History of diplomacy and technology
“The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”
This quote from Winston Churchill could be a tweet about the interplay between diplomacy and technology. This page will, by revisiting the history of diplomacy, try to find guidelines for the future of diplomacy in the internet era.
Masterclass with Jovan Kurbalija
In January 2021, we began the learning journey through history with Diplomacy and Technology: A historical journey, a series of open monthly Zoom discussions on the evolution of diplomacy and technology, led by Dr Jovan Kurbalija, an expert with an academic background in international law, diplomacy, and digital technology.
Our aim will be to discover how civilizations dealt with ‘new’ technologies, from simple writing, via the telegraph, to the internet. You’re welcome to join us!
In our September masterclass, we will talk about diplomacy and the invention of the telephone and wireless communication. Register to attend!
Don’t miss …
The telegraph and diplomacy | An interview with Tom Standage
The history of drinks and diplomacy | An interview with Tom Standage
What can diplomats learn from primates? | An interview with leading primatologist Prof. Frans de Waal
How did the ancient Greeks settle disagreements? | A text by Aldo Matteucci
A historical timeline
January 2021 | Introduction
Continuity and change: We will first focus on the interplay between continuity and change in the evolution of diplomacy and technology. The core functions of diplomacy, such as negotiation and representation, have been present since the early days of diplomacy. These core functions have not changed substantially over the centuries. Rather, changes have occurred in how diplomacy has been performed. Here, technology has played a crucial role, starting with the appearance of language (the early ‘communications technology’), via the telegraph and radio, up to the internet.
Information and communications: Next, we will look at information and communication, the two core pillars of diplomacy. We will analyse how information management has affected diplomacy, from the first diplomatic archive in Tell el-Amarna (Ancient Egypt), up to today’s diplomatic archives stored in the digital cloud. We will also examine how the various communications systems have influenced the style in which we communicate. Costly messages in the early days of the electrical telegraph forced diplomats to write concise, tweet-like short texts, while inexpensive fax messaging, and recently the internet, have made longer diplomatic messages possible.
Politics, topics, and tools: Finally, we will analyse the impacts technology had on the political environment in which diplomats operated (changes in sovereignty, increased interdependence), the topics they discussed (regulating telegraphy, and more recently, internet governance), and the tools they used (telegraph diplomacy, Twitter diplomacy).
In applying this methodology, we will try to identify common patterns through history, as well as the importance of the time–space context for the interplay between technology and diplomacy.
A few caveats should be kept in mind.
First, communications technology is just one of the many catalysts of social, political, and economic developments. Highlighting technology as the only, or dominant, cause of developments in diplomacy might lead to oversimplification and technological determinism. We will try to weigh the importance of technological factors in a broader social and political context.
Second, historical analogies should be approached with great care, otherwise they might lead towards erroneous, although prima facie, conclusions. When looking for patterns in historical developments, one must understand that history rarely repeats itself in the same way.
Third, the history of technology is not sequential, where one technology replaces another. Most technologies coexist with previous innovations in spite of various ‘endism’ predictions. The traditional postal service was not replaced by the telegraph; neither did the telephone ‘kill’ the telegraph; the radio coexists with television. In fact, with the exception of the telegraph, most communications innovations from the last two centuries, including snail mail, the telephone, radio, television, and fax, are still used today. Snail mail, one of the oldest organised methods of communication, is a successful business even today (e.g. DHL, FedEx).
February 2021 | Prehistory: The birth of diplomacy and early “technologies”
Many anthropological studies found early attempts of solving conflicts peacefully through negotiations. Most likely, the main shift, what Jared Diamond calls the ‘great leap forward’, took place somewhere between the Neanderthal, who inhabited modern-day Germany 100,000 years ago, and the Cro-Magnon man, who lived 40,000 years ago in modern-day southern France. The difference between their skeletons, the tools they used, and the artworks they created, shows that something significant happened in this period. In addition to war and conflict, they used different ways and means for solving conflicts.
Two main developments influenced prehistoric diplomacy. The first was the emergence of language and speech as the main instruments of communication (i.e. with increased and more diverse communication, the likelihood of solving problems without confrontation increased), and the second was the emergence of societal organisations in various forms of cohabitation such as clans and tribes. Tribes interacted with other tribes through both conflict and cooperation. The first negotiations and search for compromise appeared in this period. The emergence of the spoken language opened new paths for innovation and the development of human society. Language facilitated communication in early societies and increased the potential for feeling empathy and finding peaceful solutions to conflicts.
In sedentary communities, our distant predecessors began settling down in one place and occupying particular pieces of land. Some had more fertile land and better life than others which led to an interplay between cooperation and confrontation. The continuum of war and peace started shaping human history, which has continued until this day.
The main building blocks of diplomacy emerged in this period: tribes and clans needed representations; they negotiated and coexisted in both peaceful and violent times.
