developing over the course of the next two centuries. However, the period of theoretical and conceptual innovation is over with Richelieu’s Testament Politique around 1688, and its practical expression is completed with the codifications of the Vienna règlement of 1815 and the modifications of Aix-la-Chapelle three years later (Berridge and James 2001). What follows may be broadly classified in the following way. First, there is the sort of technical history associated with the German School and developed into traditions of diplomatic history in England, France, and the United States (Grant and Temperley 1927). This consolidates and confirms the earlier breakthrough, both conceptually, in its assumption that most significant international relations are usually undertaken by professional diplomats, and methodologically, in its assumption that the record of these relations can be found principally in diplomatic archives. Secondly, there are expositions which seek to interpret and refine the classical treatments of diplomacy in a way which is intended to assist in the training of junior diplomats and to help those seeking to understand the special character of the profession (Bernard 1868; Satow 1922; Cambon 1926; Nicolson 1969; Watson 1983; Berridge 1995). And thirdly, there are arguments which seek to defend the wisdom of the classics, and to reassert the essentials, or even the essence, of diplomacy in response to claims that it has been, or ought to be, transformed (Cadieux 1963; Nicolson 1969; Holmes 1970; Magalhaes 1988; Berridge 1995; Sofer 1997; Stearns 1999; Jackson 2000; Berridge et al. 2001).

Arguably, all the innovations in diplomatic theory and practice post-Richelieu and the Vienna settlement have come from outside the tradition. The construction of international organizations, for example, may be presented as driven by the concerns of politics and political theory with how to escape from anarchy by establishing and maintaining more durable political orders on the domestic model (Suganami 1989). The concern with commercial diplomacy and economic statecraft can be rooted in the rise of political economy as a way of providing general and, more latterly, mid-range theories of how the world works which have little interest in the exploits of individuals (Hudson and Lee 2004). And the focus on how foreign policy is actually made, together with the parts played by diplomats in its formulation and implementation, can be traced back to research projects focused upon individual and group psychology, the operations of complex organizations, and rational choice models, as these have been applied to political behavior. Beginning in the early twentieth century with attempts to create a more open and representative diplomacy, we may say that diplomacy and diplomats have been subject to a series of rescue missions, of which the current attempts to apply the insights and understandings of marketing and public relations are the latest iterations (Fitzpatrick 2007).

The response of those who see themselves working in the original tradition of diplomatic thought is that what these rescue missions have to offer is not new, or if new then not important, and if important then harmful, contributing to a decline in diplomatic standards and an erosion in the general quality of international life. Some of the substantive points on which this general orientation rests are valuable, but the orientation itself is not sustainable. That this is so is borne out by the accounts which most professional diplomats provide of their own experiences, especially in interviews and at conferences, but even in the more carefully vetted and reconstructed format of diplomatic memoirs. These can be read as suggesting that everything since is but a footnote to Callières, as confirming nearly everything that nearly everyone has suggested about how diplomacy has changed, or is changing, and as confirming multiple points along the continuum between these extremes of no change and all change. The evidence to be found in them supports multiple interpretations. The problem is that most diplomats themselves have seemed notoriously, even willfully, unreflective about their craft. The genre of the diplomatic memoir, in particular, has been built around the idea of a privileged position for observing the activities of others, not the diplomats themselves. And the people who have used the experience of actual diplomats to develop their own research or reflections on diplomacy have typically not been the sort of people from the wider worlds of international relations and the applied social sciences intent on rescuing both.

Diplomatic studies, certainly, and diplomacy and diplomats, probably, have suffered as a result. Indeed, it has been possible to suggest for at least the last half-century or so that all three might be in terminal decline (Eayrs 1972; Fulton 1998). It is variously claimed, for example, that diplomats are being replaced by other sorts of people in international life, that diplomacy is losing whatever was distinctive about it as a human practice over the previous half-millennium, and that students of diplomacy can talk about less and less or become historians recalling the good old days of the game well played. Since the end of the Cold War, however, and certainly in the last decade, this state of affairs has undergone an almost complete transformation. It has done so for reasons which are both surprising and paradoxical. Somehow, as our sense that an international society of states provides the basic political framework of the world in which we live has weakened, interest in diplomacy, diplomats, and the study of both has revived, although with consequences which, as yet, remain unclear.

