Bilateral diplomacy

The current crisis of multilateralism has triggered the growing importance of traditional bilateral diplomacy.

Typically, bilateral diplomacy between two countries officially involves foreign ministries and heads of state.

However, increasingly, other government departments, from trade to culture and defence, are engaged in bilateral negotiations and cooperation.

Diplomatic missions are the main permanent structure for bilateral relations. Many small countries conduct bilateral diplomacy through non-resident ambassadors or missions in multilateral centres. Countries also maintain their bilateral relations via summits and other meetings of heads of state.

Digital technologies and tools also shape today’s bilateral diplomacy.


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What is bilateral diplomacy?

Bilateral diplomacy (BD) is a key building block of international relations, covering relationships between the home country and individual foreign states, one at a time. It is the very core of managing foreign relations. The cooperation is based on consent and within the norms of international law. It differs from multilateral diplomacy, including regional variants, in the partners engaged, but not in the intrinsic techniques. It is a principal task of foreign ministries, embassies, and consulates.

Bilateral diplomacy works with individual foreign states on a variety of topics to further one’s own domestic and international goals. Recognizing differences and taking prompt action to minimize possible problems are crucial. Security is the first concern of each state, and it is at the foundation of foreign policy.

The efficiency of a country’s bilateral diplomatic engagement is often enhanced by involvement in regional and multilateral frameworks, highlighting the convergent nature of modern diplomacy. Non-state agencies (NSAs) and coalitions of interests, which drive and implement diplomatic engagement, are two additional aspects that play a role in this expanding diplomatic contact. Participation in regional and multilateral frameworks supports bilateral diplomacy aims by increasing a country’s capacity to respond to regional and global opportunities and challenges.


Why does bilateral diplomacy matter?

Bilateral diplomacy is essential for any country to engage directly with other countries, whether they are in their immediate neighbourhood or beyond. As a result of these engagements, states strengthen their own’s (foreign) objectives. Furthermore, bilateral diplomacy lays the foundation for constructing coalitions of interests in regional and multilateral fora.
The strength of a country’s bilateral connections impacts its standing in the global arena.

All countries benefit from strong diplomatic cooperation. However, when it comes to small states’ foreign policy, the relevance of bilateral diplomacy is most visible. Though smaller states’ limited capabilities might place them in an inferior position when dealing with larger ones, the starting disadvantage can be overcome. This may include dependence on collective solidarity and the rule of law, a tight engagement on particular tasks, and the application of new solutions.


How is bilateral diplomacy conducted?  

The practice of diplomacy is about dialogue, formal, informal, off-the-record, casual, and often long-winded. Some of that leads to negotiation, culminating in agreements that may be tacit, or formalized in documents that bear different names, such as exchanges of letters, protocols, accords, and treaties. The process is continual, unceasing, usually even shooting wars.

When disputes or problems arise, countries work in diverse ways to solve the differences. In situations of persisting mutual problems, a bilateral relationship may enter a phase of slowdown, or if the problem persists, a deep freeze, which might limit mutual interactions to a minimum. Typically, in our globalized world, countries privilege economic cooperation, i.e., trade and investments.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) codified practices that had evolved over time and became the enduring foundation of diplomatic practice. The central pillar of the VCDR is reciprocity: countries extend diplomatic privileges and immunities to others based on receiving the same benefits for themselves. This Convention is focused on bilateral diplomacy.

The core of the VCDR is Article 3:

The functions of a diplomatic mission consist inter alia in:

    1. Representing the sending State in the receiving State;
    2. Protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law;
    3. Negotiating with the Government of the receiving State;
    4. Ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State;
    5. Promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural, and scientific relations.

Where is bilateral diplomacy performed?

The central role in formulating a county’s foreign policy is performed by its diplomatic institutions. These institutions include the ministry of foreign affairs (MFA), as well as other ministries and official agencies that collaborate on their bilateral agendas.

Diplomatic representations abroad are mainly performed by embassies and consulates. These have been regulated under international law for more than six decades now under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) of 1961 for embassies and since 1963 under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) for consulates.

What is new in bilateral diplomacy?

cartoon, CartoonEach generation of practitioners and scholars of diplomacy tends to focus on changes. Even though key elements are unaltered, viewed from another perspective changes are profound. 