Historians have found proof of the institution of privileges and immunities among the Australian aborigines as well as in the Institutes of Manu (Hindu codes from around 1500 BC). As Harold Nicholson wrote, ‘no negotiation could reach a satisfactory conclusion if the emissaries of either party were murdered on arrival. Thus, the first principle to become firmly established was that of diplomatic immunity.’
Through marriages, intertribal bonds and alliances were created. There are many archaeological materials showing the importance of diplomacy in prehistory. Most of them were found in the research of rituals and ceremonies of early diplomatic encounters among tribes and clans. One of the traditions that can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia is the donation of gifts by representatives of one tribe to another when entering the territory of the other tribe.
April 2021 | Ancient Greece: Politics, new tools, and negotiations
Ancient Greece is often called the cradle of modern civilisation. Greek philosophy is as valid today as it was more than 20 centuries ago, in its attempts to explain our existence. Theatre, geometry, and astronomy, to name a few, originated here. However, Ancient Greece is not considered a golden age when it comes to diplomacy.
The strong focus on openness and transparency is one of the parallels between Ancient Greece and our era. Ancient Greek diplomacy was one of the most open diplomacies ever practiced. Envoys addressed public gatherings of citizens of the receiving states. Like today’s Twitter diplomacy, diplomats spoke to the public. Paradoxically, at least at first glance, this openness created one of the major weaknesses of ancient Greek diplomacy. Facing a foreign public, envoys were advocating more than negotiating. However, major diplomatic breakthroughs are usually achieved via ‘translucent diplomacy’ (the public is aware of the negotiations and their results, but it does not follow the process as it unfolds).
What can Twitter diplomacy learn from Ancient Greek diplomacy? In short, full transparency and openness is not an optimal environment for successful diplomacy aimed at solving complex problems through convergence and compromise.
May 2021 | Byzantine diplomacy: The elixir of longevity
The Byzantine Empire (AD 395–1453) did not have the privilege of ruling the whole Mediterranean. After the collapse of Rome, Byzantium continued the tradition of the Roman Empire, constantly attempting to restore its glory. Without the power and the control of the old Roman Empire, Byzantium had to revert to diplomacy to a greater extent. Surrounded by hostile tribes from the Balkans, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, it used sophisticated techniques to keep them under control. The overextension of the Byzantine Empire required geographically broad diplomatic coverage, from China and India in the east, to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, from the interior of Africa, to the steppes of the Black Sea.
With regard to diplomatic practice, Byzantium took the first step towards establishing an apparatus (an early ministry of foreign affairs) for managing foreign relations. It also made use of international agreements. One of its most developed treaty practices was with the rulers of Kievan Rus (862–1242). The first treaty was signed with Oleg of Novgorod (AD 911), a later one with Igor of Kiev (AD 944). Treaties had a very broad coverage, including many provisions on cooperation in ‘criminal affairs’, including the Rus’ right to extradition from Byzantium of any of its subjects who committed a criminal act.
June 2021 | Renaissance Diplomacy and the Reformation
Our next stop brings us to the Renaissance (from c.1400) and the impact the invention of the printing press had on diplomacy during the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
Renaissance diplomacy developed between Italian city states. Relationships between these states were influenced by two key elements: no hegemonic power and a strong interest in cooperating and solving problems through peaceful means. Like Byzantium in the previous period, the Italian city states preferred to use diplomacy as a tool for solving disputes among themselves. The city states, in particular Venice, borrowed from Byzantium diplomatic techniques such as deception, bribery, and espionage, which became the trademark of Renaissance diplomacy.
During the Renaissance, the first full diplomatic system, consisting of permanent diplomatic missions, diplomatic reporting, and diplomatic privileges, was established. In diplomatic history, it is widely accepted that the first permanent diplomatic mission was established in 1455, and represented the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, in Genoa.
Another important development, linked mainly to the Reformation, was the invention of the printing press around 1440 by the German Johannes Gutenberg. This invention had a considerable impact on all functions of society, including diplomacy. The Church’s dominance through parchment-based writing was challenged. The Church’s participation in diplomacy gradually started to ebb. Clergymen no longer held a monopoly in literacy. They were no longer an indispensable part of every diplomatic mission.
During this period of slow and undeveloped transportation and communications, diplomats were among the few who had the privilege of travelling to remote places in search of news. They played an important role in the transfer and spread of knowledge and information.
August 2021 | Invention of the telegraph and the golden age of diplomacy
The most important technological invention in this period was the electrical telegraph, which, for the first time in human history, effectively detached communication from transportation. Until the invention of the telegraph, the speed and reliability of communication depended on the different means of transportation available at the time, for example, durable foot messengers, fast horses, and ships for crossing large water obstacles.
