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What is diplomacy?

Three-layered definition of diplomacy by Jovan Kurbalija

This three-layered definition by Jovan Kurbalija provides comprehensive coverage and precision in Diplo's teaching and research on diplomacy.

Diplomacy can be broadly defined as the conduct of international relations by peaceful means. Diplomacy is the opposite of the military.

In a more restrictive sense, it refers to the conduct of international relations by agents and representatives of states, international organizations, businesses, and other actors.

In a more specific way, diplomacy is an institutional system operated by diplomatic services (ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, and consulates) and international organisations.

The term 'diplomacy' refers to 200 types of diplomacy, ranging from classics like 'multilateral' and 'bilateral diplomacy' to modern adaptations like 'carpet' and 'ping-pong diplomacy'.

Diplomacy is often used interchangeably with foreign policy, international relations, and international law.

What is the etymology of the word diplomacy?

The term "diplomacy," widely used in its modern context since the late 17th to early 18th century, has roots in Ancient Greek, meaning "folded in two." This led to the word "diploma," referring to documents issued by chancelleries formalizing agreements between sovereigns.

Gottfried Leibniz was notably the first to use "diplomacy" in its contemporary sense in his codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus, published in 1593 in Hanover, to categorize documents on international relations. Similarly, Baron Jean C. de Dumont released a collection in 1725 titled Corps Universel Diplomatique du Droit des Gens.

However, the origin of the term "diplomacy" in its modern form remains debated among historians. British scholars often trace the first written use to 1787, when the Annual Register in London used "diplomatic" to describe personnel in overseas missions. The credit for popularizing the modern usage of "diplomacy" often goes to Edmund Burke, who, in 1796, used it to describe a group of foreign envoys in Paris.

What is digital diplomacy?

Digital diplomacy refers to the interplay between digital technology and the practice of diplomacy, and encompasses the changing diplomatic environment, new policy domains, and innovative digital tools.

Visit Diplo’s dedicated Digital Diplomacy page now to discover this new topic!

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How is diplomacy performed?

Diplomacy is performed through the following functions outlined in Article 3 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), inter alia:

  • Representing the sending State in the receiving State
  • Protecting the interests of the sending State and of its nationals in the receiving State, within limits permitted by international law
  • Negotiating with the Government of the receiving State
  • Ascertaining, by all lawful means, conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State
  • Promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, as well as developing economic, cultural, and scientific relations

The phrase inter alia suggests the potential for including additional diplomatic functions.

What is diplomatic representation?

Diplomatic representation includes the following aspects: ceremony and symbolism, power and interests, and ideas. States are typically represented via resident diplomatic missions and occasionally through non-resident ambassadors. 

What are diplomatic negotiations?

At the heart of diplomatic functions lies negotiation. Quincy Wright articulates diplomacy as 'the craft of negotiation, striving to achieve maximum group objectives with minimum costs, within a political system where war is plausible'.

Hedley Bull views diplomacy as 'the administration of international relations through negotiation'. G. R. Berridge emphasises negotiation as an alternative to force, stating: 'Diplomacy is the management of international relations via negotiation, as opposed to force, propaganda, or legal recourse.

It also encompasses other peaceful methods (like information gathering or fostering goodwill) aimed directly or indirectly at promoting negotiation.'

Why is information gathering important in diplomacy?

Since the dawn of diplomacy, information gathering and analysis has been a key diplomatic function. While information acquisition posed significant challenges in the past, today's digital age offers abundant data from sources like Wikipedia, social media, and other online platforms.

However, the internet also presents hurdles in discerning and verifying reliable sources. How much can diplomatic services trust online data? How can diplomats assess, contextualise, and utilise this information effectively?

At Diplo, we tackle these challenges head-on through our dedicated focus on data and diplomacy work.

How to achieve the protection of interests and citizens abroad?

Diplomatic and consular protection are two primary means of safeguarding a state and its citizens abroad. Diplomatic protection involves diplomats from the sending state working via their foreign affairs ministry, while consular protection involves consular officers liaising directly with relevant authorities in the receiving state.

The principle of diplomatic protection, initiated in 17th and 18th century Europe and America to shield foreign investments, was established in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (Article 3). Notably, the Calvo Doctrine, named after an Argentinean jurist and widely applied, assigns jurisdiction in international investment disputes to the country where the investment is made.

