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Diplomacy in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Diplomacy’s role in foreign policy is hampered by multiple understandings of what diplomacy is and does. A broad definition of diplomacy holds that it encompasses more than the promotion of peaceful international relations. Instead, it applies to the sum of those relations—peaceful, hostile, and everything in between. Thus, foreign relations—so long as they involve the interests, direction, and actions of a sovereign power—may be regarded as being synonymous with diplomatic relations, whereby foreign policy relates to the theory and practice of setting diplomatic priorities; planning for contingencies; advancing strategic, operational, and tactical diplomatic aims; and adjusting those aims to domestic and foreign constraints. This conception of diplomacy is functional: it emphasizes the roles of diplomats and recognizes that many other people perform these roles besides official envoys; and it illustrates that diplomatic settings—and the means, methods, and tools of diplomacy—undergo continuous change. The basic mediating purpose of diplomacy, however, has endured, as has much of its institutional apparatus—embassies, ambassadors, treaties, and so on. This is likely to remain the case so long as there are multiple polities in the world, all having to relate to one another.

Keywords: Diplomacy, diplomats, diplomatic summits, Woodrow Wilson, Cardinal Richelieu, Diplomacy 2.0, policy planning, Congress of Vienna, realpolitik, Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), United Nations


Diplomacy applies to the sum of relations between sovereign entities, usually states. It encompasses not only politics, but also commercial, military, and cultural relations. The contemporary usage of the term often discards this broad definition in favor of a narrower one, in which diplomacy refers merely to the official acts of foreign ministries short of war. By that definition, diplomacy in foreign policy covers a limited set of actions: the negotiation of treaties, the issuing of official declarations, and the representation of governmental views and interests, which may also extend to consular work (i.e., the representation of a nation’s citizens overseas). A policymaker who uses this latter definition may also substitute the term statecraft for diplomacy, thereby giving it an operational or even tactical application to the limited range of actions for implementation of policies, or particular elements thereof.

The broader definition of diplomacy offers a couple of advantages to the policymaker. First, it does away with a clear (and usually artificial) distinction between war and peace. It is easier to describe the causes and consequences of each condition by casting it as the absence of the other. In reality, diplomacy continues during wartime. War may be regarded as the failure of diplomacy, not merely its antithesis. Yet, when wars begin, diplomats do not disappear from the halls of government, or even from the front lines. When peace is won, soldiers do not remove their stars and retire. In fact, as with the American generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, some of the finest diplomats have been professional soldiers in war as well as peace; and some of the most adept participants in wars have been professional diplomats (Murphy, 1964). The professional distinctions do not track the vocational ones so neatly.

The second advantage has to do with the policymaker’s understanding of statecraft. Diplomacy, of course, is both an art and a craft, and even, according to some people, a science. It amounts to more than just the tip of a moving pen, as one definition has held. By enlarging diplomacy’s definition to include statecraft, the policymaker may better appreciate the strategic elements of diplomacy: the forging of alliances and coalitions; the creation and promotion of international, multinational, and transnational institutions; the advancement of norms of political and other relations across borders; and so on (Cooper, 1997). Thus, if statecraft is the strategic promotion of the national (or state) interest by the intelligent maneuver of geopolitical and other realities, it helps to keep the means for such maneuvering in the forefront of policymaking.

It is generally, but not universally, said that peaceful means are preferable to violent ones. Either way, though, aligning the means and ends of foreign policy may be advanced by regarding diplomacy, and diplomatic “tools,” as being strategic as well as operational and tactical, rather than relegating them automatically to a subcategory of statecraft. In fact, the relationship between the two may be better understood the other way around, with diplomacy as both the primary organizer of foreign policy and the recipient of its directives. Foreign policy is the architect; diplomacy is the engineer and builder. A nation’s foreign policy, and even to some extent its domestic policy, are its diplomacy, inasmuch as diplomacy determines that nation’s standing around the world and its relationships with other nations. This is more than a redefinition, in other words. It is a reconceptualization of both diplomacy and foreign policy in a way that imagines the two as mutually integrated rather than as instrumentally hierarchical.