As for diplomacy, the 1814/15 Congress of Vienna laid the foundation for modern diplomacy – including the introduction of diplomatic precedent and diplomatic ranks. The period between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War is often described as a golden age of diplomacy, which managed to secure one of the most peaceful periods in recent history. During this period, structural developments took place in both communication and diplomacy. Communications inventions became part of daily life, gradually becoming integrated into global telecommunications networks. Diplomacy was transformed from ad-hoc meetings into an organised system consisting of diplomatic services, international organisations, and habitual international gatherings.
As an illustration of the interplay between diplomacy and technology, one could conjecture that history between the Congress of Vienna and WWI would have been different if it were not for two important telegrams: Ems and Zimmerman. The Ems Telegram sparked the Franco-Prussian War, and led towards the establishment of Germany as a unified state. The Zimmerman Telegram, a secret diplomatic communication issued from the German Foreign Office in 1917, proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico, triggering the USA’s entrance into WWI.
The impact of the telegraph on diplomacy can be analysed in three contexts: changes in the environment for diplomatic activities, the introduction of new issues on diplomatic agendas, and the use of new tools.
September 2021 | Diplomacy and the invention of telephony and wireless communications
Telephony and wireless (radio) communication, together with the telegraph, constitute the three most important inventions that have shaped communication. They have also strongly influenced diplomacy. The telegraph delinked communication from physical transportation and travelling. The telephone transferred voices over distances. And wireless communication delinked communication from any physical medium. In diplomacy, the telephone made the close contact of heads of state possible, including various ‘red lines’.
In 1877, Alexander Graham Bell produced ‘the first telephone capable of transmitting speech with adequate quality’. The real impact of the telephone on international relations was felt after the Second World War. Country leaders, especially those of the two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, started using the telephone in order to avoid further escalation in international crises. It has been reported that the telephone played an important role in all of the following international crises: the Six-Day War in the Middle East in 1967, the Indo-Pakistani War in December 1971, the Arab–Israeli War of 1973, and the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR in 1979.
Wireless (radio) communications had a strong impact on communication geopolitics. The radio spectrum is used for electric wireless communication. It is divided into frequencies measured in the unit known as the hertz (Hz). International rules for the allocation of frequencies were set in 1912. Although the spectrum remains the same, the range of usable frequencies constantly increases with the development of technology. New, especially digital technology, significantly increased the spectrum range.
Some diplomatic issues, like security, privacy, neutrality, that were raised in the international policy surrounding telephony and wireless communications are still discussed today in the context of internet governance.
October 2021 | Radio broadcasting and public diplomacy
The basis for radio broadcasting was created by scientific and technological breakthroughs in wireless communications. Both Guglielmo Marconi and Reginald Fessenden, who in 1906 managed to transfer sound via radio waves, were attempting to create a wireless telephone. In line with the principle of unintended consequences, their pursuit resulted in something else. This, as David Sarnoff suggested, was a ‘radio music box’. The technological basis developed for wireless telephony was used in one-way radio broadcasting.
The previously established technological dynamism continued during and after WWII. The most significant tool that influenced the outcome of WWII was the radio. It was used as a propaganda and morale-boosting medium by all sides involved in the conflict. During the war and the immediate post-war period, the basic radio propaganda infrastructure was established.
While objecting to western radio broadcasting, the USSR developed a similar, if not even more powerful, radio system covering almost the entire globe. The jamming of radio programmes was used as an instrument of international relations and as a subject of certain diplomatic negotiations during the Cold War.
Radio broadcasting confirms that usually technological advances coexist with previous innovations in spite of various ‘endism’ predictions. Traditional mail was not replaced by the telegraph. The telephone did not ‘kill’ the telegraph. The radio coexists with television. In fact, with the exception of the telegraph, most communication innovations introduced during the last two centuries, including snail mail, the telephone, the radio, TV, and fax are still in widespread use today. Radio broadcasting was reborn on the internet with thousands of radio channels broadcast online.
November 2021 | TV broadcasting and the impact of the CNN-effect on diplomacy
Since its invention in 1926, and the beginning of its commercial use six years later by the BBC, television has become the main news and entertainment medium, and it will keep this position for years to come. The golden years of television during the 1970s and 1980s saw the development of ‘prime time TV’ as a new, real-time way of addressing a wide audience.
The possibility of shaping public opinion was most prominent during the First Gulf War (1991–1992) in Iraq when the cable-news network CNN had reporters and cameras on the ground, reporting the conflict live via television. In this way, CNN helped shape public opinion about the situation on the ground, and influenced decisions on further military actions.
Nowadays, television is increasingly broadcast via the internet, and the use of global video-repository sites such as YouTube may make it even easier to raise visual news and media to a higher level, or, it might lose the power of being the main news medium, and be bypassed by new technologies like the internet.
Television is still powerful and important in today’s diplomacy. It still shapes public opinion, and the general public still relies on traditional television as their main source of information.
From our blog
In January 2021, Diplo began a series of online discussions titled History of Diplomacy and Technology led by Dr Jovan Kurbalija. As part of the series, Kurbalija interviewed journalist and author Tom Standage to ta...