Diplomacy Beyond States

The notion of diplomacy beyond states may be understood in at least two senses: a temporal one in which we think of states and their diplomacy fading, and a conceptual one by which we are reminded that, at any given time or place, diplomacy is not necessarily the exclusive preserve of states or even professional diplomats. The positivist, social scientific approaches which have dominated International Relations research until recently have helped develop both senses, principally by testing, and often, but not always, refuting, conventional understandings of how social worlds are believed to work. At the international system level, for example, expectations about diplomatic representation – namely, that those states regarded as the most important would have the most representatives from other countries in their national capitals – have been tested and confirmed (Galtung and Ruge 1965). In the study of diplomacy, as in the study of foreign policy, however, the most obvious contribution of positivist social science approaches has been in tracking and demonstrating the disaggregation of entities conventionally treated as wholes (Allison 1971; Steinbrunner 1974; Hocking 1999). States, governments, and individuals have never been completely unitary actors, but our sense of the extent to which this is the case has been greatly strengthened. Analyses of institutions in this vein are complemented by examinations of process. What actually happens when foreign policy is made and who actually does what when an act of international relations occurs (Rosenau 1971)?

The consequences of this kind of inquiry for our understandings of diplomacy have been impressive. We find, for example, that foreign ministries do not dominate or even coordinate all of a country’s foreign relations. Indeed, they probably never have to the extent conventionally imagined. Other branches of government engage in both the formulation and implementation of foreign policy and employ if not their own diplomats in a conventional sense, then people acting diplomatically to represent them. We find that governments, even understood as a loose ensemble of actors and institutions, do not exercise a monopoly on the conduct of the external relations of their countries. Private actors of all sorts are also and increasingly intimately engaged. Indeed, it becomes progressively difficult to maintain the distinction between internal and external worlds on which the idea of international relations depends (Walker 1993; Rosenau 1997).

That we can identify accelerating trends in the progressive disaggregation of long-established collective identities, the erosion of their boundaries, and changes in the means and media by which they interact is undoubtedly significant. That we can look at states and governments of the past, and even something so conventionally regarded as irreducible as the individual human personality in the present, and perform similar disaggregating analyses of them, however, makes it difficult to know how significant such insights may be. If we could clearly identify some parts of the social world which do not function as conventionally supposed whilst demonstrating that the rest broadly does, then we could plausibly claim to have found something out. If our approach demonstrates that, under analysis, nothing exists or functions in the social world in the way it is conventionally understood to do so, then it is not clear what we can do with what we have discovered. Identities – both individual and collective – and relationships between them may not stand up to too close analytical scrutiny, but all exist in some sense as presented and, as such, have important consequences. Great harm may result from insisting that states, for example, are not as they appear to be and should never be treated as such.

As with other aspects of social action, therefore, so with diplomacy: investigators have not been sure what to do with these sorts of discoveries. An argument has developed among traditionalists of the classical approach which insists that they are the product of a category confusion and that one cannot get closer to understanding how diplomacy operates as a form of meaningful social action by tracing behavioral patterns with ever greater precision (Jackson 2000). To say that states cannot be sovereign because they cannot be fully independent, for example, is to misunderstand the nature and significance of the idea of sovereignty. To say that diplomats do not actually represent their states or sovereigns, in the sense of standing in place of them, is to misunderstand the nature of representation. The advantage of this approach is that it accepts social worlds that cohere despite evidence and knowledge which undermine the assumptions on which they rest. However, this is also a disadvantage of the approach, for once the empirical cat is out of the bag, it becomes very difficult to accept arguments which rest on claims which, in some sense, we know to be false. After all, if the idea of sovereignty is to have any significance, then its use must signify some capacity for independent action. And it is equally difficult to accept the claim that in slighting an ambassador, we have slighted his or her state, when we are used to thinking in terms which underline the senses in which they are not the same thing.