This is not an especially radical reconceptualization. It was, rather, the traditional one before much of international affairs grew more bellicose in the 20th century (Nicolson, 1939). It is ironic that that century began with an effort to remake international relations in progressive fashion, with World War I, touted as the war to end all wars, and the Treaty of Versailles, designed to inaugurate a New Diplomacy and New World Order. Both of these would vitiate not only periodic military campaigns, but also many of the elements of diplomacy that by then had become objectionable (or at least unfashionable) to opinion leaders and policymakers in Europe and the United States: spheres of influence, secret agreements, arms races, and so on. All of them are still present in the world, along with other, even more unsavory, elements of the diplomatic repertoire. Yet, the international relations of the early 21st century, in spite of their many problems and the absence of anything resembling a permanent, peaceful world order, nevertheless have more in common with the aims and declarations of the early-20th-century, Euro-Atlantic progressives than with much of what they denounced. Most of today’s diplomacy is multilateral, norm- and rule-based, public, peaceful, and, increasingly, global (Cohen, 1991; Holmes & Rofe, 2016). But neither it nor its effect is permanent. They will continue to change. That is another important reality for the policymaker to bear in mind.

Who Are Diplomats?

Effective policymaking first demands a clear sense of who implements policy and how they do it. Most diplomats are identified by their place on a bureaucratic chart—that is, working in foreign ministries. It is a commonplace, for example, to disparage diplomatic history as being little more than “what one clerk said to another.” Diplomats serve in embassies; they read and write cables; they draft and are mentioned in official memoranda and sometimes in press accounts. That, more or less, is the stereotypical sum of it.

In truth, many more people are diplomats than those who have an official diplomatic assignment. To begin with, there are their families—especially their spouses—who traditionally have carried out diplomatic functions both inside and outside embassies. There are consular officials, who may perform the role of representation as much as diplomats. There are special envoys, emissaries, troubleshooters, and any number of other temporary or semipermanent office holders who are sent abroad to represent and promote the interests of their sovereigns. There are the staff and delegates of multilateral institutions, both those of the United Nations and of regional organizations. Finally, there are many nongovernmental groups and individuals: activists and policy entrepreneurs of many stripes; humanitarian, relief, and aid organizations; multinational corporations; journalists; film stars; musicians; diaspora lobbies; and sports celebrities. While most people would regard them more as unofficial mediators than as diplomats, it is certain that, with globalization, they have come to perform many of the roles—notably, in international dialogue—that fall to diplomats.

For the policymaker, it may make more sense to use a functional rather than a narrowly professional label when determining whether a particular group or individual serves a diplomatic function or otherwise matters in a nation’s diplomacy (Scott-Smith, 2014). The question then becomes one of how to enlist or otherwise account for such entities. They may fall along a spectrum of utility that extends from hindrance or nuisance to primary asset. In principle, official diplomatic agents have their sovereign as their main constituent and advancing the sovereign’s interest as their primary vocation, for which they ought to expect their sovereign’s backing. There are times and places when the international fraternity of diplomats may appear to conspire against particular nations or national interests, but this is rare and almost never defended overtly and directly. Rather, there is more often than not a complex bureaucratic struggle underway, such as in 1969, when the diplomats at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters worked among themselves, often without clear instructions, to fashion a response to Soviet calls for a Europe-wide peace conference, which eventually became the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). This was done in some cases without the authorization of national governments, or even in the face of their opposition to some aspects of the negotiations, notably the human rights provisions of what became the Helsinki Final Act (Kieninger, 2016).