The age-old consular function aims to protect the commercial and other interests of a sending state's citizens. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963) is a major legal source regulating consular relations, supplemented by numerous bilateral consular agreements and the European Convention on Consular Functions (1967), ratified by only four countries.

How is diplomatic communication defined?

Diplomacy is fundamentally about communication and information exchange. It's seen as 'transnational communication among global elites', according to Bhagevatula S. Murty.

Similarly, Brian White views diplomacy as 'a dialogue and negotiation process among international actors aiming to resolve conflicts' and as 'an instrument for executing foreign policy'.

This crucial role of communication in diplomacy is encapsulated by Trần Văn Dĩnh, who compares communication to the lifeblood of diplomacy: 'Communication is to diplomacy what blood is to the human body.

When communication stops, the diplomatic process - the body of international politics - either succumbs to violent conflict or withers.'

Other scholars like Constantiou and James Alan characterise diplomacy as 'a regulated communication process' and 'the communication system of international society', respectively.

What is the future of diplomatic meetings?

The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted us into a digital age, driving everyday activities from offline to online. The shift has surged in online lectures, meetings, and conferences. With this rise, new conferencing platforms emerge, with existing ones gaining momentum.

In response to these changes, Diplo hosted its pioneering Future of Meetings online conference in May 2020, drawing almost 600 participants. The conference dove into the five crucial facets of the future of meetings: technology, security, moderation, behaviour, and diplomacy. A digest of these enlightening discussions is accessible in the report here.

Explore Diplo's dedicated Future of Meetings page for a deeper dive into this subject.

How can AI assist diplomats in their daily work?

Rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) are poised to bring seismic shifts across various sectors, garnering attention from governments, the tech community, and global private sector players. The question on everyone's mind is: How do we navigate these unprecedented changes?

Diplo's cutting-edge AI and Data Lab is tackling this challenge head-on. As a comprehensive initiative, it explores AI policy through research and analysis, builds capacity in AI and related fields, delivers timely reports from key AI events and discussions, examines AI's impact on diplomacy, and much more.

The rising importance of AI cannot be overstated, especially in international relations. AI presents new topics to the global agenda, reshaping geostrategic relations, becoming a powerful tool for diplomats and negotiators, and bringing forth opportunities and challenges in protecting human rights.

Explore this fascinating interplay between AI and diplomacy in greater detail on Diplo’s dedicated AI Diplomacy page.

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Why is diplomacy vital for humanity?

The spectre of wars and escalating conflicts threaten the very existence of humanity, making diplomacy not just a strategic necessity but a lifeline for our collective future. In our highly interconnected world, diplomacy is critical in the machinery of global society and economy. Without it, the intricate web of our mutual dependencies could unravel instantly. Simply put, diplomacy isn't just about managing international relations – it's about safeguarding our shared future.

Is diplomacy in crisis today?

Absolutely. Today, diplomacy stands at a vital intersection in evolving global relations. Amid the rising geopolitical conflicts among the world's superpowers, the deteriorating structure of multilateralism, and the growing societal polarisation, the role of diplomacy as a peaceful resolution mechanism for disputes is being seriously tested.

In these uncertain times, diplomacy's indispensable role and significance are more apparent than ever. As an essential strategy for cultivating peace, encouraging collaboration, and addressing global challenges, diplomacy, as championed by Diplo, emerges as our most reliable beacon in navigating the volatile waters of the contemporary international relations landscape.

How can compromise, the core of diplomacy, gain more relevance?

The art of compromise is growing in significance through various, albeit challenging, methods, such as fostering a culture of transparent and constructive dialogue among nations, emphasising mutual interests and collective objectives, adopting a long-term perspective (even when it entails short-term sacrifices), and reinforcing or restructuring multilateral institutions and frameworks that encourage cooperation and compromise.

To make compromise a successful diplomatic tool, it's crucial to provide diplomats with the necessary skills and training in negotiation, conflict resolution techniques, and communication skills. These are integral to promoting the spirit of compromise in international relations.

Do you want to learn more about the power of compromise in diplomacy? Dive into the blog post What is the true meaning of compromise? penned by our director, Jovan Kurbalija, an expert in promoting compromise for effective diplomacy.

Remember to check out our Diplo Academy courses that empower diplomats with negotiation and conflict resolution techniques, underlining the importance of compromise in shaping the future of diplomacy.

