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Diplomacy and the revenge of globalization (Part I)

Published on 01 August 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Diplomacy has been around since there have been sovereign states with a need to coexist, but the word is a relatively recent coinage. It has little to do with folded papers, deriving from ‘diplomatics’, the study of ancestry and titles. The term first occurs in the modern sense about 1800 in English, a bit earlier in French, and ‘diplomats’ emerge by a process linguists call back formation: if there is diplomacy, and monarchy and oligarchy, and there are monarchs and oligarchs, then there must be diplomats  — never mind that the Greek roots are different.

In the beginning there was more than a whiff of sulphur attached to the term. Edmund Burke’s ‘discontented diplomatic politicians’ [1] were the French Jacobins of whom he took such a dim view. Along similar lines, early Americans connected the term diplomacy to the wiles of revolutionary France. Writing to Alexander Hamilton on 7 July 1800, Oliver Wolcott Jr., sometime Governor of Connecticut, refers to the so-called XYZ affair, when President John Adams sent a mission to France, and Talleyrand, advised by the sly Thomas Jefferson, confronted it with a demand for bribes:  ‘I shall ever believe that the last mission to France, was by the (President) considered as a “game of diplomacy”, & that it was his intention to gain popularity at home by appearing to be desirous of peace, while he exhibited his talents as a great Statesman, by outwitting the French in Negociation. [2]

By 1812, as war loomed with England, in American minds the term diplomacy was associated with perfidious Albion. In February of that year we find John Quincy Adams writing to President Madison from Saint Petersburg where he was the American Minister about British machinations: ‘The Regent holds out conciliatory language … but conciliatory language, has so long been the instrument of British diplomacy, that it is no longer a fraud. There is not gilding enough to cover the metal.’ [3]  At about the same time, the town fathers of Burlington, Vermont, were drawing up a petition referring to the ‘injustice and chicanery of British diplomacy’, while their counterparts in Milton, Massachusetts, were expressing concern that ‘the rights of our present & future generations’ might disappear ‘before the diplomacy of Courts’. [4] It would be a long time before this association of diplomacy with chicanery and trickery disappeared in the American mind. Some people might argue that it never has.

The Enlightenment term, of course, was negotiation, which has the virtue of clarity.  On Negotiating with Sovereigns was the short form of the title of Callières’s famous diplomatic manual. Negotiation implies the necessity for compromise, with no need for a recondite vocabulary in French, but diplomacy may be conceived of as a heroic and solitary activity ‒ think of Henry Kissinger, who wrote an entire book with that title. 

Diplomacy involves a particular sort of negotiation, of course — one between or among sovereign states. We live with the peculiar conviction that the world is composed of these juridically equivalent entities, a notion that through most of the long sweep of human history would have been thought very strange indeed. The Christian Middle Ages in Europe would have found it immoral and absurd on its face, and so would the Ottomans, not to mention the Middle Kingdom of China and the Romans. At last count there were 192 of these entities, from Papua New Guinea to the United States, each with a theoretical right to conduct its internal affairs without interference from all the others. Although the UN General Assembly and Security Council have formally endorsed the principle of a Responsibility to Protect, endorsing a right to intervene in certain situations, this remains a theoretical writ. It is hard to see its applicability in Syria, or Ukraine, or Gaza.

In the globalized landscape of the information age, advanced thinkers and futurists have long discerned the demise of the nation-state. In 1993, the young French diplomat Jean-Marie Guéhenno, predicted that economic globalization would inevitably give rise to ‘a society which is infinitely fragmented, without any memory or solidarity, finding its unity only in a weekly succession of media images, a society without citizens, and thus in the end, a non-society’. [5] In a more popular vein, the bestselling books and writings of the New York Times foreign policy columnist Thomas Friedman promote the notion of a world flattened by the power of globalization and networking. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, he has recently been reduced to writing about lemurs in Madagascar, Silicon Valley is particularly impatient with the inefficiencies of elected governments. Google’s CEO Larry Page suggests that a piece of the world’s territory somewhere be set aside for experimentation — a modest Republic of Google. Visionaries like Balaji Shrinavasan suggest that the Valley declare its digital independence from the United State, seasteading a cyberstate on the high seas. But when China demands changes in Google’s search engine as a condition of access to the vast Chinese market, even Google bows to sovereignty.


Ambassador Laurence Pope is a 31-year veteran of the US Foreign Service. He is recipient of the highest award given by the Defense Department to a civilian, the Secretary of Defense Medal for Distinguished Civilian Service. A consultant to the Defense Department and other national security agencies, he is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. His latest book – The Demilitarization of American Diplomacy: Two cheers for striped pants published earlier this year (Palgrave, 2014).



[1] See Burke’s letter II,  ‘On the Genius and Character of the French Revolution as it regards other Nations’, 1796. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that Burke popularized the term in English, but he used it in an invidious sense.

[2] The Papers of Alexander Hamilton Digital Edition, ed. Harold C. Syrett. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2011. Canonic URL: https://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/ARHN-01-25-02-0018 [accessed 11 July 2014].

[3] The Papers of James Madison Digital Edition, J. C. A. Stagg, editor. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010.Canonic URL: https://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/JSMN-03-04-02-0183 [accessed 11 Jul 2014].

[4] The Papers of James Madison Digital Edition, J. C. A. Stagg, editor. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010.Canonic URL: https://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/JSMN-03-04-02-0251 [accessed 11 Jul 2014]..

[5] La fin de la démocratie, Flammarion, 1993, more prosaically in English The End of the Nation-State.


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