Bureaucratic structures and motivations bring one set of complexities to policymaking. Nongovernmental mediators bring another, for nearly all have a particular agenda that may or may not be consistent with official ones. And the more determined and powerful a quasi-diplomatic actor is, the harder it usually is to coopt or marginalize that agenda (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). Just as this CSCE example suggests, agendas can form their own transnational alliances, not only among nongovernmental and nonstate actors, but also increasingly between them and state actors. The more controversial the policy is, the more elaborate these alliances become. Anyone following the debates over the Iranian nuclear negotiations in 2014–2015, for example, would have been challenged to trace the networks of supporters and opponents on both sides of the issue, crossing as many geographic, professional, and political boundaries as there were ups and downs in the actual negotiations

Diplomatic historians will recall that such constellations are nothing new (Jacobson & Stein, 1966). Some of the most significant actors at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815, for example, were courtesans, who, while having a connection to a particular state through their relationship with one or several of the delegates to the Congress, had at the same time very complex agendas and loyalties, as well as their own semiofficial and extraofficial networks of influence, otherwise known as salons (Sluga, 2015). It is impossible to understand the full history of that or any other congress without taking into account such people, their methods, and their activities, which one does not find recorded in most official documentation of the “what one clerk said to another” variety.

A network-based conception of diplomacy, therefore, is probably the most useful to have in mind for any policymaker charged with relating the means to the desired ends of policy. Yet, the use of diplomats often results as much from who they are or where they sit as from what they can do and how they do it.

The Role of Diplomacy

To advance a broader view of what diplomacy is, therefore, must rest upon a clear idea of what diplomacy does. The traditional role of diplomacy is to serve the sovereign (or, in contemporary terms, the national interest) in relation to others (Berridge, 1995; Freeman, 1996). There are, of course, many ways to do this. The most common involves representation. Diplomats represent the sovereign both in person, as envoys and negotiators, and in spirit, as purveyors of a public image or mouthpiece on behalf of the sovereign. The representative and representational roles are akin to those of a legislature—where they are usually understood as being actual and virtual—insofar as they put diplomats in an often-paradoxical position of having to subsume, or even to subvert, their individual interests and attitudes to the general will as expressed through their sovereigns (that is to say, governments); yet at the same time, they are meant to use all the particular, individual initiative that they can muster to advance that will. Diplomacy as representation, therefore, divides itself into means and ends. The ends are collective; the means may be individual, even idiosyncratic.

This distinction is not perfect, however. Representation understood exclusively as a means to an end would suggest that diplomats do not have minds of their own, at least in strategy or politics; in other words, diplomacy exists solely to implement policy rather than make it (Schake, 2012). This has not always been the case. Before the widespread use of the telegraph, for example, envoys serving in distant posts had substantial autonomy in dealing with their host governments and societies (Nickles, 2003). Sometimes they were issued instructions; other times, they were not, so they had to improvise, thereby “setting policy” or establishing “facts on the ground.” Even after technology allowed diplomats to communicate more frequently—and today instantaneously—across borders, the tendency for messages to get mixed or delayed and a number of other ambiguities introduced by the need to function simultaneously in multiple time zones have meant that the diplomat is more than just a messenger of policy. Not only do diplomats take the opportunity to craft and modify the message, but also they still control in some instances the means of delivering it—and, therefore, the circumstances in which it is received and understood. The message also travels in both directions; thus, diplomats who add their contribution to intergovernmental communication may also influence policymaking back home by interpreting the views and interests of their host nation in certain ways (Freeman, 1996).

This is where the role of representation merges with mediation. Diplomats not only negotiate interests and their interpretations; they also often mediate, or rather, align, particular diplomatic styles with the values and characteristics of the nation being represented. In the case of the United States, for example, there are self-described “realists”—proponents of Realpolitik—who have long argued that the country’s foreign policy should resemble that of Britain’s in the 18th and 19th centuries following a theory called offshore balancing (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2016). Whether this theory can fit with longstanding American preferences for steadiness, commitments, and rule of law is open to question; if so, it would require considerable diplomatic tailoring.