An alternative to the traditionalist reluctance to accept empirical evidence as a test of the terms in which social worlds hold together, therefore, is to use positivist, social science approaches as a basis for practical critique and prescription. A considerable amount of research, for example, has been directed at explaining why the traditional institutions of professional diplomacy, such as foreign ministries and resident embassies, have been losing influence and why traditional diplomatic activities, such as careful information gathering and political reporting, have become less effective (Melissen 1999). If one looks at what is increasingly considered important, who is increasingly involved, and the speed and direction in which information actually flows, then one can begin to see why this is so. One can also begin to identify the sorts of behaviors which are more likely to be successful, for example, when diplomats shift from being communicators of positions and policies to becoming the instigators and managers of coalitions of different sorts of people seeking to advance shared interests (Hocking 1999).

Valuable though such approaches undoubtedly are, however, they leave the gap between how social worlds are supposed or believed to operate and identifiable patterns of behavior intact and unexplained. This is not necessarily a problem. The focus of interest may simply be upon, for example, how diplomats are to prosper and be effective given the conditions in which they increasingly operate. However, such approaches court the risk of inconsistency in the way they apply their analytical insights (Potter 2002). Very often, for example, while the worlds in which diplomats are trying to be effective are presented as transforming and transformed, the worlds they represent are not. Diplomats may function in a disaggregated world, but it is assumed that its sending parts – if not its receiving parts – can still be re-aggregated sufficiently to provide the telos for diplomatic action. Somehow, as he or she operates in a world of multiple identities at multiple levels through networks of near-instantaneous sensitivity, the idea that a Canadian ambassador represents something called Canada is still assumed to be meaningful and presented as unproblematic.

That it can be indicates a deficit of theorizing, and especially prescriptive theorizing, in diplomatic studies. At least this has been the case until recently and the so-called qualitative and narrative turns in the study of International Relations. This brings up the second part of the paradox noted earlier: if an interest in diplomacy has revived as the confidence that we live in an international society primarily composed of states has declined, this interest has been given intellectual direction from an unlikely theoretical source, given the conventional association of diplomacy with conservative habits of thought and action. Postmodernist interpretations of diplomacy seek to unhitch it from state practices whilst simultaneously exploring what people in different times and places have understood to be diplomacy. The thrust of these arguments can be critical, focusing on the alienation and exploitation which diplomats and diplomacy might be said to help reproduce (Der Derian 1987). It can be emancipatory, emphasizing the virtues of conventional diplomatic attributes such as ambiguity and imagination to improving human relations (Constantinou 1996). And it can be almost whimsical, examining with great care the more banal and human aspects of diplomatic life to demonstrate the tyrannies of circumscribed thought and action which closed and archaic social structures can impose upon those trapped within them (Neumann 2005). Common to all these approaches, however, is a sense that the sorts of relations and underlying assumptions which we conventionally regard as diplomacy are to be found in all walks of life, and that there are certain kinds of relations to which we want to apply the term “diplomacy,” even if this does not imply a fixed way of dealing with them.

As such, these approaches have remained as yet at the margins of diplomatic studies. Even so, they have already performed a vital task in reintegrating the study of diplomacy with the study of international relations. They have done so in two ways. First, they have prepared diplomatic studies for the turn towards constructivist and constitutive approaches to explanation and understanding already well established in the broader field of International Relations (Wendt 1999; Wiseman 2005; Sharp and Wiseman 2007). Secondly, and potentially more importantly, they have demonstrated the utility of modes of thought associated with diplomats and diplomacy to attempts to provide accounts of international and social realities in general. If we can accept the notion that social realities are constructed, in the sense of being produced and re-produced with varying degrees of self-consciousness by the ways in which people live, and if we can accept that the results are necessarily ambiguous or, at least, capable of yielding multiple interpretations, then the consequences for the study of diplomacy are considerable. It becomes possible to accept the discoveries of empirical analysis about the material facts pertaining to diplomacy, diplomats, and the parts they do or do not play in international relations with a much greater degree of equanimity. The discovery that diplomats are engaged in presenting the world in a way which is at odds with important evidence is far less significant if a similar charge can be leveled at all attempts to present social realities.

