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Author: Paul Sharp

Who needs diplomats? The problem of diplomatic representation


This paper discusses the problem of diplomatic representation. Diplomats should remind themselves and others that they are first and foremost the representatives of sovereign states, that this is their raison d’être and a precondition for anything else they might aspire to be or to do. This might require an adjustment in their professional orientation but not a transformation.


What or who does the post-cold war diplomat represent? Two trends are evident: increasing institutionalized multilateralism aimed at a stronger international order, either by improving cooperation between states or transcending the need for it; and the tendency to see diplomats in terms of the skills they possess and the jobs they do, rather than whom they represent. Because both developments seem to move diplomats further away from the sovereign state, their traditional source of authority and raison d’être, a number of writers have raised the possibility that diplomacy’s identity as a discrete practice may be subsumed under broader notions of conflict resolution and bargaining.(2)

This neither is nor ought to be the case. Diplomats and the diplomatic system continue to derive their authority from the claim that they represent sovereign states in their relations with one another and not from some wider notion of international community, of which states are but one expression. Failures of diplomacy in places as different as Maastricht, Mostar, and Mogadishu involved over-ambitious attempts at international management for which no consensus existed in the great powers expected to supply the resources. Either this consensus has to be strengthened, a labour of Sisyphus given recent disappointments, or the ambitions of those who wish to manage the international system have to be scaled back. Otherwise we face more muddle, a further weakening of the frail consensus for maintaining overseas commitments, and even, although this remains a remote prospect as yet, a falling out among the great powers.

The paradox of our times is that in international politics, as in domestic politics, there is a high expectation that governments can and should solve problems and a widespread reluctance to pay the price. The result is a dangerous cycle in which governments embark on difficult international projects with inadequate resources because a major mobilization of them cannot be justified. To ease the resource problem, governments collaborate with other governments, adding a host of complications and dangers to already difficult tasks. Failure further weakens the potential for future consensus and cooperation, but the expectations that someone ought to do something are not reduced.

To explain this disjuncture between champagne tastes and beer budgets, we must look in part to the need for political leaders to sound optimistic above all else if they are to be elected. They, however, are swift to retreat to mere appearances as soon as their electorates chafe at the costs of an ill-founded international policy. A few dead rangers, disgraced paratroopers, or negative percentage points on the stock market will quickly pull them back. Not so the policy experts. One of the most striking features of the present wave of internationalist ambition is the extent to which it is embraced by the experts who advocate the policies of international order-building and by the professional diplomats whose task it is to carry them out. While diplomats are not immune to the temper of the times, they contribute to the present state of affairs because they have temporarily lost sight of what they represent – sovereign states and the people who live within them as independent political communities existing as ends in themselves. This is a sweeping claim which I hope to substantiate in this article.

The Idea of Diplomatic Representation

The idea of diplomatic representation has had problems throughout the life of the modern diplomatic system. If Michel Foucault was right, medieval thought accepted the idea of direct correspondence, one-for-one, far more readily than we do today.(3 ) The medieval ambassador represented his sovereign in the sense that he was him or embodied him (literally in some readings) when he presented himself at court. Since then, however, representation has come to involve at lease three elements: the sovereign; the ambassador as a person; and the ambassador in his representative capacity as the “sovereign.” To complicate the matter further, the identities of sovereigns and diplomats alike have changed, blurred, and become more complex. Representation is a slippery concept but one which we cannot entirely do without. Politically incorrect though the language of representation might be, with its emphasis on symbols of power, wealth, and the grandeur of the state, it will not go away.

Diplomats are frustrated when people think they enjoy the grind and tedium of what some of their number in the United States Department of State refer to as “flowerpot duty,”(4)  but there is no general agreement about the value or necessity of such work. One former protocol officer assured me that only the new and the insecure “go to town” on ceremony and protocol; diplomats of the established great powers are far more relaxed about such matters. Diplomats relax perceptibly when I tell them that I am interested in representation in a simpler and more conceptual sense. Their prejudices about academics who need to make a meal of the obvious, after all, have been confirmed. “We represent our governments and countries,” they reply, and any implicit ambiguities merely reflect those arising from the notional qualities of life in general. There are no big secrets to be revealed, only small uncertainties to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

Academics, of course, are not satisfied with this approach: some because they believe there are indeed secrets to be revealed (when diplomats say they represent their governments and countries, what they really represent is…); some because they are interested in why diplomatic life is constructed around particular notions and not others (when diplomats say they represent their governments and countries why do they follow government instructions on x and but not on y?); and some because they are interested in the consequences of attempts to negotiate the ambiguities arising from the notional qualities of social life (what follows from diplomats’ attempts to represent their governments and countries in their relations with one another?) – hence, their attention to the obvious, and most commentaries place representation first or second among the functions of the resident embassy.(5)  While academics may wish to take the idea of representation further than diplomats, they seem to be no clearer about what that involves. Five elements vie for attention: ceremony; symbolism; interests; power; and ideas.

Representation as Ceremony and Symbolism

On the question of ceremonial representation, commentaries have added little to the observations of diplomats. Close observance of certain formalities helps to maintain the hierarchies which make social life possible in the diplomatic profession, as in other walks of life. This is tame stuff compared to an era in which the correspondence of ceremony and reality meant that when the French king or his ambassador visited the court of the English king, France had come to England, and ambassadors’ retinues could come to blows over questions of precedence. In the Middle Ages and early modern period, the status of the ambassador as his sovereign emerged in response to the problem of how to deal with a person at Court who was not a subject and was, indeed, acting on behalf of someone else. Immunity, a functional requirement of effective communication, was justified by arguing that diplomats enjoyed the rights and privileges of their sovereigns, and since sovereigns embodied their polities then so, by default, must their representatives. And so, problems created by one fiction – the division of the political world into sovereigns and subjects – assisted in the maintenance of another – the ambassador-as-sovereign or as the symbol of his sovereign.