Yet, just as multiple time zones create a paradox in having to think and act in several places at once while still keeping one’s own sovereign’s interest foremost in one’s work, so too does the intersection of diplomacy’s multiple roles. It is easy to confuse the role of devil’s advocate—which diplomats are often asked to play—with dual or multiple loyalties, or what is known popularly as “going native.” The facility with which this charge is made, especially in an era of instantaneous and open communication, makes it even more necessary to make clear distinctions between means and ends and between policy and message—or, more specifically, between actual and declaratory policy (Spence, 1993). To assert that diplomats need not restrict their role to any one of these areas, and allowing for their playing several of them at once, ought not to be mistaken for a deliberate blurring of the roles for its own sake. This point holds not only with regard to intergovernmental relations, but also to transnational ones, as both official and unofficial diplomats immerse themselves in other societies and cultures, yet persist in being seen as representatives of their own.

As world public opinion grew captivated during the modern era with the idea that war should not be an end in itself, diplomacy acquired an additional role: to preserve peace (Howard, 2001). Needless to say, this role may or may not be in the sovereign’s immediate interest, and there are plenty of occasions in which the latter role supplants the former one as diplomats are called upon to “stack the deck” in favor of a successful military venture, or to minimize the negative effects of one once it has begun. Diplomacy may also be the first resort to “end” wars once they are on their way to being won or lost, or even when they fall into stalemate, such as with the Dayton Peace Accords during the Bosnian phase of the wars of Yugoslav succession (Holbrooke, 1998).

Diplomacy’s role as peacemaker or peace enforcer is complex, adhering to many of the same ambiguities of time and place. This calculus is not so simple as the statement attributed to Frederick the Great that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. Too little implied force may indeed make some diplomatic ventures toothless; but too much, or too much administered in the wrong way (e.g., bluffing), may diminish the leverage and trust that diplomacy needs to succeed. Such has long been the principle underpinning these tactics (Berridge, Keens-Soper, & Otte, 2001). Ultimately, however, preserving peace through diplomacy is not so much a psychological political/military calculus at a particular moment as it is a continuous reconstruction and renegotiation of norms, assumptions, and attitudes over time. This is what diplomats have called a “logic of peace” (Goodby, 1998). It is at the present moment the dominant basis for policymaking in most developed countries.

The Diplomatic Imagination

How would a policymaker design a logic of peace? First, it needs to be imagined. Like most imaginations, the diplomatic one is unique by virtue of its multiple settings. In serving one constituency (their sovereign) through the eyes of another (the host country), diplomats become adept at balancing—and, ideally, intermingling—several views and perspectives. They find and exploit such intersections—at the so-called middle ground—and devise ways to sustain them. This involves persuading both sets of audiences of the virtue in the interests of the other, and in turn persuading them to compromise some of those interests in the greater good of mutual relations. That mediating role is rather straightforward. The more difficult aspect of it for policymakers to appreciate is less spatial (i.e., geographical) than chronological (i.e., historical).

This is true for two main reasons. The first is that policymaking by nature operates with firm chronological demarcations. Policies are designed, debated, executed, and implemented; budgets are appropriated; results are achieved; lessons are learned; reforms are proposed; and the cycle begins anew. It is not surprising that policy makes such frequent use of the language of scoring: benchmarks, guidelines, and the like (Cooper, 1997; Riordan, 2002). This is not the standard by which one gauges the success or failure of diplomacy. Certainly, there are concrete diplomatic achievements—treaties, visits, and so on. However, diplomats will admit that the times when they feel the most uncertain, the most nervous, and, possibly, the most fearful about their performance come right after an agreement has been reached and is about to be signed, for the simple reason that a good diplomat will always wonder if some detail has not been overlooked or that the treaty language is less than perfect, allowing a loophole that may introduce an even bigger diplomatic problem down the road. Likewise, the failure to reach an agreement can actually constitute an important achievement (Oberdorfer, 1991; Drell & Shultz, 2007).