There is a sense, then, in which the work of diplomats is, if not re-legitimized necessarily, then at least re-naturalized or normalized. It becomes possible to see how the work of conventional diplomats in presenting states and societies of states is not qualitatively different, just a little more obvious, perhaps, than other exercises in presenting social reality. Sometimes human relations are dominated by law. Sometimes they are dominated by politics, and sometimes by forms of personal commitments. At other times they are dominated by diplomacy. We can see the shortcomings in Bull’s subordination of the use of the term “diplomacy” to describe some aspects of human relations to its use in describing the formal relations of states. Instead, we want to know why and with what consequences different sorts of relations come to be regarded as matters of diplomacy, and we may even be interested, after all, in what Callières and Satow might have to tell us about encounters between warlords seeking to legitimize themselves by self-restraint, fieldworkers pursuing prestige for status-conscious humanitarian organizations, and exploratory teams making promises on behalf of mining corporations to assume the burden of providing public goods in regions where they seek to operate. Diplomats and diplomatic theory, therefore, are not consigned to the museum of obsolete systems of thought as states seem to fade and other actors emerge. It is, rather, at times of change when new constellations of actors and new identities are seeking to establish the terms of their own existence and recognition of them as such, that diplomacy and innovative diplomatic thought may be expected to come to the fore once again, just as they did in fifteenth century Europe.

The strengths and weaknesses of this claim are no better illustrated than by the current emergence of the “new public diplomacy” and the contribution that International Relations scholarship has made to debates about it (Potter 2002; Melissen 2005; Bátora 2006). Historically, public diplomacy involved approaches by governments to the peoples of other countries, whether to influence those people directly or their governments indirectly. Within the tradition of modern diplomacy it was generally regarded as “bad form” and can still secure a terse dismissal by being equated with propaganda (Berridge and James 2001), for it involves violating a first principle of relations between states. They should not overtly and directly intervene in each other’s internal affairs. The assumptions underpinning this principle were that ordinary people could not understand the complexities, especially the moral complexities, of international relations and, because the stakes in terms of war and peace are so high, the latter should be left in the hands of the experts. Only those bent on making trouble, like the Nazis and the Communists, would ignore such a principle and make appeals to the populations of other countries as a matter of course (Sharp 2005). Only those facing a dangerous enemy which was impervious to their appeals, as did the liberal democracies in the Cold War, would argue for a derogation of the principle as a temporary and desperate measure by which appeals to a people might hinder its aggressive and unrepresentative government.

Whatever the merits of these arguments against “going public,” however, they have all the force today of a claim that floods or tides should be avoided because they make things wet. The information and communications revolutions noted above have made it possible for nearly everybody (in the developed world at least) to involve themselves directly in international relations, and rendered resistance to this trend very difficult to undertake. Perhaps more importantly, these twin revolutions have elevated the sorts of issues in which ordinary people are interested, such as economic relations, made it possible for them to take a greater interest in issues which it was previously maintained were beyond them, such as grand strategy and arms control, and given wide currency to the idea that these developments are both practically and morally desirable. The floods and tides of public involvement are not only unstoppable in this view; they are also widely regarded as good things by peoples, by governments and, if they wish to prosper, by diplomats themselves. Indeed, enthusiasm for “the new public diplomacy” is such that funding sources are willing to support inquiries into what it might be, how to engage in it more effectively, and how to tell how well one is doing at it (Phalavi 2007).

Under this new rubric, however, it is already possible to identify emerging themes that, in some respects, sit uneasily with each other. What is this new public diplomacy about, how is it to be conducted, and between whom? It is often presented, for example, as an arm of economic diplomacy made possible and necessary by the internationalization and globalization of the production, distribution, and exchange of goods and services. In this conception, used primarily by governments, it is presented as an instrument by which they can identify and target prospective commercial partners in other countries and facilitate the creation of mutually beneficial relations between them and one’s own private sector stakeholders. New public diplomacy, in this sense, has its roots in commercial diplomacy, rather than public diplomacy. The public element indicates the extent to which contacts with domestic sources have expanded so that, for example, consumers and small-scale producers may be added to the representatives of big capital who have always been of interest as targets of diplomatic activity.