For this fiction to work, diplomats must retain a certain residue from the era of direct correspondence. They may not think that their symbolic status is necessary to function effectively (in which case they are almost certainly wrong), but they do regard it as helpful. Thus, they have to pretend and get others to pretend that their symbolic claims are in some sense true. Here the problems begin in earnest: the idea of embodying the state is seen as immodest, false, and dangerous in a democratic and empiricist era replete with memories of the evils which can flow from treating nations as real and states as ends rather than means. Once acknowledged, therefore, the idea of symbolic representation is either safely cordoned off or watered down. It is cordoned off by confining it to relatively insignificant ceremonial occasions. It is watered down by suggesting that rather than embodying their states, diplomats exemplify or express their national, cultural identity. Marcel Cadieux sketched a profile of the Canadian diplomat both as a reflection of what he saw as the key elements of Canada’s identity and as a catalyst in the process by which that identity could achieve its fullest expression. Identity diplomacy per se, however, belonged to the “romantic phase” of Canada’s diplomacy. By the early 1960s, its officers were “no longer only symbols of our political independence,” for that was “firmly established.” Instead, they confronted “real and numerous tasks.”(6)

Even if symbolic diplomacy recedes into the background in some process of national development as real diplomacy takes over, it refuses to remain there. Rejection of communications and invitations, nonappearances at functions, and the diplomatic walk-out all suggest that diplomats remain sensitive to perceived insults to the honour of their countries. The less professional among them may confuse personal dignity with the reputation of their country, but there are limits to what even the best will endure to maintain communications. Anatoly Dobrynin, the long-serving Soviet ambassador to the United States, expressed great frustration at the readiness of others, including his own leaders, to allow slights (real or imagined) to get in the way of business. Nevertheless, he shared his government’s anger when the United States bombed North Vietnam in 1965 while Premier Alexis Kosygin was visiting Hanoi. “The fact remains that they bombed the country while our premier was there.” The insult, rather than the political, military, or human consequences of the bombing, seemed to count for him.(7)

Whether they are sensitive to it or not, diplomats may have their symbolic significance thrust upon them in the form of verbal and physical assaults from egg-throwing to assassination. When Geoffrey Jackson was British ambassador to Uruguay, he was taken hostage by urban guerrillas who told him that he was “being punished as the national symbol of institutional neocolonialism.” This brought home his symbolic significance with a directness he had not previously experienced.(8)

Representing Interests and Power

While the symbolic dimension never entirely disappears, it remains a source of unease for diplomats and those who comment on them. If diplomats represent sovereigns, be they princes, governments, or states, it would seem reasonable to suppose that they represent their interests just as other professionals represent the interests of their clients. This gets one off the difficult metaphysical level and allows a freer discussion of diplomacy, but the cost is high in terms of conceptual clarity and an ability to evaluate diplomatic activity. Once diplomatic representation is seen to represent interests, virtually everything a diplomat does must be viewed both as an aspect of representation and as an attempt to serve the interests of governments or countries.

In R.P. Barston’s standard work on diplomacy, six “tasks” of diplomacy are listed. The first is representation, which is divided between “ceremonial” and “substantive.”(9)  Into the latter are packed explaining and defending national policy, negotiating, and interpreting the policies of receiving governments. As may be expected, the distinction between these three components of substantive representation and some of the other tasks (which include listening, preparing the ground for initiatives, reducing friction, and contributing to orderly change) is by no means clear, and one is left wondering why representation qualifies as a distinct, let alone important, activity at all.

One possible way out of this confusion is provided by Hans Morgenthau, although at a price which one suspects most students of diplomacy would be reluctant to pay. He distinguishes between political, legal, and symbolic representation.(10)  The first two provide catch-alls for all functions of diplomacy. Surprisingly, given his reputation as a realist of the power political school, he also declares that the diplomat is “first of all. . .the symbolic representative of his country.” The letdown follows swiftly, however, as it becomes clear that symbolic representation, like sovereignty, soldiers, and dollars, is just another instrument in the arsenal of power and influence. Diplomacy is merely “one of the lesser tools of foreign policy.”(11)  The task of the diplomat is to assert the prestige of his own country while testing that of others. If power is primarily a psychological relationship, then prevailing beliefs and ideologies are significant only insofar as they provide ways of obtaining influence over others and denying them influence over you. All the functions of the diplomat reduce to what Ermolo Barbaro, the Venetian ambassador to Rome in 1490, called the “first duty of an ambassador. . .that is, to do, say, advise and think whatever may best serve the preservation and aggrandizement of his own state.”(12)  In the political world associated with Morgenthau, in which national and self-interests are defined in terms of power, what else could diplomats do but represent their own power?

Representing Ideas

Barbaro’s quote appears to provide one of those rare glimpses into what the realist believes goes on behind the general depreciation of power. As an account of what diplomats do, however, it is as inaccurate and incomplete as Morgenthau’s reduction of symbolic representation to one of the lesser instruments of state power. Diplomats have never accepted that their only business is to advance the particular interests of their states. They also see themselves as working for and, therefore, representing the idea of peace. As Abba Eban notes, the words for messenger in both Greek (angelos) and Hebrew (mal’ach) have sacred, as well as secular, connotations.(13)  The use of both for messenger in general came before their use as messenger of God, but diplomats and their defenders have happily used the association with the divine to strengthen the idea that the profession serves a higher calling than, or as well as, secular power. Certainly, the idea that diplomats serve peace predates that of serving the prince. Over a half century before Barbaro, Bernard du Rosier declared that the “business of the ambassador was peace” and that he was “sacred because he acted in the general welfare.”(14)  Barbaro assailed this orthodoxy because it raised “the gravest ethical problem…for theory…the possibility of a conflict between the ambassador’s duty to his prince and his duty to peace.”(15)

Secularism and statism were great spurs to the development of diplomacy as a profession, but they did not overwhelm the earlier commitment to peace. Indeed, a shared commitment to peace and saving their respective princes from themselves became hallmarks of the profession, something which diplomats could hold in common to cement their sense of corps and to gain some distance from their political leaderships. What it meant beyond this is less easy to say. In commentaries on diplomacy, it is possible to identify at least three conceptions of peace: minimalist, positivist, and transformationalist. None is a watertight category, still less a school of diplomatic thought on peace.