As noted, the best diplomacy is continuous, not punctuated, even by ostensible successes. This was the model established by Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century (Berridge, 1995; Berridge, Keens-Soper, & Otte, 2001; Nicolson, 1939; Sofer, 2013). So long as the wheels of diplomacy are turning, negotiations and other diplomatic relationships are under way, and envoys and their governments are in regular dialogue, the effort is a success. The diplomatic démarche is part of such continuity; such protests, even if they amount to temporary breaches in dialogue, are in principle par for the course; but if they last too long or become particular ends in themselves so that any dialogue is regarded as being a concession or even a form of appeasement as a matter of policy, then diplomacy is no longer working. Policymakers call this “the process” and must be conscious of its value in diplomacy for it to play any useful role.

The other chronological reason has to do with the temporal basis of policy aims. Neither interests nor perspectives are permanent, although they are often perceived to be, and saying so—as in Lord Palmerston’s famous quip about Britain having no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests—can have a certain appeal (Nicolson, 1939). In truth, interests not only vary over time, but also by the beholder; rare is the “national interest” that is perceived and acted upon uniformly across an entire nation, let alone across all bureaucratic factions within a single government. Even dictatorships can be fickle when it comes to state interest—or especially so, as some would say. Good diplomacy, therefore, is an exercise not only in continuous negotiation, but also in the regular adjustment of foreign as well as domestic perceptions, expectations, and realities. The diplomatic imagination, therefore, consists of a capacity to visualize what these may be in the near future, while keeping in mind what they have been in the immediate (and sometimes, more distant) past, and, at the same time, to invent methods and incentives that align such a vision with what governments can (or cannot) do at the present time.

To politicians, that imagination would sound merely like a higher rendition of the art of the possible; that is so, and yet diplomacy operates across several political systems and structures, and therefore the diplomatic imagination also consists of altering some boundaries while preserving others. In the abovementioned example of the CSCE, the diplomats succeeded in drafting an agreement to formalize the postwar borders of Europe, while at the same time enshrining an elevated standard for human rights protection and “freer movement” within and across those borders. Some historians have credited the latter with helping to dissolve those borders, notably the Berlin Wall, a decade or so later (Snyder, 2011). The dissolution of borders per se does not violate a diplomatic standard; the preference is that it occur peacefully, which in this instance it largely did.

Diplomacy and Policy Planning

Many foreign ministries today have planning departments. Their work includes, in some governments, overseeing speechwriting for their foreign ministers and the kind of long-range scenario planning that borders on futurology. For the most part, however, policy planners work within a time frame of three to five years ahead—that is, the medium-term future, just beyond the immediate necessities of policy but not too far beyond them. The planner is meant to anticipate conditions and problems, to test policy assumptions, to consider influences and other effects among them, and to examine policy alternatives, including shifts in course, far enough in advance so as to keep them within the realm of possibility.

Thus, it is difficult to partake in the diplomatic art of the possible without the help of diligent planners. The U.S. secretary of state who established the first permanent office of policy planning in the State Department, the aforementioned George Marshall, was a professional soldier and drew upon his experience with military planning in advocating and supporting the new office (Drezner, 2009). However, the planners themselves were nearly all civilians; they built less upon the general staff tradition than upon their study of history and what they may have recognized simply as a higher form of common sense (also known as good judgment). Planning, thus understood, is a combination of good preparation and the imaginative process described in the previous section. It is what Otto von Bismarck referred to when he defined his tendency to sniff at the direction of history, then to grab onto its coattails before it was too late (Taylor, 1955).

Policy planning is the activity that connects diplomacy with statecraft. There is some element of prediction in it, but it has mainly to do with shaping the future by anticipating a role for policy in that future, rather than the reverse. The difficulty in applying this rule to both policy and diplomacy is that many plans fail. Dwight Eisenhower used to put it this way, in homage to the elder Helmuth von Moltke: “the plans are nothing, but the planning is everything” (Millen, 2014, p. 37). This means that very few events work out as planned; most plans are torn up, according to soldiers, as soon as the first shots are fired. But planning—the act of making plans and the collective thinking that enters into them—is essential for good policy. Diplomacy especially requires a perpetual effort at thinking through causes and probable effects. Otherwise, it is improvisational, itinerant, and only rarely successful.