However, the new public diplomacy is also seen as a primary means of improving relations between peoples, regions, and culture groups which transcend the borders of existing territorial states and which view each other with intense suspicion. It will accomplish this, it is argued, by improving mutual understanding per se, by reducing the substantive sources of disagreement between peoples and, most controversially, by exporting and promoting particular values as either universally shared or superior. This conception of the new public diplomacy has been boosted by the “9/11” attacks on the United States and the shocking realization not only that a few people would actually carry out such attacks, but that many more would acquiesce in, or even support, them. A strong sense has developed that the United States and its friends are losing the hearts and minds of Muslims, especially young Muslims in the Middle East, and increasingly in Europe, to the propaganda and ideas of radical and terrorist Islamic currents. A new public diplomacy battle, it has been claimed, has to be waged, if not to recover them, then to improve understanding and the prospects for mutual tolerance. In America, in particular, agencies like the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and the US Information Agency/US Public Diplomacy Office have been strengthened and developed to address this challenge.

As such, the new public diplomacy of the wars on terrorism may be seen to be the direct descendant of Cold War public diplomacy, especially as the latter is presented in revisionist interpretations which stress its role in shaping the final outcome of the Great Contest (Kelley 2007). The big difference is that the range and the sophistication of the methods available to it are said to have been greatly developed and improved. It is the new public diplomacy in this sense which has generated considerable debate about the second issue. How is it to be conducted, and between whom (Lord 2006; Fulton 2007)? The pervading sense that public diplomacy has not been conducted effectively recently has attracted considerable attention from experts in electronic media and marketing (Gilboa 2002; Zaharna 2007). Governments, they argue, have been locked in the old public diplomacy model of broadcasting “our message” at the people of a country, when techniques are available which allow one to get far deeper into societies and to engage its members in far more targeted ways.

The fact that this is so, however, and the availability of these techniques to others, draws the new public diplomacy straight into the wider debate about who can and ought to be engaged in contemporary diplomacy and international relations in general. If governments may talk to foreign publics or segments of them through the media of satellite broadcasting, the internet and email, why should these publics not talk back to them and, indeed, talk directly with each other, with or without the help of their respective governments? Indeed, as the success of the campaigns to ban certain types of landmines, to press wealthy banks to provide debt relief for poorer countries, and to persuade countries to agree to reduce the carbon footprints of their economies all demonstrate, elements of a global civil society are already talking to one another and acting to make their own contribution to what happens in international relations. To an extent, this may, as traditionalists point out, have always been so. What is both novel and important, however, is the high level of significance attached to these activities by nearly everyone except traditionalists in the study of diplomacy (Leonard and Alakeson 2000; Sharp 2001; Riordan 2003; Cooper 2007; Fitzpatrick 2007).

Future Agendas in the Study of Diplomacy

The scientific knowledge and the technical applications of it to the processes of information generation and exchange which are attracting attention in contemporary International Relations have had a long gestation. So too have many of the techniques for persuasion and negotiation to which these technical developments have given rise. It is the pervasive sense that all of the above are now in place and the resulting expectations about new possibilities in the conduct of relations at all levels of human society which are different. That this is so is confirmed by the magnetic attraction which the study of diplomacy is currently exerting on experts drawn from a wide range of other fields in a process reminiscent of the way in which mathematicians, biologists, and economists were drawn to the study of international relations at previous times when its problems seemed particularly pressing. As a consequence, the study of diplomacy is being flooded with new and exciting ideas about the prospects for direct international relations between peoples, vertical diplomacy between different levels of a given society, and internal diplomacy directed by governments at segments of their own population as they attempt to match-make in people-to-people relations or facilitate the activities of their own people abroad and in other countries.

As yet, however, those already engaged in the study of diplomacy largely remain at the import stage of development in terms of this influx of new ideas (Sharp 1999; Jönsson and Hall 2005). At best, they seek to assess them critically before applying those new ideas which they regard as valuable. At worst, they note some of the mistakes which newcomers to the field, not surprisingly, appear to make: for example, believing the claim that viewing relationship maintenance as an end rather than a means is a new idea from marketing which is being introduced to diplomacy. Certainly, some of the new literature would benefit from a familiarity with, or even interest in, what has gone before, but its tabula rasa quality is, on the whole, beneficial for it forces everyone back to first principles. Consider, in this regard, the notion of “internal diplomacy” referred to above. It is very tempting to reject this as a category error, since diplomacy is by definition supposed to be conducted by actors who, if not necessarily sovereign, are at least separate and independent, and regard one another as such. The interesting question, of course, is not, How could someone make such a fundamental error, but What is it which makes them want to identify the relations they are describing, explaining or advocating as “diplomacy” (Annan 2004)?