The minimalist school focuses on the conduct of relations by peaceful means and the peaceful resolution of disputes by negotiation. “Peace is usually better than war, and the medium of intercourse between states should not itself become a source of conflict.”(16)  Seventeenth-century princes were driven to protect their interests through peace and diplomacy only after they had been exhausted by war.(17)  Ambassadors served peace when peace served, but, in the meantime, their main purpose in talking to one another was to ensure recognition from equals of the status their masters believed was their due. Britain’s ambassador to West Germany in the 1960s saw his contribution to peace in terms as describing “the other side of the story” either to his own ministers, who “were sometimes reluctant to hear it,” or to foreign governments.(18)  Dobrynin saw his “fundamental task” as “helping to develop a correct and constructive dialogue between the leaders of both countries and maintaining the positive aspects of our relations wherever possible.” “To both sides,” he “tried to be a reassuring presence in a very strained world.”(19)

While these are practical responses to the question of what it means to serve peace, minimalism gives no more than an implicit answer to the question of what one should do when the interests of peace and those of the prince fail to coincide. For de Wicquefort, the diplomat should have an aversion to war only when war is no longer productive. Even those more obviously associated with the peace tradition in diplomatic writings are not entirely clear on this point. Du Rosier, for example, is usually interpreted as speaking in defense of the respublica christiana or God’s order in the world as it faded before the twin assaults of schismatics and rationalists. The ambassador should be regarded as sacred because “he labours for the public good” and the “speedy completion of an ambassador’s business is in the interests of all.”(20)  Rather than seeking to restore God’s order, all this maybe is a case of special pleading for diplomatic immunity at a time when travel was dangerous and uncertain. Similar ambiguity can be found in the writings of François de Callières, who suggests that we will understand diplomacy better if we think of the states of Europe as joined by “all kinds of necessary commerce,” as “members of one Republic” where “no considerable change can take place in any one. . .without affecting the condition, or disturbing the peace, of all the others.” He even speaks of a “freemasonry of diplomacy,” in which all members work for the “same end.” It turns out, however, that the shared end is nothing more than “to discover what is happening.”(21)

Disappointing though this might be to those attracted by the grand rhetoric in which some writers package their practical suggestions, these suggestions go beyond the minimalist conception of diplomats as simply seeking to avoid war or prevent themselves from being a source of further tension. Whether or not states preferred peace, they had to agree upon procedures for communicating with one another, and these procedures could be arranged to minimize their potential for becoming a source of unwanted conflict. This gave rise to the positivist conception of peace, la raison de système, in which the international system or society has its own qualities or even needs which impose a certain logic, practical or prescriptive, on the behavior of its members. The sparse character of la raison de système may be contrasted with the richer respublica christiana it replaced.(22)  The latter arose out of a sense of universal law, while the former sees diplomacy as “an integral part of the minimal conditions securing the existence of international society.” This amounts to little more than a corps diplomatique, which “had an independent existence, whose members were all doing the same job and who would treat each other in a civilized way even when their principles were at war.”(23)  Even in war, life must go on, for diplomats at least, and this is the value which they need to represent to their princes.

However, like all positivist accounts of emerging systems of order or rules which possess their own logic, the argument for la raison de système has to distinguish those developments which are consistent with the original conception from those which are not and decide what to do about the latter. The corps diplomatique acquired a life of its own and, by providing states with a better means of conducting their relations, appeared to make possible a transformed international system in which the imperatives of states could be transcended.(24)  Even as the evolution of diplomatic practice suggested such a possibility, the rise of popular sovereignty and its consequences for international relations made it seem both desirable and necessary. Where the people were sovereign, the business of diplomacy could no longer be to find a way of living under conditions of anarchy. It had to construct a means of escape or perish as an institution unsuited to the era of popular sovereignty.

Diplomatic Representation and Popular Sovereignty

Constructing a means of escape so that international relations might be transformed is usually presented either as a social theory parable about the need for international reform or as a historical narrative of tragic proportions. In the former, sovereign state diplomacy, born in the simpler times of seventeenth-century Europe, failed to deal with the challenges of the increased application of science and technology to the satisfaction of a variety of human purposes. It could not prevent war when wars became too destructive. It could not secure prosperity when prosperity became dependent upon extensive cooperation across borders. And it ceased to be an authentic expression of the way human beings associated or ought to associate, either transnationally or subnationally. We find ourselves, therefore, inhabiting fading structures imposed by general principles and their particular political and territorial expressions, both of which were established to provide dubious solutions to long-forgotten or out-dated problems. In this view, the institution of diplomacy, whatever its members might say about the need for orderly and peaceful reform, is perpetually under suspicion and, indeed, may be fatally implicated in the resistance to change unless it can show itself to be in the vanguard of change.

The historical narrative is more forgiving. The twentieth century began with two defeats for diplomacy. The failure to prevent the First World War was more perceived than actual because policy, not diplomacy, was to blame. Perceived failure, however, contributed to a second defeat when the League of Nations was unable to prevent the Second World War. Facilitating the operations of conferences and congresses between the leaders of the great powers was one thing, but diplomats saw the democratic and egalitarian imperatives of the League as “the negation of their craft.”(25)  However, their resistance, together with those features of the League system which they opposed, was eventually swept away by larger struggles, first with the Axis powers and then with the USSR. In these struggles, diplomats were subordinated to the requirements of grand strategy, geopolitics, and ideological “great contests” in which both revisionists and the principal status quo power could be described as anti-diplomats. Whether by world domination, world revolution, or world reform, they all sought peace by replacing differences with what they believed were superior, universal values.

It is interesting to consider the role of the sovereign people in each account. For the social scientist, the role is implied but important. It is the people who will no longer put up with an international institution – diplomacy – which never served them well but which was rendered ineffective by developments in science and technology. The role of popular sovereignty in helping to make possible some of the horrors which overwhelmed diplomacy is not considered, except as a mobilizing device cynically manipulated by diplomats and their masters. In the historical account, the possibility that the people, or some of them, contributed to the great international failures of the twentieth century is entertained, but the conclusions about what must happen to diplomacy are, by and large, unchanged. Its proper business must now be to construct international institutions to corral the state and, where those institutions fail, to construct better ones.