Good planning in diplomacy should be sophisticated and flexible without being too complex. As with military planning, it usually divides its attention and goals hierarchically on strategic, operational, and tactical levels. It distinguishes first-order diplomatic initiatives and priorities from second-, third-, and fourth-order ones, and yet, at the same time, it emphasizes connections among them so that minor problems or incidents do not become major ones (Ellsworth, Goodpaster, & Hauser, 2000). In so doing, planners also may draw connections between diplomacy and broader trends in politics and society. A policy planner at the turn of the 20th century, for example, would have analyzed the options for Habsburg diplomacy in light of the most recent manifestations of nationalist opinion across Europe; a particularly shrewd policy planner would have anticipated several crises in various corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and proposed a range of diplomatic options, both unilateral and multilateral, to ensure that the most likely incidents did not escalate into larger crises; and an especially fortunate policy planner would have found a willing ear in the Hapsburg court and in its various ministries to prepare, and possibly to prevent or preempt, the likelihood of such anticipated crises. This planning would not necessarily have stopped the chain of events beginning in June 1914 and culminating in the Great War; on the other hand, it may have made an important difference in the tone and substance of Habsburg relations with both Germany and Russia, which in turn might have prevented the cataclysm from being as bad as it was.

Planning—to include such retrospectives on the planning that did not take place—is by its nature speculative. Good diplomacy is the antidote to speculation’s ambiguities, insofar as communication contributes to trust, confidence, and predictable relations between governments. It is certainly possible to plan for all that, as well as for its opposite. Policy planning, however, is neither a theoretical exercise nor necessarily an abstract one. Like diplomacy, it is best grounded in the facts of a particular place and time, for which the accuracy and precision of knowledge are not only desirable, but necessary.

Diplomacy and Intelligence

Good intelligence vies with good planning in informing good policy. In fact, the two are often conflated, even confused, such that so-called intelligence failures are attributed to bad information just as they are to misusing or neglecting the information that is available. In the example just discussed, the escalation of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to a world war was not the result of an intelligence failure per se: the authorities were aware of various plots and, had they had believed specific intelligence about this one, would almost surely have acted to prevent it. Whether that would have kept World War I from breaking out after some other crisis is another question, and still a topic of historical debate. The same is more or less true for other such infamous moments: the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941; the Egyptian launch of the October War in 1973; and the al Qaeda terrorist attacks in 2001. Just as each case is different, the intelligence available—known, unknown, neglected, or misinterpreted—varies by quantity and quality. In nearly every case, however, intelligence affects the capacity of diplomats to act.

For this reason, intelligence, especially clandestine intelligence, has long been part of diplomacy. Diplomats have been known to run spy operations or were operatives themselves. Even today in some places, the most common cover for intelligence agents and operatives is diplomatic service. The methods of such people in diplomacy are too numerous to identify. They range from providing secret information about negotiating positions—a frequent target for intelligence agencies, especially after the invention of the telegraph, and later the electronic listening device—to planting disinformation and disseminating propaganda, to justifying or excusing predetermined diplomatic courses of action, and to manipulating the diplomatic process itself by way of back channels and other such alternatives to standard diplomatic procedure (Thompson & Padover, 1937; Moss, 2017).

This approach has carried a few misgivings. Henry Stimson, an American secretary of state, once shut down his country’s nascent cryptographic service—called “The Black Chamber”—with the infamous comment that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail” (Yardley, 1931; Kahn, 2004). Yet, most of these activities differ little in spirit from that of the Vienna Congress courtesans, who mastered the flow of information from a privileged position in the diplomatic service of the sovereign (Sluga, 2015). They can take on lives of their own, with effects that are difficult to predict or measure. This point serves as a reminder that intelligence services, even when under the firm direction of a foreign ministry (but more commonly working in parallel to one), are just as prone to insular, self-protective, and self-promotional behavior as any other bureaucracy, which is to say that the work of intelligence bureaucracies may not always be consistent with the aims, purposes, and role of diplomacy, even under the broad definition of it advanced here.