The resources which the new public diplomacy is attracting, together with the sorts of questions which its investigation and advocacy are beginning to prompt, suggest that a highly active and productive period in the study of diplomacy lies just ahead. On the “import” side of the balance, we may expect to see the following:

  • Empirical investigations into the impact of communications and information revolutions on state-based foreign policy and diplomatic systems continuing to gather pace. The question “can states adapt to the leveling, opening, and accelerating effects of these changes on international relations?” will be replaced by the questions “how do they adapt?” and “with what consequences?”

  • The increasing application of methodologies from the organizational, management, and marketing sciences to the study of diplomacy, especially by governments and other agencies preoccupied by obtaining measurably more effective performances from their diplomatic services and other departments of government and agencies involved in diplomacy. The value of such attempts will continue to be hotly, though indecisively, contested.

  • The increasing application of analytical frameworks from sociology (particularly critical sociology), the communication sciences and political economy to the academic study of diplomacy, and increasing attention to the problems and issues which are identified by those in these fields as important. The attractions of diplomacy and diplomats from these perspectives lie in the former’s unusually explicit and strange (to others) framing of social relations, and in the latter’s promise, at least, that agency plays some sort of part in producing international outcomes. Whether or not diplomats, or even people acting diplomatically, will retain a significant place in the developing narratives about the new economic diplomacy, the new security diplomacy, and even the new public diplomacy remains an open question, however. At this point, the gravitational pull exerted by the parent fields and the need to address the way problems and issues are formulated in them seems far stronger than any pull exerted by the need to talk about diplomacy and diplomats.

  • The continued, but largely parallel, development of bargaining theories based on socio-psychological and rational choice models of individual and collective behavior, of intense relevance to certain aspects of diplomatic activity, such as negotiations, but of little relevance to, and largely uninterested in, the more representative, constitutive and ideational functions of diplomacy and diplomats.

The picture on the “export” side of the balance is less clear, for the challenges are greater and existing paths are not well developed. However, it is here that the most innovative and, indeed, exciting work is likely to be undertaken. We may expect the following:

  • A modest revival of interest in the operations of the diplomatic institutions of the modern state system, such as resident embassies, diplomatic corps, and consular services, fueled by: the insights newly available from constitutive approaches to understanding how societies cohere (the interest in consular affairs particularly will be fueled by the way in which environmental disasters such as tsunamis and human ones such as murders and kidnappings increasingly bring these officials into the public eye); the continued assumption that the acquisition of sovereign statehood and all its attributes – including a diplomatic service – provides the highest expression of a people’s identity and the most effective vehicle for their collective will; and a pervading background sense that the principal international political crises which the world currently faces can, in some degree, be attributed to a neglect of traditional diplomatic practices and values.

  • The development of theoretical investigations into the relationships between diplomatic thinking and practice, on the one hand, and the plural “fact” of human social existence to date, on the other. What are the consequences of assuming that people and peoples necessarily live in separate groups and, to the extent that they actually do, is this because they want to or because this is what occurs, whatever their aspirations otherwise? What can we say about relations between groups? In what sorts of ways can they be different from relations within groups and what do traditions of diplomatic thought and practice contribute to our answers to these questions? Does the use of the term “diplomacy” provide a signifier for how people want to see some relations and not others? Does it, for example, suggest a desire for distance and detachment and, if so, what are the practical and moral consequences of privileging some relationships and discriminating against others in this way?

  • The construction of diplomatic narratives of “big issues” like globalization and regionalization, to see how they differ from those provided by, for example, governance perspectives informed by liberal or radical political economy or network perspectives informed by communications sciences.

  • Imaginative inquiries into the sorts of international worlds for which we might wish and for which we might reasonably hope. What, for example, might traditions of diplomatic thought and practice contribute to notions of a world organized around sustainability? Might we imagine a “sustainable diplomacy” built around traditionally diplomatic virtues such as quietism, empathy, and the instinct to appease (Wellman 2004)? How might non-Western and non-Modern traditions of diplomatic thought and practice contribute to the development of such a diplomacy and the world(s) represented by it?