Under such pressures, diplomacy could not stand still. According to Adam Watson, its independent logic combined with external pressures to imbue raison de système with a more complex and ambitious significance as a “conscious sense that all states in an international society have an interest in preserving it and making it work.” What emerged was something which “transcends the mere mechanics of dialogue.” In an increasingly interdependent world, states seek agreements by which they surrender particular bits of their authority, and “this way forward is the way of diplomacy.” International affairs are moving “towards a more collectively organized society of states.” As diplomacy evolves, so too does the individual diplomat, from Barbaro’s instrument of the prince to Talleyrand’s servant of the state who recognizes that Napoleons come and go but that the interests of France are eternal. Such diplomats, aware of the long-term interests of states and their continuous contact with one another, begin to discern the interest they share in maintaining “the effective functioning of the system itself, and of their responsibilities towards it.” The result is statesmen and diplomats who exhibit “prudential responsibility,” pursuing interests with restraint, rather than “uncompromisingly, regardless of confrontation and clashes.” They see “positive advantage in co-operating with other states and international bodies.” The responsible statesman will be “willing to pay a price in state interests narrowly conceived, for the sake of the greater advantages which he sees that his state will obtain from the existence of an orderly society.”(26)

To be sure, a little self-abnegation goes a long way. Watson remains enough of a diplomat to emphasize the importance of well socialized great powers to the success of his version of raison de système. And I am aware that all his comments can be rendered consistent with the advice given down the years from Thucydides to Kissinger that a prince should be prepared to make concessions on matters which are not of vital interest to gain ground on those which are. However, it is clear that for Watson peaceful international change does not mean the “same old melodrama” of international politics in which all that happens are shifts in the balance of power.(27)  When he and others speak of the surrender of authority, particularly on the part of the great powers, they mean changes in the fundamental character of international politics and claim a major role for professional diplomacy in bringing it about.

The case can be made tentatively. While diplomacy may be “the art of resolving negotiations peacefully,” it is also “the technique or skill which reigns over the development, in a harmonious manner, of international relations.”(28)  It can be made in a balanced manner. American foreign service officers saw themselves at the turn of the century as “spokesmen for the Old Diplomacy” at home, “obliged to teach their countrymen a healthy skepticism about world politics,” while their mission overseas was “to persuade other governments to subscribe to a meliorist vision of world politics.”(29)  It can also be preached that a “diplomatic representative is preeminently a peacemaker” whose duty is to take a part “in the elevation and purification of diplomacy.”(30)  Such preaching was not the preserve of American diplomats.

In 1949 Britain’s wartime ambassador to Turkey declared that “enlightened countries” had long since realized the futility of manipulative diplomacy and that “much of our energy nowadays is directed to the wider and more honourable task of serving the international welfare and harmony by taking into account the legitimate interests of all.”(31)  Given his own career as an ambassador, in which he was machine-gunned in China by Japanese aircraft and duped in Istanbul by a member of his own staff, and the circumstances of the time in which he expressed his views, one is tempted to conclude that Knatchhull-Hugessen was engaging in the Persian practice of “ketman,” pious dissimulation for a good purpose. Rare though this candor (if such it is) may be for a diplomat, it does capture the rhetorical triumph of the transformational conception of peace which in this century came to dominate the environment in which diplomats operated and to which they were constrained to adjust. Representation – of sovereigns, interests, or ideas – was replaced by metaphors of constructing and building by which issues were to be managed and problems were to be solved.

To accept that diplomacy came under great pressure to reform does not tell us why diplomats shifted from seeing international change in terms of adjustments which accommodated the interests of sovereigns to reforming or transforming the international system as a whole. After all, if the idea of representing sovereigns posed practical, political, and conceptual problems, why would the idea of representing a transformational conception of peace be any easier? One does not have to like a prince, state, or nation to be able to see on what basis diplomats attempt to represent them. One may like the idea of peace, but on what basis do diplomats claim to represent it and act on its behalf?

In a transforming system, why does peace need diplomats, rather than politicians and other civil servants, to represent it? As the historical narrative makes clear, diplomats faced immensely mitigating circumstances as they wrestled with these questions, but their answers directly impinge on the larger question: what next? After a mere ninety years, the universals have departed and the disciplines of grand strategy have been relaxed. To begin to answer the question of what happens next, some observations have to be made about how diplomats see the world and their place within it, to identify “the family likeness. . .in Instructions and State-papers composed in countries and at times remote from one another” and which I refer to here as the diplomatic disposition.(32)

The Diplomatic Disposition

The simplest explanation for why diplomats became representatives of a transformative conception of peace, and one to which they are surprisingly willing to subscribe when the heat is on, is that they are a pretty over-determined crowd. It may be that “the vices of diplomacy appear to be in general. . .those of the surrounding society and of the time” and that diplomats spend most of their time simply trying to carry out the instructions of their governments.(33)  If the prevailing assumption among governments and people is that a stronger world order is needed, then it should come as no surprise that diplomats will be engaged in its construction. But this begs the question of where the prevailing assumptions about diplomacy come from in a way which is unflattering to the profession, and it sits uneasily with the sense diplomats have of themselves as an élite.

Two other explanations for this professional passivity might be explored. The first is that it is not a function of their professional self-image as public servants but arises from a pessimism about the human condition which resides in the bosom of the best diplomats and is confirmed by their experience. In Ernest Satow’s study, the Austrian diplomatist, Hubner, was “compelled to contend for a bad cause” and the author concludes that the most one can attain by “prudence and love of peace is the postponement of the evil day.”(34)  This might be a reasonable conclusion if one had spent one’s professional life in the service of the Ballhausplatz, but it is a remarkable one for a Briton lecturing in the midst of his own country’s greatness. In a similar vein, the Englishman, Harold Nicolson, noted that diplomats tend to develop certain “functional defects” because of the “human folly or egotism” they are forced to witness during careers in which they know the facts and others do not. As a result, they may mistakenly regard serious passions as transitory emotions and “thus underestimate the profound emotion by which whole nations may be swayed.” The danger is that the diplomat “often becomes denationalized, internationalized, and therefore dehydrated, an elegant, empty husk.” Yet Nicolson also notes that a profession should not “be judged by its failures” and elegant, empty, diplomatic husks are rare outside the world of fiction and popular imagination.(35)

