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Diplomacy Is Where There Are No Rules

Published on 28 May 2008
Updated on 05 April 2024

Aldo Matteucci
Senior Fellow, DiploFoundation

He had bought a large map representing the sea,Without the least vestige of land:And the crew were much pleased when they found it to beA map they could all understand.
Lewis CARROLL: The hunting of the Snark

I’d made this comment recently in an off-hand sort of way. I’ve been challenged – so I must stand by my words: diplomacy is where there are no rules.

Let me explain the assertion with an analogy. At the dawn of the electronic age gadgets were all stand-alone. They were not able to inter-connect and communicate. Frustration all around. Slowly, protocols (sic) were established, growing into full-fledged interfaces. Now, it’s: ‘plug and play’. Until an agreement (sic) was reached on how to connect the two pieces of equipment there were no rules, just an unexplored set of possibilities. Multiple solutions were possible. Sitting down and agreeing on one common set of rules that works for both equipments is what diplomacy is all about. Diplomacy is the process by which inchoate possibilities between two principals are transformed into a set of agreed rules. Once diplomacy has established the rules, it will graciously yield its place (and titles) to administration.

How do we get there? It may be trial and error (akas plug and pray): some nerd may find a solution that just happens to work, in a jury-rigged sort of way. Or the process may be a layered and sequential (top-down) one: first a common architecture (a rough outline if you wish) is created, and then lower levels of detail are filled in. In both instances the outcome is the same, however. As the main rules are created, the set of infinite possibilities (the hyperspace of diplomatic outcomes) slowly withers, and eventually disappears. Which way is best depends on circumstances – and the time frame. We may observe youthful periods of creative innovation alternating with mature times of codification and proper (re-)structuring.

The same applies to relations among nations. At the outset, there were no ways to communicate between ‘sovereign states’ – or whatever the brutes in each group saw themselves to be at the dawn of civilisation. In a slow and creative process the first protocols were established, and the network became successively more intricate. Diplomacy is the taming of the strange, cutting the first road through a virgin forest.

Traders were the first diplomats – why? When traders first met strangers, and they had not yet words in common, the handy artefact, the gleaming stone, the food was the common object that could cross the ‘divide of strangeness’, and establish a bridging commonality. A smile ensued, a nod, and it all started from there. The choice of what first to offer to the other side was the diplomatic feat, and much care was devoted to finding the right thing to signify the wish to find a common ground. Women were probably the first to cross the divide of strangeness – often involuntarily – they were the first ambassadors.


A quaint reflection? What does this image mean for today’s diplomatic work? A lot, I’d argue.

(1) Diplomacy worth its salt is essentially a creative and innovative process. We may whittle down the realm of possibilities somewhat through a pre-set style, but at a point the creative act takes over: it’s “provare and riprovare”, as Galileo said – try and reject – until the winning combination is found. Diplomatic work is not routine, or it is not diplomacy.

(2) If diplomacy indeed is a matter of ‘taming of the strange’, then the outcome can only be ‘conventions’ – agreements whose essential quality is that they exist. No lifting the veil of ignorance to uncover an underlying grand plan or intelligent design – be it immanent (as religious inclined poeple would have it) or utopian (as idealists dream of).

To draw an example from evolution (the greatest diplomatic exercise of them all in a way) in the beginning a few viable body plans (vertebrates, insects etc.) evolved, mainly by happenstance in a wildly changeable environment[i]. Out of the known twenty or so, only five phyla were successful[ii]; the others either were sidelined, or died out. Once the body plans were in place, families and species branched out under them in no detectable order – the outcome of Darwinian selection. Creativity is the triumph of the contingent over the essential, and reality is made of clumps of congealed contingency.