  • Empirical and practical inquiries into how plural worlds in which full membership is no longer restricted to sovereign, territorial states might be organized and represented. What sorts of skills and qualities might be required by the representatives of new participants in international societies which are mixed and require both horizontal and vertical relationships?

This list of research agendas, especially on the export side of the balance, is necessarily tentative. That it is reflects a number of paradoxes which seem to be endemic to the idea of diplomacy. Since it was named thus by Burke, it has been a practice characterized by a series of oppositions. Constantly, it is presented as universal yet specialized, commonsense yet esoteric, in decline yet in short supply, admired yet distrusted, and important yet (especially by students of International Relations) neglected. In one sense, it involves the representations to one another of collective identities which are necessarily ambiguous. In another, it merely refers to the state of affairs which arises between people who wish to live separately and maintain their own identities, but want or believe they must have relations with each other. Either way, general interest in diplomacy, diplomats, and how to act diplomatically always increases when, as now, the tensions between the pluralist and solidarist aspirations of human beings, on the one hand, and the pluralist and solidarist demands of the ways they actually live, on the other, weigh heavily upon them.


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                                                                                Guicciardini, F. (2004) The Ricordi. In G. Berridge (ed.) (2004) Diplomatic Classics: Selected Texts from Commynes to Vattel. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 47–56.Find this resource:

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                                                                                          Hocking, B. (ed.) (1999) Foreign Ministries: Change and Adaption. Basingstoke: Macmillan.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                            Magalhaes, J. (1988) The Pure Concept of Diplomacy. New York: Greenwood Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                Mayall, J. (1990) Nationalism and International Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  Melissen, J. (ed.) (1999) Innovation in Diplomatic Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                    Melissen, J. (ed.) (2005) The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                        Vera, J. de (2004) The Perfect Ambassador. In G. Berridge (2004) Diplomatic Classics: Selected Texts from Commynes to Vattel. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 88–97.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                          Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961). At

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                                                                                                                                                                                                  Wellman, D.J. (2004) Sustainable Diplomacy: Religion and Ethics in Muslim–Christian Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                                        Wight, M. (1966) The Balance of Power. In H. Butterfield and M. Wight (eds.) Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 149–75.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                          Wight, M. (1977) Systems of States, ed. by H. Bull. Leicester: Leicester University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Wight, M. (1991) International Theory: The Three Traditions, ed. by P. Porter and G. Wight. Leicester: Leicester University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                Wiseman, G. (2005) Pax Americana: Bumping into Diplomatic Culture. International Studies Perspectives 6 (4), 409–30.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Zaharna, R. (2007) The Soft Power Differential: Network Communication and Mass Communication in Public Diplomacy. The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 2 (3), 213–28.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The Amarna Tablets. At, accessed May 5, 2009. Provides Shlomo Izre’el’s account of the archive and links to the tablets themselves.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. At, accessed May 5, 2009. Advances understanding of US diplomacy and supports training of foreign affairs personnel at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    G.R. Berridge website. At, accessed May 5, 2009. The website of Professor G.R. Berridge, hosted by “Diplo,” is a very useful source of information pertaining to the study and practice of diplomacy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Diplomat. At, accessed May 5, 2009. A magazine for London-based diplomats, which provides an interesting glimpse of the sorts of things in which professional diplomats are interested.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Diplomacy. At, accessed May 5, 2009. Department of State’s account of “diplomacy at work.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Diplomatic History. At, accessed May 5, 2009. The journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, useful on the historical aspects of the study of diplomacy (and the study of foreign policy).

                                                                                                                                                                                                           At, accessed May 5, 2009. Describes itself as a “global portal for diplomats” and provides a wide range of advice and information for professionals.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. At, accessed May 5, 2009. Published by Brill and devoted entirely to the theory and practice of diplomacy. Online submissions at

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Phil Taylor’s website. At, accessed May 5, 2009. Provides a useful set of sources, especially on public and cultural diplomacy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. At, accessed May 5, 2009.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    US Information Agency/US Public Diplomacy Office. At, accessed May 5, 2009.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961. At, accessed May 5, 2009.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963. At, accessed May 5, 2009.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Paul Sharp wishes to acknowledge the valuable help and advice of David Clinton, Iver Neumann, and Geoffrey Wiseman in the preparation of this essay.