Secondly, the experiences which feed world-weariness may also give rise to cynicism, laying diplomats open to the charge that they simply seek power or, worse, to be close to it without responsibility. In accounting for his own success, the British Foreign Office permanent under-secretary, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, declared in the early 1900s that his “theory in the service was that ‘power’ is the first aim.”(36)  Diplomats have served some fairly odious regimes. The Nazi seizure of power provoked only one ambassadorial resignation.(37)  Dobrynin, for all his efforts to present himself as a civilizing influence on Soviet power, remains remarkably glib about the activities of his colleagues. Indeed, the Russian experience from Tsarist empire to Bolshevik state and from USSR to Russian republic provides remarkable examples of shifts in the allegiances of professional diplomats.(38)  It can be argued that the evolution of the European Union (EU) is providing us with others.

However, the most one can conclude from this is that diplomats are neither more nor less virtuous than the rest of the population. For every quote about power, there are many more about restraining and tempering its use. Nor have diplomats played the passive and pessimistic parts assigned to them by some commentators in which they simply go with the flow or, to put it more professionally, do their best to execute the will of their political masters without making things worse. More research is needed on the role of diplomats in policy formulation, but it is clear that some have taken the lead in advocating peace through the construction of an order which circumscribed the autonomy of their sovereigns. They did so because they thought it was a good idea. They continue to do so, however, not as cosmopolitans in the pejorative sense used by critics to call into question their patriotism.

More typical than Nicolson’s elegant husks is what might be called the practical – or even unreflective – cosmopolitanism exhibited by Frank Roberts when he recalls his role as Britain’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the 1950s. He suggests that his position was unusual because he was “like any Ambassador, the representative of his country, but at the same time share[d] a collective responsibility as a member of the Council.” As a consequence, it was his duty “not only to represent British views on the Council but also to press upon London, when required, the collective views of the Council in addition to reporting those of Spaak, Norstaad and individual national representatives.” It is “pressing” rather than reporting which is important here, and on one occasion “pressing upon London” resulted in Roberts being summoned to 10 Downing Street after Earl Mountbatten complained about his support for American generals in an argument with their British counterparts. Roberts makes no explicit judgment about his conduct and discusses neither his conception of his role nor the issues raised by his carpeting. Nevertheless, one senses a confidence bordering on smugness that Roberts believes that he was right, Mountbatten was wrong, and that anyone with a grasp of diplomacy would agree.(39)

This interpretation involves a degree of reading into the text, one of the professional hazards of studying people who write carefully but not necessarily transparently. Although unabashed and assertive cosmopolitanism is hard to find in the writings of diplomats, in one case at least, there is little need for such interpretive skills. Dag Hammarskjöld, in writing about the impact of public opinion in the 1960s, maintained that, while diplomacy had changed little from ancient times until the nineteenth century, it now needed “new techniques” for a “new world.” The challenge was to gain acceptance of the new techniques when neither diplomats nor the general public were “fully acclimated” to the role now played by public opinion. Too often, public opinion meant that compromise would be shunned “out of fear that it will be labeled appeasement or defeat.” If that was so, Hammarskjöld argued, “no diplomat is likely to meet the demands of public opinion on him as a representative in international policy unless he understands this opinion and unless he respects it deeply enough to give it leadership when he feels that the opinion does not truly represent the deeper and finally decisive aspirations in the minds and hearts of the people.”(40)  What is remarkable in this quote is not the internationalist claim implicit in it. After all, Hammarskjöld as secretary-general of the United Nations was an international civil servant in a sense that goes beyond Roberts’ experience of trying to wear multiple hats. Nor is it the remarkable rhetorical finesse by which he proposes to give people what they want, rather than what they think they want, because he respects them. It is the underlying professional confidence, shared with Roberts, that he knows best because he has a grasp of what is needed and what is possible in international politics.

This confidence in a grasp of the essentials is a dominant theme in writings of diplomats. They present themselves as practical men and women who take the world for what it is, rather than what it might be, and who let reason, rather than emotion, govern their actions. Mattingly notes with approval the “platitudinous character” of the advice-to-ambassadors literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because “the simple and difficult rules of any enduring art” always sound like platitudes.(41)  Diplomacy “does not so much require special qualifications as make special calls for common qualifications.”(42)  To the honesty at its heart might be added “the application of intelligence and tact” and “a ready wit and sense of proportion.”(43)  Diplomats “are not inclined to separate questions of principle from their practical affairs, or to neglect administrative problems because of their more theoretical preoccupations.”(44)  Lord Carnock, for example, was convinced that Anglo-Russian differences at the turn of the century “were caused by simple misunderstanding of each other.”(45)  His grandson, Harold Nicolson, maintained that foreign affairs consisted of “the development of perfectly simple and ascertainable probabilities.” Indeed, he was highly critical of those who persisted in seeing them “as some elaborately shifting pattern” or who made diplomacy more complicated than was necessary.(46)  The corollary to straightforward, honest men capable “of seeing the right people at the right time and saying the right things to them in the right way” is that the world is populated by people who are not.(47)

Thus, like Dobrynin with his “reassuring presence,” diplomats see themselves as the steadying influence when others – publics and politicians alike – are carried away by the heat of the moment to demand the satisfaction of national honour with war, or be tempted by fear and selfishness to renounce important international responsibilities when they become dangerous or expensive to uphold. This professional detachment, however, is made possible only by a philosophical distance from the idea of international politics. Diplomats see themselves as more aware than those they represent of the conceptual sand on which the international order is built and believe that it is their professional duty to let this awareness guide their actions. It is the amateurs, in this view, who, when it occurs to them to think about it at all, will take an idea like sovereignty literally and insist upon its implications uncompromisingly. The professionals, by contrast, keep the notional world of sovereign states running by curbing the impulses to apply its principles too vigorously. They can do so because, thanks to their expertise and training, they do not inhabit the international world in quite the way the rest of us apparently do.

