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Is there “diplomatic theory”?

Published on 20 January 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

The diplomat, so the theory, is the agent of the principal – the state. The diplomat is tasked to pursue the goals of the state with respect to other states in the framework of international relations. In the best sense of the word, diplomats are golems. The agent has no independent agency.


In practice, diplomats formulate policy for the principal and execute it after approval. They are active both internally and externally. Though subsidiary, their dynamic role arises from the fact diplomats know the context – both factual and legal – in which states interact.

Diplomacy then is twice a practice.[1] First, because diplomats carry out diplomatic tasks at the direction or sufferance of the principal or sovereign[2] – the theory, if there is one, is in the mind of the principal, not the agent. Second, in executing policy, diplomats embed their actions in the context. They act as demiurges by adjusting the rules of international relations to the circumstances. Theirs is the art of the possible, not the right.

In approaching their external tasks, diplomats have set down diplomatic rituals – rules of correct behavior – to ensure that actors properly understand diplomatic messages. Rituals are conventions that signify meanings: e.g. respect for the other principal, self-affirmation. Rituals suggest and sharpen emotions and their intensity: they codify the non-verbal and make it legible, more explicit, or agreeable. It has not escaped my attention that diplomats are also a guild. Rituals, uniforms, pomp, and circumstance, are signifiers of their unique (or monopolistic) role.

As part of their training, diplomats have established “diplomatic academies.” Unsurprisingly, a severe bout of “theory envy” has emerged, both on professionals of international relations and exact sciences more generally.

Recently, I have had access to a Ph.D. dissertation on diplomatic theory.[3] The author argues a need to “question the relevance and adequacy of existing diplomatic theories to account for the complexity of the modern diplomatic environment.” The challenges are (1) the withering of the state; (2) the role of IGOs, (3) summit diplomacy; (4) the proliferation of NGOs; (5) the relationship between commerce and diplomacy; (6) the information revolution.

The author contrasts: (a) Traditional Diplomatic Theory (TDT), which affirms the centrality of the state; (b) Nascent Diplomatic Theory (NDT) which focuses on “emergent” non-state diplomatic actors; (c) Innovative Diplomatic Theory (IDT) which theorizes a symbiosis of both state and non-state actors. In grand finale reminiscent of the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the author produces a “comprehensive body of theory of modern diplomacy, where the reconciliation of the three diplomatic theories is paramount.” As they say: it is all done with mirrors.

In international relations, the tension between power- and rule-based international relations has existed since time out of time.[4] Though in ever-changing degrees, in my view both worldviews have influenced history. International commerce in particular, but also national rule-setting has given increasing impetus to rule-setting at the international level.[5] Wilsonianism set the stage for a major bout that is still ongoing.

While the states have (up to a point) the monopoly of brute power, rules emerge spontaneously in many places seeking legitimacy in “the consent of the governed.” Rules have many parents and often begin with dissenters and non-conformists[6] asking for the “disestablishment” of the states. NGOs are similar to such groups. The “information revolution” adds to the problem. The internet offers rules that might apply in a particular context for premature discussion as universals. Emotionalism and populism interfere.

One could go on. The first point is that it would be too early for prescriptive (and predictive) “theory.” We do not even have an adequate “body of knowledge” that is allowing us to understand what is going on. The second point is that this has much to do with international relations, but little with diplomacy as such. Therefore, talk of “diplomatic theory” triggers in me an urge for Ockham’s Razor.

Is there nothing to be researched in the field of diplomacy? Indeed – if one knows where to look. In my next blog, I shall sketch a research program that might address issues central to the future of diplomacy.

[1] For diplomacy as practice, see: G. R BERRIDGE (2001): Diplomatic theory from Machiavelli to Kissinger. London, Palgrave. [2] Giorgio AGAMBEN, following Carl SCHMITT defines “sovereignty” as the right of exception.” In this worldview, the diplomat is not allowed to make an exception: he reverts to the principal “for instructions.” [3] MURRAY (2006): Reordering diplomatic theory for the twenty-first century: a tripartite approach. Bond University, Queensland, AUS. [4] Peter URCHIN (2015): Ultra society. How 10’000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth. Beresta Books, Chaplin – argues causality from brute power to rules. [5] Power Favors mercantilism. Democracies need free markets and free trade. These two worlds meet in the international arena. This interrelationship has been little studied, in part because Marxism had preempted it. For a sober presentation, see: Johnatan MARSHALL (1995): To have and to have not. Southeast Asian raw materials and thee prigins of the Pacific war. University of California Press, Berkeley. [6] Non-conformist groups, Quakers, and missionary societies led the fight for the abolition of slavery. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolitionism

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