Working at cross purposes, however, is usually the exception to the rule. The value of timely and accurate intelligence is, and ought to be, self-evident. It means more than gaining an edge in a negotiation or outflanking an adversary in one way or another. So much of diplomacy is based on empathy—developing the ability and the habit of seeing matters through the eyes of one’s counterparts is the bedrock of diplomatic practice. In other words, there is also emotional intelligence, to use a popular contemporary term. For this, one needs good, reliable information, the wisdom to make good use of that information, and a good amount of basic instinct, honed by experience.

It is no surprise, then, that foreign ministries have established their own intelligence and analyses branches, such as the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In theory, no amount of intelligence is too much; but, in practice, too much emanating from one bureaucracy can lead to stale and predictable findings and what is known as groupthink, often meant as much to confirm previous judgments or biases as to reach the most accurate assessment of the problem or condition at hand. For the maker of foreign policy, the relationship between intelligence and diplomacy must be an organic one, whereby diplomacy is backed by, and in turn encourages, the best available intelligence, furnished by sophisticated and well-funded intelligence services. Yet, at the same time, the policymaker must discriminate between the promotion of intelligence for its own sake or for other purposes, and that which has a direct or otherwise important bearing upon diplomacy.

The Diplomatic Setting

A basic but often overlooked distinction is between foreign policy and foreign or external relations. As noted previously, many people besides officially credited diplomats play diplomatic roles, but not everyone or everything that crosses a border qualifies as an element or factor of diplomacy. To do so, it must promote such crossings or relations in the interest of a sovereign, and presumably in the name of peace. This is another way of saying that diplomacy encompasses such relations—to include everything from commercial relationships to sports competitions—and makes them possible, but that they are not synonymous with diplomacy or constitute its whole, notwithstanding their occasional role in a diplomatic setting. How then do diplomats further them as a matter of policy?

First, they do it by setting expectations as norms. An example of this is the diplomatic summit, a variation on the traditional conference or congress that came to typify high-level diplomacy in the 20th century (Reynolds, 2007). As the name suggests, these are meetings between heads of state in order to negotiate agreements, usually treaties. They, and the publicity accompanying them, are also meant to demonstrate comity and are an important element of what became accepted as the international community. The symbolic role of summits, therefore, cannot be divorced from their actual role in reaching an agreement, least of all for the policymaker who must plan and prepare them. Initially, summits—notably those during World War II and the Cold War—did involve a great deal of negotiation, and they were rated as successes or failures based on the quality of decisions and agreements that emerged from them (Feis, 1957; Tudda, 2015). Later, the symbolic role of summits led to some of them being little more than exercises in collective bonhomie, with most of the actual agreements precooked (that is, negotiated in private in advance of the summit), so the principal participants do little more than endorse a menu of “deliverables” (Bayne, 2000).

Multilateral summitry—a variation on what used to be called congress or conference diplomacy—once it becomes periodic and semipermanent, serves to align foreign policy with foreign relations by providing a visible forum for consultation and cooperation. The fact that this now includes topics other than narrow political and military ones—with summits for everything from counternarcotics to vaccines to environmental protection—affirms the central role of diplomacy and its apparatus in international society. This has evolved less as a linear progression than as a kind of institutional palimpsest, for there are still the foreign ministries, embassies, consulates, and other traditional institutions that have long featured in diplomacy. Innovations, or what some specialists have called transformations, in diplomatic practice, such as the multilateral summit, have come largely by way of such institutions, rather than as their substitutes (Pedersen, 2015; Sofer, 2013; Melissen, 1999).