It is this which may be called the diplomatic disposition. Leaving aside the accuracy of the assumptions on which it is based, it has important and paradoxical consequences because diplomats believe it. On the one hand, their professional detachment from international politics inhibits them from defending the representational requirements of an effective system of diplomacy among sovereign states, even though their own positions would be inconceivable without such an idea. Representing one’s literal prince in a God-ordained order has a plausibility which representing one’s figurative prince, be it a government, country, or people, can never quite attain. Besides, diplomats know that in an important sense France, Japan, and Britain are not real and that bad things can happen when foreign policy is dictated by those who believe they are. On the other hand, they cannot welcome their publics sharing their own convictions about the notional quality of international politics because, in the end, they think that international order depends upon such notions being accepted. A world of states whose citizens possessed the consciousness of diplomats would be unrepresentable, and a world of states whose diplomats possessed the consciousness of citizens would be unmanageable. Ideally, therefore, people should live with the consciousness of citizens within their countries, accepting the claims of their governments while acknowledging the expertise of their diplomats in the conduct of relations among them.

Insofar as this state of affairs pertains, diplomats enjoy considerable leeway in establishing procedures for pursuing and reconciling the interests of the states they represent. They can “cheat” on the rules and even, on occasion, on their princes to keep the world running smoothly. The trick, as ever, is knowing what one can get away with. However, in the twentieth century public opinion had to be palliated before it would allow diplomats to do anything. Hammarskjöld suggested that this would result in nationalist or statist restrictions imposed on diplomatic practice, but it did not, at least not in any simple sense. Rather, the rise of public opinion coincided with the emergence of the great ideological conflicts whose strategic and material consequences impelled diplomats to accompany their political leaders from serving peace through international adjustments to building it through international reform. Grave threats and great promises enabled governments to embark on this adventure and their publics to support them.

The diplomats went along with both because they had little choice. They went along with equanimity because, at heart, they were confident that the sovereign state system, notional though it might be, was real in that it enjoyed more correspondence with the fragmented human condition than any other way of expressing it. This confidence, too, is part of the diplomatic disposition. It underpins Dobrynin’s impatience with the ideological rigidities of his political masters, ensures that no one could take Lord Hardinge’s search for power above all else as implying something above the interests of his king and country, and allows Nicolson to claim that, in the end, diplomacy is a simple business. So long as the countries remain real, everything else fits comfortably into place. Roberts’ story is so comfortably told precisely because we know he has not become a NATO man in the same sense that he is “Britain’s man” and that his claim to represent NATO derives from nowhere else but his claim to represent Britain.

Post-Cold War Representation

But is Roberts right? Is the confidence of the diplomatic disposition in the sovereign state system which allows him to tell his story in the way he does justified? After all, it is not merely the sterile, frightened ideologues of the Politiburo who have recently been swept away. So too has the USSR which Dobrynin served and about the impermanence of which he has little to say. It can be argued that European great powers face a similar, if gentler, fate. It may be symptomatic of international political change that one must turn to diplomats from the remaining superpower for clear reaffirmation of the priorities of princes over peace. The American Max Kampelman argues that one should be careful about creating too many international organizations because “experience shows that [their] staffs. . . begin to establish their own policy and goals.”(48)  Few contemporary European diplomats would openly agree, and none would echo Robert Vansittart’s view of a half-century ago that “The more we are together” should become “the Froth-Blowers’ Anthem,” at least not on the record.(49)  And yet the anchor remains. Ask EU diplomats about their daily work and they will describe in great detail the multilateral committees in which they try to establish a better way of solving this problem or regulating that behavior for the benefit of all. The operative pronoun is “we” and yet, ask them who they serve and they will say their government or their country.

Skepticism about the complacency of the diplomatic disposition is, indeed, widespread. It is most obviously called into question by aspects of the complex pattern of relations which is emerging among the members of the EU. Much of it remains recognizably diplomatic, the bilateral relations between members, for example, and, if the diplomats themselves are to be believed, even a great deal of the complex and technical bargaining around the operations of common policies. It is less easy to regard the activities of the Permanent Representatives Committee, the Commission staff, or even the people seconded to the European presidency in the same vein. Who do they represent as they engage in the construction of new policies, regimes, and, in the latter case conceivably, a politico-diplomatic entity? Can French policy on monetary union be interpreted as a security strategy against Germany when, if it is implemented, it will possibly be no longer clear just what is being secured against whom? Only the intense difficulties which the representatives of the member states experience in accomplishing common objectives permits agreement with those who contend that the whole ensemble may still be regarded as an exercise in conference diplomacy.(50)

A far more common scholarly reaction to the diplomatic disposition is the increasing body of international theory which assumes that the sovereign state system is fading and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Brian Hocking, for example, identifies catalytic diplomacy, in which new kinds of actors deal with new kinds of issues in new ways.(51)  Catalytic diplomats control resources, enjoy access, and possess certain skills which allow them to work at all levels of society building coalitions out of a shifting milieu of actors to secure interests and solve problems. Canada’s high commissioner to Britain, for example, can mobilize Cornish fishermen to press London for a European fisheries policy more friendly to the interests of the Atlantic provinces. His ambassadorial position gives him certain assets, but it does not appear to be essential. A lawyer or professional mediator representing Canadian fisheries might play nearly the same game, indeed, might do rather better than the professionals who “retain an overriding concern with principles of state sovereignty” and work with an overly narrow understanding of peace. Some think we need “field diplomats,” distinguished not by whom they represent but by the skills they possess in mediating and facilitating conflict resolution.(52)

Conceivably, therefore, diplomacy is losing both its professional and conceptual identity as we move towards an era distinguished by what George Kennan called “diplomacy without the diplomats.” In an otherwise sympathetic treatment, Hamilton and Langhorne suggest that “diplomacy has been transformed and transcended.”(53)  Such sentiments are expressions of the current movement among international theorists away from treating international relations as a distinctive branch of human relations. If they are right, the institution of diplomacy as it has emerged over the centuries is certainly in deep trouble because it is built upon the notion of representation, and, problematic though this is, on what basis might diplomats be said to represent anything other than states?

