Archive for February, 2011

What are the most important features of diplomatic activity?

February 28, 2011 3 comments

What are the most important features of diplomatic activity?

by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.


G.R. Berridge and Alan James define diplomacy as the “conduct of relations between sovereign states though the medium of officials based at home or abroad.” The main goal of diplomacy is to execute foreign policy and achieve its strategic interests through tact.  This essay highlights four of the most important features of diplomacy, namely: representation, communication, negotiation, and diplomatic privilege and immunity.


An important feature of diplomatic activity is state representation though the despatch of missions and diplomatic agents overseas. The sending of emissaries and establishing embassies have been the backbone of diplomacy for five centuries.  In today’s diplomacy, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs) are the institutions that manage foreign policy.  Embassies and consular posts are also established by states in countries where they have diplomatic and consular relations.  Permanent missions to International Organisations such as the United Nations, WTO, EU and ASEAN, also represent the states in multilateral diplomacy. The role of diplomatic representation is not limited to the state actors. Diplomats also interact with non-state actors such as with the media, religious groups, universities and non-governmental organisations.


Diplomacy is the primary means by which states intermingle and communicate with each other.  Communication is an important feature and an essential aspect of diplomatic activity. Edmund Burke in 1976 once labelled ‘diplomacy’ as the system of communication of the international society. Through diplomatic communication, states which may very well be rivals could jointly work together. For instance, South Korea, which has deep antagonistic feelings toward Japan due to the latter’s war atrocities in the early 20th century, has diplomatic representation in Tokyo and Osaka.  Some of the usual forms of diplomatic communication include face-to-face meetings, pull-aside meetings, and writing of note verbales, aid-memoirs, and joint statements.

Channels of Information

Usually, diplomats communicate with its home office and its counterparts in MFAs, who may also act as gatekeepers. However, global issues and the participation of non-state actors in international affairs have expanded the role of MFAs. Diplomats have become regular channels of communication not only between and among state agents but also as communication channels of other government agencies in the area of trade, migration, environment, culture, and human rights.  A key role of diplomats is gathering information on the condition of the receiving states. The information is assessed and analysed for their strategic significance and reported to the home MFAs or to the relevant functional government agencies. This aspect of reporting is crucial and necessary in crisis situation, particularly in volatile events such as the current crisis in the Middle East (e.g. Egypt and Libya or when there is an extreme weather condition of calamity such as the recent earthquake in Queensland). Diplomats are not only expected to report information but also to take care of their citizen’s welfare and communicate with the family members of those affected by the crisis.

Diplomatic Negotiation

Corollary to communication is diplomatic negotiation.  Through negotiation, states can communicate, interact, and promote their strategic interests.  Some examples are bilateral agreements in trade and investments, extradition treaty, and multilateral agreements in the United Nations and World Trade Organisation.  A diplomatic negotiator’s role is to promote national interests and the welfare of his citizens in the receiving state.  A diplomat negotiating a bilateral or multilateral trade agreement needs to know which sectors he needs to protect, which markets to open, and to muster good judgement on which position to compromise when necessary.  Through negotiations, states can benefit from mutually binding treaties. Such bilateral or multilateral agreements which are mutually beneficial may not all be possible without diplomacy.

Diplomatic Privilege and Immunity

Another important feature of diplomatic activity is the diplomatic privilege and immunity enjoyed by diplomatic agents. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations provides for the legal basis of privilege and immunity.  Two aspects of diplomatic privileges and immunities include: (1) certain inviolabilities to diplomatic staff and their family members and to diplomatic premises and private residence; (2)   immunity from criminal jurisdiction as well as civil and administrative jurisdiction of the receiving state.

The unique and special treatment accorded to diplomats is justified if such measures are essential for the effective execution of the functions of diplomats–in promoting its objectives in the receiving state, and if it is for the purpose of ensuring the personal safety of diplomats in conducting their activity. The principle of reciprocity is also upheld by receiving and sending states. Thus, when Australian diplomats receive diplomatic privileges and immunities in the Philippines, