Skip to main content
[ "article:topic", "showtoc:no", "license:ccbysa", "authorname:smmclincheywalters" ]
Social Sci LibreTexts

2.1: What Is Diplomacy?

  • Page ID
    11097
  • Diplomacy has probably existed for as long as civilisation has. The easiest way to understand it is to start by seeing it as a system of structured communication between two or more parties. Records of regular contact via envoys travelling between neighbouring civilisations date back at least 2500 years. They lacked many of the characteristics and commonalities of modern diplomacy such as embassies, international law and professional diplomatic services. Yet, it should be underlined that political communities, however they may have been organised, have usually found ways to communicate during peacetime, and have established a wide range of practices for doing so. The benefits are clear when you consider that diplomacy can promote exchanges that enhance trade, culture, wealth and knowledge.

    For those looking for a quick definition, diplomacy can be defined as a process between actors (diplomats, usually representing a state) who exist within a system (international relations) and engage in private and public dialogue (diplomacy) to pursue their objectives in a peaceful manner.

    Diplomacy is not foreign policy and must be distinguished from it. It may be helpful to perceive diplomacy as part of foreign policy. When a nation-state makes foreign policy it does so for its own national interests. And, these interests are shaped by a wide range of factors. In basic terms, a state’s foreign policy has two key ingredients; its actions and its strategies for achieving its goals. The interaction one state has with another is considered the act of its foreign policy. This act typically takes place via interactions between government personnel through diplomacy. To interact without diplomacy would typically limit a state’s foreign policy actions to conflict (usually war, but also via economic sanctions) or espionage. In that sense, diplomacy is an essential tool required to operate successfully in today’s international system.

    In the modern context then, a system dominated by states, we can reasonably regard diplomacy as something being conducted for the most part between states. In fact, the applicable international law that governs diplomacy – the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) – only references states as diplomatic actors. Yet, the modern international system also involves powerful actors that are not states. These tend to be international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and international governmental organisations (IGOs). These actors regularly partake in areas of diplomacy and often materially shape outcomes. For example, the United Nations and the European Union (two IGOs) materially shaped diplomacy in the case studies highlighted later in this chapter. And, a range of INGOs – such as Greenpeace – have meaningfully advanced progress toward treaties and agreements in important areas tied to the health and progress of humankind such as international environmental negotiations.

    While readers of this book will be familiar with the concept of war to some extent due to its ubiquity in modern life, diplomacy may present itself as something alien or distant. On the one hand this is a consequence of what diplomacy is and how it is carried out. Diplomacy is most often an act carried out by representatives of a state, or a non-state actor, usually behind closed doors. In these instances, diplomacy is a silent process working along in its routine (and often highly complex) form, carried out by rank-and-file diplomats and representatives. This is perhaps not the best place to shine a light on diplomacy for beginners. On the other hand, sometimes the public are presented with briefings, statements, or – more rarely – full disclosures of a diplomatic matter. These usually drift into the public consciousness when they involve critical international issues and draw in high-ranking officials. Because they do get headlines and work their way into the history books, examples drawn from this type of diplomacy are used in this chapter to offer a more palatable access point.

    To enable the reader to get a sense of what diplomacy is and why it is important, this chapter will use two interrelated case studies. The first case study involves the quest to manage the spread of nuclear weapons. The second half of the twentieth century came to be dominated by conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers, the United States of America (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – often called the Soviet Union. In this tense climate, diplomacy ensured that few other nation-states developed nuclear weapons. Hence, the diplomatic success in curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a major one, and one that involved nonstate as well as nation-state actors. US-Iran relations form the second case study. This case spans several important decades from the end of the Second World War, to the present day. As times changed, the structure of international relations also changed, often causing material shifts in the patterns of diplomacy between both nations. By visiting that relationship, it is possible to not just show the importance of high-level diplomacy between two pivotal states but also to consider the importance of an international governmental organisation – the European Union. The case studies were chosen as they offer a glimpse of diplomacy between states that were sworn enemies and had had little in common due to incompatible economic, political, or even religious, systems. Yet, through diplomacy, they were able to avoid war and find ways to achieve progress in the most critical of areas.