One could imagine replacing them with a new sort of profession defined in terms of the functional skills of negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and conciliation, contracted on a commercial basis, but its agents would not be diplomats because they would lack both the symbolic and political significance of servants of the state. Nor, one suspects, would they be as effective. Today, for example, an American’s negotiating skills may be formidable, but they are enhanced by the fact that he or she represents the United States and not the United Nations, the EU, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, or any other agency.

However, the possibility that diplomacy might disappear or be transcended should be treated with considerable skepticism on empirical grounds. Diplomacy has not changed all that much because, on close inspection, it turns out that it was never quite the way we have learned to remember it. At the end of the fifteenth century, two French diplomats on the way to visit the Sultan were killed by Spanish troops on behalf of Margaret of Hungary, then the governor of the Spanish Netherlands.(54)  Four hundred years later, Arthur Hardinge found himself presiding over Portuguese courts in Zanzibar and settling territorial disputes between his Portuguese and German neighbours, while Lord Carnock spent at least some of his time in Tangier building local coalitions to oppose the deforestation of the surrounding hills by charcoal burners and attempting to frustrate British gun-runners acting in the French interest.(55)  Even Hardinge of Penshurst describes how his efforts to marry Princess Marie to the Romanian Crown Prince did not detract from a parallel campaign to secure access to the Romanian market for British cotton.(56)  Sovereigns may have been a requisite of diplomacy in the past, but a tidy world of sovereigns with clearly demarcated political relations never was.

We may conclude then that, with a few exceptions resulting from undiplomatic excitement or most diplomatic ketman, the diplomats were right. One could serve peace, even in the sense of constructing international order, without damaging one’s foundations in the sovereign state system because essentially that system was and is not disappearing. Nevertheless, the imperatives of world war and cold war which made serving peace in a transformative sense seem so necessary, and the certainties of the ideologies which made it seem so attractive, have been greatly weakened. They have been replaced by a world of relative security in which fragmentation is as much a fact as interdependence, and in which diversity and separateness have re-emerged as a counterpoint to cosmopolitanism. The challenge which confronts post-cold war diplomacy, therefore, is not how to respond to the erosion of its own premise; it is to reassert the extent to which that premise, the problem of relations in a fragmented human community whose components value their sovereignty, remains operative.

A failure to be effective here courts two dangers. First, diplomacy’s legitimacy as an institution of international society may be weakened. Every diplomat who does not represent a country faces the questions: who do you represent and in whose name do you make your requests and suggest your policies? The more institutionally removed diplomats are from their established positions as representatives of their governments, the harder these questions are to answer. The claim to represent countries has problems, but the answers that diplomats represent no one or everyone, or different people and different things in different contexts, are no answers at all. Hocking’s high commissioner does not derive his authority from his skills, the situation he finds himself in, or the services he can provide, but from the fact that he represents his country. To obscure this is to do him and his profession a disservice.

Secondly, a failure to reassert diplomacy’s premise contributes to bad foreign policy. It is still too early to predict the consequences of community-building and community-expansion in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. I suspect that either the more grandiose schemes for building political order on economic and financial integration will subside into more prosaic exercises in intergovernmental collaboration, or that we shall witness a partial disintegration of the fusion between politics and economics which has been one of the hallmarks of the last century. If countries on the gold standard, or countries like Canada and the United States or England and Scotland, could pursue independent political policies and conduct intense arguments while their currencies intermingled, then conceivably the participants in a single European currency system could do the same. However, one does not need to speculate about the possible consequences of community-building in the absence of community to identify examples of bad policy. Several failures have already occurred in one area of traditional concern – getting the great powers to exercise their responsibilities towards the maintenance of international order.

As recent experiences in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Zaire suggest, the consensus behind this traditional role remains shallow and fragile. The war against Iraq was won, but only after a major expenditure of diplomatic and political effort. Iraq had to be presented as a major threat to international order, nor because of any equalization of power brought about by changes in military technology – the course of the war demonstrated that no such equalization had taken place – but because this was the only way in which a variety of constituencies could be persuaded to support it. The wars between the republics of the former Yugoslavia proved impervious to the new type of military intervention practiced under United Nations auspices, described as humane and sophisticated by its supporters in Europe and timid by its detractors in the United States. Only direct but limited punitive intervention by the United States against one side arrested further deterioration, but the consequences of that action remain uncertain, principally because great-power commitment to raising the stakes, if necessary, remains equally uncertain. And in Africa, the general unwillingness of the great powers to intervene and their inability to agree with each other when one of their number risked a more assertive role – the United States in Somalia, France in Rwanda – were exposed by the demand that something must be done.

Whatever the answer may be to that problem of post-cold war great power intervention (and it is possible that it involves convincing publics that sending one or two thousand soldiers abroad is a small deal rather than a big one), it will not be found in improving the machinery for co-ordination at the interstate or supranational level. By concentrating on the architecture within which such problems might be managed, post-cold war diplomacy has done little to correct the lack of perspective and much to maintain the gap between the weak commitment to do something and the high expectation that something must be done. Even when the vast amount of diplomatic and political effort expended on these architectures succeeds in sending a few thousand soldiers into the field or committing a few score of aircraft to aerial policing, the best this approach seems capable of delivering in terms of great power engagement is over-commitment. This, in turn, courts disappointment, failure, and increased public skepticism about the value of foreign adventures which, when they become costly or dangerous, are exposed as serving no demonstrable national interest.

The worst it courts is great power disagreement. To date, such disagreements have resulted only in the immobilization of policies. Differences over Bosnia, for example, meant that United States preferences were not acted upon until European preferences had been demonstrated to be bankrupt. Differences between the French and the Americans over policies in central Africa resulted in the former’s withdrawal. Suppose, however, that the gap between the United States and other claimants to great power status narrows, as it eventually must, and suppose that in their efforts to secure domestic support for interventions, governments and their advisors are tempted to make their case in terms of national interests (how else are they to persuade their electorates to pay the necessary price in blood and treasure?). Either development might make it harder for great powers to resolve their differences over collective intervention by suspending their policies or by doing nothing.