Thus, just as the multilateral summit merged several traditional practices of the diplomatic congress with what the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson promoted as the “New Diplomacy” and summarized in his “Fourteen Points” (“open covenants openly arrived at,” etc.), today’s embassies and other physical expressions of the diplomatic profession have acquired the elements of what today’s “New Diplomats” tout as virtual diplomacy, or “Diplomacy 2.0”: websites, social media, and the like (Seib, 2012; Riordan, 2002; cf. Knock, 1992; Nicolson, 1939). The essential and the performative elements of diplomacy, therefore, continue to be intertwined, albeit in a new guise and with some variation. Dramatic changes in information technology need not do away with the distinction between policy prescriptions and an accurate portrayal of a situation, and yet the complexity brought about by the multiplication in the sources of information and the immediacy of interpretations of that information pose difficult challenges for diplomats.

The common feature in these various innovations is the institution. Continuous diplomacy may occur by any number of means—such as summits, conferences, workshops, and online seminars—and while they do transform the message at particular times and places, its basic aim has remained more or less consistent (i.e., to advance the interests of one’s own side in harmony with that of others through dialogue and negotiation, or, failing that, through contestation and resistance). Most observers have been skeptical about the proposition that, unlike the letter carried by messenger or the cable telegraph, today’s electronic communications have transformed the institution by making it less, not more, conducive to its primary purpose because social media have tended to put up as many walls as they tear down, coming to resemble less networks of ideas and human interaction than closed circuits, much like the recent conversion of many embassies into armed fortresses (Bátora, 2008; Riordan, 2002; Kurbalija, 1998). Yet those who work in them (or over them, as electronic curators) may spend more of their time tending to the walls and policing the entry and exit points than they do to cultivating and promoting the open and creative settings necessary for diplomacy.

The institutional means, in other words, have become ends in themselves. A forward presence, whether physical or virtual, has become less an asset than a target in need of protection, and therefore a diplomatic liability. This, too, is not necessarily new: envoys have long faced risks, including being taken hostage, and even worse. However, the profession itself may have come under threat, both from those who would exploit its weaknesses and from those who would insist on so narrow an understanding of its purpose as to consign it to the margins of foreign policy.


It has been argued that diplomacy is much more than an operational tool of foreign policy. A broad definition of the former places all the elements together in concert, with diplomats, their imagination, the roles in policy planning and intelligence, and the settings in which they work all constructively interacting, each providing tools for the other. How might such a reformulation affect an understanding of policy and of its development, implementation, and effects?

Observers who bemoan the putative militarization of foreign policy are quick to imply or suggest that a reformulation—“putting diplomacy first”—will bring about more peace (Brooks, 2016). This is not necessarily true. For one thing, it commits the error already noted of identifying diplomacy primarily with peace. The broader definition of diplomacy reveals peace and war to be related organically, and sometimes even interdependently, rather than separate, opposing states of affairs, with one being the moral opponent or cure of the other. While it is commendable to laud the peaceful nature of states and their efforts to perpetuate peace, it does diplomacy little service to deny that sovereigns, even the most peacefully inclined, will occasionally choose an aggressive course. Pacifism, in other words, is no less opposed to the basic principles of diplomacy, and to its proper place in policymaking, than militarism. Both -isms are ideologies with doctrines; both eschew real interests, passions, aims, and possibilities for an ideal; and both almost always fall short of satisfaction, which means that both are never-ending in their demands for more of the same. Their adherents make for poor diplomats and policymakers.

Seeking peace or war through negotiation or contestation is an ethical, or perhaps a moral, mission, not a diplomatic, or an antidiplomatic, one. Thus, to calculate the role of diplomacy in foreign policy requires a basic belief in the capacity to achieve results vis-à-vis other polities, rather than mainly through the independent exertions of one’s own. The means and the ends may be good or bad (that is to say, advantageous or disadvantageous), but in principle neither is virtuous nor evil. The virtue of diplomacy resides in a different principle: that the more intelligent interaction that takes place across borders, the greater the likelihood that one’s interests and goals will be met and one’s policies will work. There is no guarantee that greater familiarity will achieve greater understanding and cooperation—sometimes it brings about the opposite, in fact—but the principle still holds. It is very difficult to achieve anything in the world entirely by oneself. Independence is best sought in league with others. For this simple aim, diplomacy exists.


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