The relevance of digital diplomacy

The relevance of digital diplomacy, sometimes named cyber diplomacy, in the digital era, is underscored by several key factors:

  • Navigating a transforming geopolitical and geo-economic landscape: Diplomats today operate in an environment profoundly shaped by digital technology's impact on national sovereignty, the rising prominence of cyber conflicts, as well as economic and political power shifts. The mastery of digital diplomacy skills is essential for diplomats to effectively traverse this new terrain.
  • Addressing new diplomatic policy topics: With the surfacing of over 50 digital policy issues – like e-commerce, cybersecurity, and AI governance – diplomats find themselves needing to negotiate with a diverse group of stakeholders, including tech specialists and scholars. Acquiring novel knowledge and competencies is key to effectively tackling these emerging digital and cyber policy challenges.
  • Adopting digital tools in diplomatic practice: Diplomats now leverage social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook as vital assets for public diplomacy. The recent COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the significance of online conferencing tools like Zoom and Teams. Further, diplomats are increasingly harnessing the power of big data and AI to garner insights into negotiations and enhance their country's promotion.

Discover more about the critical importance of digital diplomacy and cyber diplomacy in our contemporary era on our dedicated Digital Geopolitics page.

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Who are diplomats?

Diplomacy, once the profession of the few, is now a policy space for many.

For centuries, diplomacy was the exclusive domain of aristocrats. It was a profession marked by exclusivity and secrecy, with a limited number of individuals holding the reins of international relations. However, the landscape of diplomacy began to change in the 20th century through several transformative phases.

1918, during the Versailles Peace Congress, Woodrow Wilson called for "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at." This pivotal moment championed transparency in diplomatic agreements and opened the doors for statisticians, scientists, and other professionals to participate in the diplomatic process. This marked a significant shift, bringing diplomacy closer to the middle class.

The trend towards inclusivity gained momentum after the Second World War. The 1970s saw a more gender-balanced diplomatic landscape, thanks to the pioneering efforts of individuals like Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland. Her contributions to the sustainable development movement since the 1970s have played a crucial role in increasing the number of female diplomats and ambassadors.

The most recent phase of broadening diplomacy began with the 1992 Earth Summit and subsequent major UN events. These gatherings opened traditional diplomacy to various stakeholders, including environmental activists, civil society members, and academics.

Once confined to a select few, diplomacy has gradually evolved to become more inclusive, reflecting the diversity of modern society.

Whom do diplomats represent?

Diplomats represent their countries in the realm of international relations. However, the dynamics of global engagement are rapidly evolving, prompting the need for broader representation that includes local authorities, communities, businesses, and other non-state actors.

As highlighted by Susan Strange, contemporary diplomacy extends beyond government-to-government interactions to encompass negotiations with business enterprises and various organisations. This shift reflects the increasingly complex interdependence among global actors.

In their influential paper, Complex Interdependence, scholars Robert O. Keohane and Joseph Nye identify 'multiple channels' as a key characteristic of our interconnected world. This term encapsulates the rise of diverse diplomatic actors such as businesses, NGOs, individuals, and professional bodies, all contributing to the intricate web of international relations.

Further expanding this trend, domestic governmental departments like finance, trade, environment, and health are forging direct international contacts, bypassing traditional diplomatic pathways facilitated by ministries of foreign affairs. This emerging paradigm has led to such fluidity and dynamism in the field of diplomacy that some authors find it challenging to define diplomatic actors conclusively.

This evolving diplomatic landscape underscores the need for flexibility, adaptability, and inclusivity in global engagement, necessitating the continuous development and refinement of diplomatic practices.

What do diplomats do?

Diplomats serve as the cornerstone of a nation's foreign affairs, acting as official representatives of their countries in international arenas. Their chief mandate involves conducting diplomacy. This encompasses fostering diplomatic ties, orchestrating negotiations, and championing their nation's standpoints on diverse issues.

Diplomats' specific responsibilities and roles often fluctuate, contingent on their assigned rank, the nation they represent, and the precise context of their diplomatic endeavours. The profound complexity and the far-reaching influence of a diplomat's role is encapsulated in the words of Nobel laureate in Literature and former diplomat Ivo Andric, whose insights provide a unique perspective on the profession.

What are key diplomatic knowledge, skills, and talents?