Diplomats should, therefore, reconsider the ways in which they have dealt with ideas such as nationalism and independence in the course of the twentieth century. Should they still be seen as obstacles or residual facts of international politics, for example, which skilful diplomats should seek to finesse, or is it possible to refer to them again as the building blocks of the only international order we are likely to enjoy? This may sound like a very tall order, and, insofar as it raises the question of the relationship of the diplomat to the specific thrust of foreign policy, it is. Even so, diplomats must respond to it because it involves a responsibility which they have assumed throughout the history of their profession, namely to ensure that their activities do not become a source of international tension. Diplomats should remind themselves and others that they are first and foremost the representatives of sovereign states, that this is their raison d’être and a precondition for anything else they might aspire to be or to do. This might require an adjustment in their professional orientation but not a transformation.


1. Origninally published in “International Journal” (Autumn 1997)

2. See for example, R. Cohen, ‘Diplomacy 2000 BC to 2000 AD,’ paper presented at annual conference of British International Studies Association, Southampton, 1995; Keith Hamilton and R. Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy (London: Routledge 1995); Brian Hocking, ‘Beyond “newness” and “decline”: the development of catalytic diplomacy,’ Diplomatic Studies Programme Discussion Paper (DSPDP) 10, Diplomatic Studies Programme, Leicester University, 1995; and L. Reychler, ‘Beyond traditional diplomacy,’ DSPDP 17, 1996.

3. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books 1994), 18.

4. Robert H. Miller, ‘Influencing another nation,’ in Miller, ed, Inside an Embassy: the Political Role of Diplomats Abroad (Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly 1992), 55.

5. R.R Barston, Modern Diplomacy (London: Longman 1988), 2; and Geoffrey R. Berridge, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice (London: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf 1995), 24.

6. Marcel Cadieux, The Canadian Diplomat: An Essay in Definition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1962), 111.

7. Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence (New York: Random House 1995), 136.

8. Geoffrey Jackson, Concorde Diplomacy: The Ambassador’s Role in the World Today (London: Hamish Hamilton 1981), 116.

9. Barston, Modern Diplomacy, 2.

10. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace (6th ed. revised by K. Thompson; NewYork: McGraw Hill 1985), 566.

11. Alan James, ‘Diplomacy and foreign policy,’ Review of International Studies 19 (January 1993), 91-100.

12. Cited in Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (London: Jonathan Cape 1955), 109.

13. Abba Eban, The New Diplomacy: International Affairs in the Modem Age (New York: Random House 1983), 333.

14. Cited in Hamilton and Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy, 41.

15. Cited in Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy, 269.

16. Berridge, Diplomacy, 36-7.

17. M. Keens-Soper, ‘Abraham de Wicquefort and diplomatic theory,’ DSPDP 14, 1996.

18. Frank Roberts, Dealing with Dictators: the Destruction and Revival of Europe 1930-70 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1991), 2.

19. Dobrynin, In Confidence, 3-6.

20. Hamilton and Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy, 41.

21. François de Callières, On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1963), 11, 113.

22. S. Sofer, ‘Old and new diplomacy: a debate revisited,’ Review of International Studies 14 (July 1988), 195-211.

23. Hamilton and Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy, 71.

24. Adam Watson, Diplomacy: The Dialogue Between States (New York: New Press/McGraw Hill 1983), 83.

25. Hamilton and Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy, 158.

26. Watson, Diplomacy, 27, 194-6, emphasis in original.

27. Hedley Bull, ‘Introduction: Martin Wight and the study of international relations,’ in Martin Wight, Systems of States (Leicester, Leicester University Press 1977), 9.

28. J. R. Wood and J. Serres, Diplomatic Ceremonial and Protocol: Principles, Procedures and Practices (New York: Columbia University Press 1970), 4-9.

29. Robert Schulzinger, The Making of the Diplomatic Mind (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press 1975), 11.

30. J.W. Foster, The Practice of Diplomacy as Illustrated in the Foreign Relations of the United States (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin 1906), preface.

31. Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, Diplomacy in Peace and War (London: John Murray 1949), 29.

32. M. Bernard, Four Lectures on Subjects Connected with Diplomacy (London: Macmillan 1868), 114.

33. Ibid, 139.

34. Ernst Satow, An Austrian Diplomat in the Fifties (Cambridge: The University Press 1908), 56-7.

35. Harold Nicolson, The Evolution of the Diplomatic Method (New York: Macmillan 1953), 78-9.

36. Charles Hardinge, ed, Old Diplomacy: the Reminiscences of Lord Hardinge of Penshurst (London: John Murray 1947), 98.

37. Hamilton and Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy, 178.

38. Dobrynin, In Confidence, 20.

39. Roberts, Dealing with Dictators, 196.

40. Dag Hammarskjöld, ‘New diplomatic techniques in a new world,’ in Elmer Plischke, ed., Modern Diplomacy: the Art and the Artisans (Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute Studies in Foreign Policy 1979), 86.

41. Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy, 109.

42. Bernard, Four Lectures, 148.

43. Nigel Bland, ed, Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice (London: Longman, Green 1958), 1, vii.

44. Cadieux, The Canadian Diplomat, 34.

45. Harold Nicolson, Sir Arthur Nicolson, Bart, First Lord Carnock (London: Constable 1930), 207.

46. Nicolson, The Evolution of the Diplomatic Method, 24, 73; and Nicolson, Sir Arthur Nicolson, 82.

47. William Stang, Home and Abroad (London: Deutsch 1956), 127.

48. Max Kampelman, Entering New Worlds (New York, Harper Collins 1991), 237.

49. Robert Vansittart, The Lessons of My Life (London: Hutchinson 1944), 30.

50. J. Kaufmann, Conference Diplomacy (London: Macmillan 1996), 117.

51. Hocking, ‘Beyond “newness” and “decline.”’

52. Reychler, ‘Beyond traditional diplomacy.’

53. George E Kennan, ‘Diplomacy without diplomats?’ Foreign Affairs 76 (September/October 1997); Hamilton and Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy, 231.

54. M. Anderson, The Rise of Modern Diplomacy 1450-1919 (London: Longman 93), 39.

55. A. Hardinge, Diplomacy in the East, 121: Nicolson, Sir Arthur Nicolson, 121.

56. C. Hardinge, Old Diplomacy, 51.

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