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[WebDebate #13 summary] A new bilateralism in a changing world

Published on 12 June 2017
Updated on 07 August 2022

Our June WebDebate A New Bilateralism in a Changing World took place on 6 June 2017. The emerging trend of isolationism and skepticism toward multilateralism has helped revive interest in the subject of bilateral diplomacy. Since Ambassador Kishan S Rana, Professor Emeritus, has vast experience in diplomacy, he was the perfect presenter for this debate. The Director of DiploFoundation, Dr Jovan Kurbalija, was this month’s debate moderator.

At the beginning of the debate Rana stated that the arrival of the new administration in Washington signified the rise of a different kind of diplomacy – transactional diplomacy. Kurbalija distinguished between the concept of transformational diplomacy, coined by Condoleezza Rice in 2006, and transactional diplomacy, the term used to describe US President Trump’s foreign policy approach. The main elements of transactional diplomacy are as follows: a deal focus, the quid pro quo principle and a more short-term perspective. The questions at hand were whether this change in foreign policy was sustainable and what kind of effect it could have on the future of international relations. Since good relations are a prerequisite for successful policies, it is risky not to take this fact into consideration or ignore it in the policy-making process. An excellent example of how a political move made in 1945 could still be relevant 20 years later is Winston Churchill’s decision not to attend President Roosevelt’s funeral. It is said that this slight in 1945 was the reason why President Lyndon Johnson was one of the few world leaders who did not attend Churchill’s funeral in 1965. President Johnson did not even ask Vice President Humphrey to go on his behalf, he sent Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren instead. These events had a negative effect on Anglo-American relations during a very important time in the Cold War. Another example of the difficulties created by the transactional approach is President Trump’s insistence on the reduction of USA’s trade deficit with Germany. However, as Kurbalija and Rana pointed out, many Internet based services provided by Facebook and similar companies largely profit from the German market, a fact that is not factored into the equation. The perception that bilateral relations need to be based solely on the quid pro quo principle is not sustainable, especially when we take into consideration that many things are not easily measurable or tangible.

Although the principle of transaction is at the very core of diplomacy, Rana insisted that relationship diplomacy, which focuses on the quality and endurance of a relationship, will not go out of style. He also explained that ‘bilateral means treating each partner-state in its own context, differentiated, measured’. The importance of bilateral diplomacy is most evident when it comes to the foreign policy of small states. As it was pointed out several times during the debate, the quality of bilateral relations determines a state’s position in both the regional and multilateral arena. States that are surrounded by giant neighbors and those that face enormous pressure in their region can secure a better position with good bilateral relations. Mauritius is an example of a state whose effective and proactive diplomacy managed to accomplish economic and political development.

There are many novelties related to bilateralism in the modern world. Non-state actors are now better represented in bilateral relations. This fact produces a system that is less rigid and more adaptable to the needs of the actors. In times of crisis, bilateral can become trilateral or multi-cornered. One of the most interesting developments in diplomacy is the evolution of the representation formats towards a larger number of options: joint embassy, non-resident ambassador, roving envoy, laptop envoy, honorary consul, etc.

It is important to stress that the line between bilateral, regional and multilateral diplomacy is blurred. New forms of diplomatic relations will surely evolve in the future. However, the bilateral-regional-multilateral template will endure. The question is whether bilateral diplomacy will play a greater role in the future. That is why Rana suggested that further and deeper research into bilateral dynamics would be useful. He also recommended the analysis and development of methods of bilateral diplomacy and a best practice study.


The WebDebates on the future of diplomacy are organised by DiploFoundation within the framework of the International Forum on Diplomatic Training (IFDT), which gathers close to 100 diplomatic training institutions worldwide. Join us every first Tuesday of the month.


Virdzinija Saveska is a junior associate at DiploFoundation. Her main interests are international security and peace studies. She is a student of International Politics at the University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Science.



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