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Enough of ‘new’ diplomacies: reclaiming the diplomatic pluriverse

Published on 22 January 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

I am a little late to this particular party; however, in the middle of last year, a very interesting debate broke out between the blogs of Shaun Riordan, Katharina Hone and others on the subject of ‘new’ diplomacies. Does the proliferation of new ‘kinds’ of (or prefixes for) diplomacy serve an intellectual, analytical purpose, or is it just another case of academics hankering after scholarly turf?

As Katharina writes: ‘Indeed, those practices we describe as diplomacy are expanding. We are seeing discussions on digital diplomacy, climate diplomacy, health diplomacy, business diplomacy, education diplomacy, and sport diplomacy to name but a few. Should we, as scholars and practitioners of diplomacy, be concerned? The worry seems all too real. If everything is diplomacy, then nothing is. An ever-expanding concept eventually becomes meaningless. Does this charge apply to these new diplomacies?’

To be sure, from ‘-isms,’ ‘turns’ and (lately) ‘-cenes’ to ‘x diplomacies,’ the urge to name and rename is a strong one. I myself have named this urge ‘entrepreneurial neologism’ (which is, of course, an example of itself).

But, as regards diplomacy, is this just another semantic snowball fight masquerading as thought or does it serve a purpose? Well, to be honest, I think this is a case of a badly formulated question. We have the starting point all wrong.

If what we are really talking about are the conditions under which different kinds of practice can be legitimately counted as ‘diplomacy’, then we are dealing not at all with an idle academic question but, rather, with an intensely – indeed, existentially – political one.

As Sam Okoth Opondo and others have argued, through the course of what is known, euphemistically, as ‘the expansion of international society’ (i.e. European colonialism), the non-white and non-Western were precluded from being agents of diplomacy until such time as they ‘were converted into something recognizable, yet inferior to the European standard’. Modes of inter-collective negotiation and conflict resolution that did not conform to the received standard not only could not be accepted as legitimate but could scarcely be accepted as existing. By definition, diplomacy was an institution of the civilised; therefore…

If there is a gap – nay, a gaping abyss – in the research of diplomacy today, it does not concern the role of sports or business people (although these are legitimate and necessary courses of study). Rather, it concerns the historical marginalisation and suppression of forms of diplomatic practice undertaken by and between collectives not recognised as legitimate (i.e. state) actors by colonial and imperial powers.

Practices like the ‘wampum diplomacy’ of the Iroquois have received some coverage in anthropological and, to a lesser extent, diplomatic literatures. However, such studies are few and far between. Within the academy at least, the decolonisation of diplomacy has barely begun.

So, in short: Questioning the varieties of diplomacy is not just an idle intellectual debate. It is a matter of sovereignty and existential recognition. In other words, we are talking about matters of diplomatic ontology – what kinds of beings can be recognised as legitimate parties to diplomatic engagement?

This is an historical matter; however, it is also utterly contemporary. When representatives of the First Nations existing within the territory of Canada meet with state representatives, is this an ‘internal’ negotiation between the government and an interest group like any other? Or, is it a meeting between occupying and occupied polities?

It seems to me that this is the point from which to begin questioning diplomatic plurality, rather than from formalistic schemas or issues of professional propriety. That said, starting from this point does not preclude any of the questions that Shaun, Katharina and others have been asking. It simply makes clear what is at stake.

In anthropology and elsewhere, it has become popular to contrast the ‘universe’ with the ‘pluriverse’ – the latter term recognising that there are indefinitely many more ways of existing in the world, indeed of conceiving and making worlds, than has been admitted by the imperial proclivities of modernist Eurocentrism.

The problem with the ‘new’ diplomacies debate is twofold. First, it implies that issues of diplomatic variety are somehow recent, rather than the state-centric understanding of diplomacy itself being historically produced. Second, and as a consequence, this debate thinks too small – fiddling while Rome burns the world.

We must accept nothing less than the reclamation of the diplomatic pluriverse.


Philip Conway is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. His thesis is titled ‘The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics.’ He blogs on these and other issues at https://circlingsquares.blogspot.co.uk.


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