Diplomacy calls for a robust blend of diplomatic knowledge, skills, and aptitudes, which include:

  • Effective communication skills: Diplomats must master the art of persuasive communication, negotiation, and engagement with counterparts from diverse cultures and backgrounds.
  • Interpersonal skills: Building and nurturing relationships, fostering trust, and effectively navigating diplomatic networks requires empathy, cultural sensitivity, tact, and the ability to thrive in multicultural settings.
  • Negotiation and mediation skills: Achieving consensus, resolving conflicts, and reaching agreements necessitate proficiency in negotiation techniques, problem-solving, consensus-building, and crafting win-win solutions.
  • Analytical and research abilities: A diplomat should be able to dissect complex political, economic, and social issues, gather and analyse information, understand differing perspectives, identify trends, and assess risks and opportunities. These critical research skills underpin the creation of accurate, timely reports and policy recommendations.
  • Cultural awareness: Understanding the customs, traditions, and values of different countries aids in forging stronger relationships and avoiding misunderstandings. Knowledge of foreign languages enhances communication and diplomatic interactions.
  • Strategic thinking: Diplomats must be capable of long-term implication analysis, informed decision-making, and strategic planning in alignment with their nation's interests. Balancing competing interests, evaluating risks, and understanding the wider geopolitical context are also essential.
  • Emotional intelligence and resilience: Managing stress, handling difficult situations, and maintaining composure in high-pressure environments require emotional intelligence and resilience. Adaptability and a positive, professional attitude are also indispensable.

To delve deeper into diplomacy and how to acquire diplomatic skills, read our insightful blog post Key skills for the next generation of diplomats.

How to train diplomats?

Acquiring diplomatic knowledge, mastering the art of diplomacy, and nurturing diplomatic skills demands an immersive mix of education, hands-on training, and real-world experience. Embarking on a journey of diplomatic training should ideally encompass practical assignments at embassies, international organisations, and relevant government sectors. These engagements offer diplomats real-time exposure to the intricate mechanics of diplomatic operations, enabling them to apply their learning and skills in tangible situations.

Aiming to produce proficient diplomats, such training should be dynamic, well-rounded, and encompass multiple disciplines. Diplomatic training instils diplomats with the necessary knowledge, skills, and mindset to adeptly represent their country's interests, helping them to seamlessly navigate the complex matrix of international relations and handle the ever-evolving challenges of global diplomacy.

For an in-depth exploration of the role and structure of diplomatic training, read our blog post Diplomatic training: Combining tradition and innovation.

Diplo Academy

Interested in joining the diplomatic service and/or improving your skills on the mentioned topics?
Visit the Diplo Academy page to learn more about the specialised courses and training we offer!

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When did diplomacy begin?

There is a saying that diplomacy dates back to the time when the first human societies decided that ‘it was better to hear the message than to shoot the messenger’. The first archaeological evidence of negotiation and diplomacy have their roots embedded in Mesopotamia, illuminating the age-old nature of diplomatic history.

Modern diplomacy started to emerge in the 1450s with the first official embassy. The formation of the first ministry of foreign affairs in 1678, a significant milestone in the evolution of diplomacy, is credited to Richelieu. In 1815, the Vienna Congress set the cornerstone for current diplomatic protocol and systems, thus shaping the trajectory of the diplomatic history we recognise today.

What is the oldest recorded reference to diplomatic relations?

Tracing the history of international relations takes us back to the cradle of civilisation in ancient Mesopotamia around 2500 BC. The city-states of Sumer, including Lagash, Umma, and Kish, were early pioneers in conducting diplomatic activities, with the earliest known written records of diplomatic correspondence etched on clay tablets reflecting the onset of international relations.

A remarkable milestone in the history of international relations is the Treaty of Kadesh from the 13th century BC. This treaty, between Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and Hittite King Hattusili III, is one of the earliest recorded peace treaties in human history. It established a peaceful coexistence and guided the relations between these two significant powers.

Diplo’s Historical Timeline of Diplomacy and Technology offers a more in-depth look at the evolution of international relations over the centuries.

What marked the beginning of modern diplomacy?

The dawn of modern diplomacy is widely attributed to the Peace of Westphalia, a series of pivotal treaties signed in 1648 that marked the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War in Europe. These treaties introduced fundamental principles and practices that served as the cornerstone for modern diplomacy and continue to inform today's diplomatic landscape.

The Peace of Westphalia introduced the critical concept of state sovereignty. It enshrined that states can govern their internal affairs free from external interference. This idea of sovereign equality has since been a linchpin principle in international relations and diplomacy.

Not only did the Peace of Westphalia formalise diplomatic negotiations and agreements among independent states, but it also marked the institutionalisation of diplomatic protocols and practices. Diplomats started to be mutually exchanged among states to facilitate negotiations, culminating in the signing of treaties.

