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Would the real diplomacy please stand up!

Published on 30 June 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

‘We must end the obsession with creating new “types” of diplomacy.’ writes Shaun Riordan in his recent post for the blog of the Center on Public Diplomacy. 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 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? As so often, the answer is that it depends. Rather than a categorical rejection, the proper response is to sharpen our intellectual tools and get to work. I will do so by asking four questions.

New diplomacy?

In its latest incarnation, new diplomacy describes the fact that new topics and new individuals and organisations have entered a realm hitherto reserved for professional diplomats and traditional topics related to security concerns and national interest narrowly defined. Health and business diplomacy come to mind. Looking at digital diplomacy, we see that topics relevant to the governance of the Internet were only addressed within a small community of technical experts until they became the topic of diplomatic negotiations in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Similarly, environment diplomacy describes the growing importance of the environment on the global agenda, exemplified by the 1970s Stockholm Conference and 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and the involvement of individuals and organisations that had not appeared on the international stage before.

Proponents argue that new diplomacy is a way of reflecting these changes. Critiques point out that it is simply the latest fashion trend, or perhaps more accurately the latest fashion fad, in global affairs and does not actually describe changed realities. However, in order to tell the imposter from the innovator, we need to look closely at diplomacy as a practice, its relation to the state, and the purposes of these new diplomacies.

A profession or a practice?

One of the easiest ways to map a social field of activity is to distinguish between the professional and the layperson. If we view diplomacy as a profession, than only those with the proper credentials and membership in the relevant professional organisations are diplomats. In other words, diplomats are selected officials, representing a state, who enjoy special privileges and immunities qua the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Yet, if we look at international relations only through the lens of professions, there is a lot we are missing. Hence, it is extremely useful to change our gaze from profession to practice. The question then is not ‘who is a diplomat?’ but ‘what is it that diplomats do?’. From there, a list of functions of diplomacy emerges. Scholars point to information gathering, communication, representation, negotiation, and the reproduction of international society. If we follow the logic of practice, than those engaged in these activities, are, by definition, diplomats. In other words, these functions of diplomacy provide a useful checklist, which can serve as the basis for judging a ‘new diplomacy’ and its practitioners.

If we understand diplomacy as a profession, it is relatively easy to delineate between the practitioner and the outsider. The picture is rather black and white and the field of vision limited. If we see diplomacy as a practice, we are provided with a checklist of activities, which help delineate one practice from another. There will be grey areas. Depending on where we locate ourselves, we will find a different answer to the question: ‘what is diplomacy?’ In a world that is shaken by ‘fake news’ and post-truth-ism, a black and white picture seems appealing but to be able to see tones of grey might be more important.

With, beside, and beyond the state?

One thing is clear, if we approach diplomacy as a profession, it remains linked to the state. We need to wonder if that is still appropriate. One of the driving forces behind new diplomacy is the emergence of new individuals and organisations, not linked to the state, managing our global affairs. Many of the new areas of diplomacy – like Internet governance, climate change, education, health, humanitarian affairs – are marked by the presence of new diplomats (non-governmental organisations and civil society) who influence debates by introducing new and crucial topics, who participate in global deliberation, and who are key for the implementation of global goals.

Of course, this should not lead us to believe that these new diplomats operate on equal footing with the traditional ones. The playing field is not level and careful analysis is needed to see to what extent the new diplomats participate in negotiation and influence outcomes. It is clear that we do not escape the state entirely. As long as this is the organisational model of our world, this is not a problem. However, if this is in the process of changing, our idea of diplomacy also needs to adapt. If it didn’t, diplomacy would simply become irrelevant and die out.

And the purpose?

Defining a social field of activity and its subcategories is always done with a certain purpose in mind. The natural world seems to give us clear criteria for deciding, for example, whether something is a plant or an animal. Some will point to borderline cases to highlight that such decisions are sometimes not as self-evident as they might seem. What is clear is that if we look at the social realm, criteria for inclusion and exclusion are decided by deliberations. Much less is given and much more is made. In other words, decisions about what is and what is not diplomacy are not self-evidently given; they are made on the basis of certain criteria which are defined by a deliberation process.

What we should be discussing are the criteria for such decisions and the purpose of applying these criteria. In relation to new diplomacy three particularly important ones come to mind: empirical evidence, attention to specific practices and tools, and expressions of aspirations for a better world. First, if we see that new topics emerge and non-professional diplomats become relevant for the management of international affairs, then our use of the term ‘diplomacy’ needs to reflect that.

Second, terms like climate change diplomacy and digital diplomacy remind us that we are dealing with a specialised field of activity. In the case of the former, scientific evidence and the role of the expert play a much bigger role. In the case of the latter, there are new tools that need our attention. Terminology should reflect that and, hence, allow us to address these differences.

Third, we can, much like president Woodrow Wilson’s ‘open covenants … openly arrived at’, also consider new diplomacies as expressions of how the world could be, of ideals and hopes for a better future.

There are, of course, also less altruistic reasons for jumping on the bandwagon of new diplomacies. But we will not be able to tell the difference without careful analysis. To imply that all new diplomacies are inaugurated for less than altruistic reasons, is to gloss over the three criteria outlined above.

Would the real diplomacy please stand up!

In other words, to distinguish the real diplomacy from the imposter in new clothing needs careful analysis. Not all new diplomacies are naked. A danger greater than overuse of the term diplomacy, is the potential of diplomacy to become anachronistic and to no longer reflect the changes in the management of global affairs. If diplomacy is not to become a dinosaur, new diplomacies and their careful debate should be welcomed as part of a much-needed dynamism in the field.


2 replies
  1. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Historical new diplomacy
    Very interesting blog post, Katharina! One thought that came to my mind is that probably every generation thinks that they are living in new and modern times, with changing concepts and frameworks of thought. It would be interesting to see whether the perception of novelty in diplomacy is something new in itself, or whether this has had a long background (for example, in the mid-20th century there might already be notions of ‘new’ diplomacy, and maybe in the decades or even centuries before as well). If there have always been ideas of new actors and new topics on the agenda, then our current ‘new diplomacy’ might really be an ‘imposter in new clothing’, and the addition of ‘new’ might in fact be a characteristic of traditional diplomacy, which might have always defined its borders by connoting it with novelty. Voilà, here’s my plea for historical research!

    • Katharina Hone
      Katharina Hone says:

      Hi Barbara, thanks for the
      Hi Barbara, thanks for the comment. This is spot on. In fact, new diplomacy is not new at all. When president Wilson declared his 14 points in 1918 – among them the call for ‘open covenants … openly arrived at’, come called it ‘new diplomacy’. Of course, this was more aspiration than actual practice. Prof Berridge argues that the term is simply used to describe the latest fashion trend in diplomacy – without much substance. So, indeed, new diplomacies are not new. And while diplomacy has always been adapting as a practice, there might be an unchanging core. I fully support your point that every generation likes to think of itself as new and very different than in the past – when it might not actually be. That is the interesting question. I am not sure if we can say that we are at some kind of turning point, but aspects of the practice of diplomacy are changing, when compared to, for example, 1917. Information and Communication Technology plays a pivotal role.

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