Machiavelli was right. There is no immanent order in international relations; agreements are just agglutinations of political will whose only claim is that they exist, to be discarded when they are no longer useful. And fast-forwarding to the present, the ‘end of history’ is not so much that democracy has fulfilled history’s immanent plan or is in some way inherently superior: it is the ‘policy-plan’ that happens to have survived (remember Zho Enlai on democracy: too early to tell[iii]). The same goes for international relations: the current world architecture is neither pre-ordained nor immutable because in any way superior. We need not be squeamish about tinkering with it. Let’s face it: principles, values, and structures are just higher-order contingencies.

(3) As for the practice of diplomacy: finding an optimal or at least a workable path amidst the wealth of possibilities calls for working at two levels at once: the detail close up, miniature-like, and the whole, at a distance. As the artist steps back to view the detail within the structure of the whole, the diplomat must from time to time step back from his work and ask himself: Where is the negotiation going? The best diplomats are those that are able to take a ‘walk in the wood’, but also those who know when to walk away from a negotiation. An ability to ‘walk through the looking glass’ is in my view the diplomat’s foremost quality. In this light Molotov was no great diplomat.

(4) No sooner had Adam been created, that was asked to name all animals. For those illiterate of the Bible there is its comic-strip version: “Me Tarzan. You Jane” utters the innocent forest dweller as he encounters the fascinating strange. At its most essential, the name – the way we look at a reality – defines the issue. Among the many possible names, one is chosen. The first and often the most important as well as most creative diplomatic task is that of ‘naming’ of the diplomatic challenge ahead, for common ground implies a common point of view. Whether Israel is a ‘homeland’ or a ‘neo-colonialist enterprise’ defines everything else. Diplomats should (and will) fight over the narrative line to be used in explaining to themselves and others what they are doing – and again this is a task without precedent, the first human creative act. Soft power[iv] is all about the ability to ‘name’.

Naming can be a matter of sheer power – as the Iraq case makes clear. Naming may be the result of skilful manipulation of ignorance[v].

Naming can emerge as if by chance, or by ‘scientific analysis’[vi]. A ‘name’ can be useful, or distortive for the ensuing negotiations.

(5) If creating rules where there are none is a contingent and creative task, then the diplomat need also be an accomplished opportunist – ‘Anything goes’ his only rule where the are no rules. A diplomat needs to see opportunities where others see barriers and movement where others see stasis. The current emphasis on proper procedures and the priority of precedent suppresses the creative spirit one would expect in a diplomat. So is transforming the diplomat into the servile agent of the political principal; we are sure to create sedulous yet ineffective busy-bodies.


Life is a field of unending possibilities that over time collapses into a host of diverging and whimsical realities. If we were to set the clock back to one billion year ago, and let life run again, we would not see our familiar ‘life’ emerge anew. Human history is no different, nor will it be, as long as we have true diplomats.

[i] Stephen J. GOULD (1998): Wonderful life. The Burgess Shale and the nature of history. Penguin, London; 347 pp.
[ii] Lynn MARGULIS (1988): Five Kingdoms. An illustrated guide to the phyla of life on earth. Freeman, New York; 376 pp.
[iii] Simon LEYS (1998) : Essais sur la Chine. Laffont, Paris ; 825 pp..

[iv] Joseph Jr. S. NYE (2004): Soft Power. The means to success in world politics. Public Affairs, NY.; 197 pp.

[v] For a recent case of skilful manipulation of the ‘naming’ issue, see Noel MALCOLM (1996) : Bosnia – A short history. MacMillan, London, U.K.; xxiv + 360 pp.
[vi] Climate change has neen ‘named’ an ‘environmental issue’. This is correct, as far as the causal origin of the problem goes. Tackling climate change as an ‘environmental’ issue may be highly distortive, though. For it focuses the diplomats’ attention of the causes rather than the effects. It is the effects that may cause the harm, however, and at any one time we have the choice between mitigation of the causes or adaptation to the effects – or both. Any strategy we chose, furthermore, requires us to make comparisons and set priorities. Mankind has many of them, and the framework we must use vto compare them is the one of economic development. In this framework, climate change is but one, albeit important as it is novel, constraint. By viewing climate change as an ‘environmental’ issue a wedge is driven between environment and development.

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