Establishing territorial boundaries and state recognition was another consequential outcome of the Peace of Westphalia. It acknowledged the independence and territorial integrity of states, moulding the contemporary state-centric system of international relations prevalent today.

Furthermore, the treaties endorsed the idea of religious tolerance, recognising the rights of diverse religious groups within states. This acceptance of religious diversity and the principle of coexistence led to the enshrining of non-interference in the internal affairs of states, a principle integral to modern diplomacy.

Keen on delving deeper into the inception of modern diplomacy? Explore our Senior Fellow Aldo Matteucci’s blog post titled What’s all the fuss about the Westphalia Settlement?, a guide to understanding the profound impact of these first treaties on diplomatic history.

How has technology influenced diplomacy?

The interplay between technology and diplomacy traces back centuries, demonstrating a persistent and transformative influence on diplomatic practices. Technology has shaped how diplomats engage, gather information, and perform their duties. Even the establishment of reliable postal systems in ancient civilisations marked a significant advancement, enabling diplomatic communication over great distances. This was further bolstered by innovations like the telegraph, telephone, and fax machines.

However, it was the emergence of the internet and email in the late 20th century that revolutionised diplomacy on an unprecedented scale. Diplomats were now empowered to communicate instantaneously across the globe, share documents electronically, and tap into an enormous repository of information. Email swiftly became the primary conduit of diplomatic communication, significantly enhancing efficiency and responsiveness.

The ascendancy of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook in the early 21st century presented diplomats with innovative avenues for global engagement. These platforms have allowed diplomats to disseminate information, advocate policies, and participate in dialogues with citizens directly, sidestepping traditional media channels.

Keen on exploring the intricate relationship between diplomacy and technology across history? Visit Diplo's comprehensive History of Diplomacy and Technology page for a deep dive into the enduring impact of technological advancements on the field of diplomacy.

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Where does diplomacy take place?

Diplomacy is exercised in various environments, anywhere that negotiations or communications between different groups occur. More formally, international diplomacy is typically conducted at official events, within dedicated diplomatic spaces, and at international organisations.

The significance of state capitals in bilateral relations

State capitals hold an intrinsic importance in diplomatic relationships, primarily due to their roles as the epicentres of national governance. This makes them ideal locations for setting up diplomatic missions such as embassies.

The invaluable local insights and extensive network connections that diplomats can foster by being stationed in these capitals, interacting with both public and private sectors, as well as with foreign diplomats, make these cities indispensable hubs for cultivating diplomatic relationships.

To further explore the nuances of bilateral diplomacy, visit Diplo's specialised page on Bilateral Diplomacy.

The vital role of the United Nations and international organisations in diplomacy

Global platforms such as the United Nations (UN) and various international organisations are instrumental in shaping diplomatic practices. They offer states the opportunity to engage in diplomatic activities, negotiate agreements, and address global challenges.

While the UN acts as a broad forum for diplomacy, specialised international organisations concentrate on particular areas of global diplomatic interest. To delve deeper into the realm of multilateral diplomacy, visit Diplo's Multilateral Diplomacy page.

The impact of summits and conferences on diplomatic interactions

Summits act as significant diplomatic epicentres, convening leaders from diverse countries for high-level discussions and negotiations. This convergence of world leaders fosters immediate and direct communication, enhancing the efficiency of diplomatic exchanges.

The presence of influential decision-makers in one location allows for effective, high-stakes dialogue on pressing issues. Additionally, these gatherings often incorporate informal events, offering opportunities for building personal relationships and setting a tone conducive to successful diplomatic negotiations.

Given their media reach and public visibility, summits also offer leaders the chance to disseminate their positions and messages to a global audience, lending public diplomacy a pivotal role during such events.

Looking to learn more about the role of summits in diplomacy? Read Diplo’s insightful blog post Summit meetings: Their importance in diplomacy, penned by our alumnus Giorgos Samouel!

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Our favourite quotes on diplomacy

'The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.'

― Sun Tzu

'A diplomat who says 'yes' means 'maybe', a diplomat who says 'maybe' means 'no', and a diplomat who says 'no' is no diplomat.'

― Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand

‘Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.’

― Isaac Newton

‘Look and see which way the wind blows before you commit yourself.’

― Aesop

‘Be a craftsman in speech that thou mayest be strong, for the strength of one is the tongue, and speech is mightier than all fighting.’

― Ptahhotep

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