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Weaknesses of Traditional Definition of Diplomacy

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Weaknesses of Traditional Definition of Diplomacy

by Juan E. Dayang, Jr.

Among the various arguments laid out by “nascent school” against the “traditional school” of diplomatic studies are the following: (a) erosion of the dominance of nation-state in diplomacy due to the increase in the number and activities of non-state actors in international affairs, (b)  information revolution has changed the landscape of information gathering and has added a new dimension to the role of diplomats, and (c) the primacy of the foreign ministry as a sole entity for conducting foreign relations has eroded with the importance attached to economic diplomacy and, hence, the increased role given to experts from other government agencies in the areas of environment, trade, and labour migration.[1]

Rise of Non-state Actors

The argument against the traditional notion of diplomacy is that it is outdated and does not reflect present realities. Diplomacy is not only played out by states and diplomats.  Non-state actors are able to practice “faster, cheaper, and more effective unofficial diplomacy.”[2] Traditional diplomacy does not account to the unofficial diplomacy conducted by international organizations, by humanitarian and human rights groups such as the International Red Cross, by global markets in capital, stocks and currencies, and by the collective action of associations of states such as the EU and  Asean.     Multinational corporations such as Microsoft, Philips, Sony, Mitsubishi, and General Motors intervene in international affairs to protect their investments.[3] The “democratization” of diplomacy has also made nation-states consult NGOs and citizen’s groups and even engage them in Track II diplomacy.

The Information Revolution and Media have Created a Different Setting in which Diplomats Operate

The widespread use of communication media such as the internet and mobile phone devices makes the flow of information more dynamic. Critics argue that traditional reporting lines are no longer relevant as information transfer is almost instantaneous. For instance, the Foreign Ministry can be aware of developments in one part of the country simultaneously with, or even ahead of, the diplomat stationed in an embassy.  It may be argued that the diplomat’s role in information gathering and analysis has been changed by media outlets such as the CNN and BBC which provide timely information and analysis. The diplomat is therefore tasked with a different kind of information gathering, which involves not only filtering noise from relevant information but also identifying alternative sources of information that the media might not be privy to.

Eroding Primacy of States and Foreign Ministries

Hedley Bull advocated applying the term diplomacy to the “official relations not only of states but also of other political entities with standing in world politics”.[4] With this, he meant the bodies like the UN; other international organisations such as the ILO and WTO; and regional organisations such as the EU and Asean. Bull also included non-state actors such as political groups, i.e. PLO, which is recognised as a political actor in the world stage.

Langhorne predicts the “end of the diplomatic primacy of states” and concluded that the continuing “role of both foreign ministries and overseas missions” is threatened. He argued that the “profile of heads of government and other parts of the government machine domestically” will increase.[5] For instance, experts from ministries of environment, labour, and trade are given roles in international negotiations, a role dominated by professional diplomats in the past. Foreign Service personnel are no longer confined to the traditional notion of diplomacy. A diplomat’s job, for instance, covers such issues as trade promotion, assistance to nationals in distress, and identification of potential areas for economic cooperation, among others.

to be continued…


[1] Richard Langhorne, “The Diplomacy of Non-State Actors,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 16, no. 2 (2005).

[2] Stuart Murray, “Consolidating the Gains Made in Diplomacy Studies: A Taxonomy,” International Studies Perspectives 9(2008).

[3] See Langhorne, “The Diplomacy of Non-State Actors.”; Brian Hocking, “Privatizing Diplomacy?,” International Studies Perspectives 5(2004).

[4] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (Macmillan, 1977).

[5] Langhorne, “The Diplomacy of Non-State Actors.”

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  1. ukokori alex
    October 15, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    The traditional camp to diplomacy is realistic

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