  1. Bilateral diplomacy is complexified. Relations with each capital in that inner circle are now dominated by calculations of what competing powers are doing there, and how to get optimal results from those crosscurrents. Almost all bilateral dealings are with the home country’s ‘first circle’ of priorities – a group of countries that are ‘vital’ to its interests.
  2. BD and global affairs are subject to several multiplicities. One is the different actors, official and non-state agencies, who play their legitimate roles. Another is the ever-widening array of subjects in contemporary international dialogue. And a third is the instruments that some countries may use to exert pressure on one another.
  3. International networking by public institutions is of huge value to the country, expanding its footprint and its country brand; we may call this essential public diplomacy.
  4. The MFA is the master of the diplomatic network – controlling embassies, consulates, permanent missions – but the network serves multiple home clients, official and non-official. The effective MFA understands that its overseas network is a prime asset in its home coordination tasks, especially with the country’s non-official agencies. The more it is used, the stronger the MFA’s home connections. That also enriches the diplomat’s essential knowledge base.
  5. New challenges, such as political uncertainties. economic slow-down, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, and climate change, are some of the issues of concern for modern societies. 

When did bilateral diplomacy develop?

Diplomacy was practiced whenever people organized themselves into collective entities. Bilateral diplomacy is the oldest type of diplomacy, dating to ancient times when kingdoms negotiated with one another. The key concerns were trade and security. Besides Europe and the Middle East, there are examples of diplomacy and advanced ancient civilizations in China, India, Africa, and the Americas.

Modern diplomacy has its roots in Italy in the Middle Ages, commencing in the 14th century with the establishment of consulates by Venice and the other city-states that traded with The Levant, and a century later with the dispatch of the first resident ambassadors. France was another early practitioner and the first to establish a secretariat of state in 1626 to deal with foreign affairs, which went on to become the Foreign Ministry (also called Quai d’Orsay, based on its location). Both countries produced rich literature on this new art.

The norms regulating diplomacy emerged through practice and were consolidated in treaties among European regional powers. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ended the 30-year war in Europe and defined the sovereign state. Then there was the Congress of Vienna (1815), which among other things formalized diplomatic rules of precedence.  In 1961 The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) codified practices that had evolved and became the enduring foundation of diplomatic practice.

You can read more about the history of diplomacy and technology on our website.

What’s next?

Diplo addresses bilateral diplomacy through research, courses (online and face-to-face), policy discussions, and publications. We invite you to join us:

From our blog

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

Virdzinija Saveska

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 dipl...

Why bilateral diplomacy? Is it relevant in an age of multilateral activity and global conferences?

Kishan S Rana

The diplomacy process is under transformation, as part of the churning in public affairs, in our age of globalization. But in the midst of change, some constants remain, as immovable compass points. We see this in ...

Training and courses



Bilateral Diplomacy: A Practitioner Perspective (Briefing Paper #15)

The text outlines the evolution and significance of bilateral diplomacy as the foundation of international relations, detailing its historical roots, key tasks defined by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and the contemporary challenges and complexities it... Read more...

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The Diplomacy of Ancient Greece – A Short Introduction

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Back Channel to Cuba: The hidden history of negotiations between Washington and Havana

This book went to press after the much-publicised handshake between US president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in December 2013 – but before their historic, simultaneous announcements a year later, assisted by... Read more...

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Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana

The book "Back Channel to Cuba" discusses the negotiations between Washington and Havana, leading up to the historic announcement of the normalization of relations in December 2014. The authors highlight the failed methods employed by the U.S. in dealing with Cuba and ... Read more...

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The Contemporary Embassy: Paths to Diplomatic Excellence

The Contemporary Embassy: Paths to Diplomatic Excellence" explores the evolving role of embassies in modern diplomacy, focusing on the diverse strategies and practices that contribute to diplomatic success.... Read more...

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The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy

The message provides information on modern diplomacy from The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy.... Read more...

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Modernising Dutch Diplomacy

The Dutch government is making investments in the modernization of its diplomatic services to enhance its efficiency, effectiveness, and digital capabilities. This upgrade aims to position the Netherlands as a leader in global diplomacy by adapting to the changing inte... Read more...

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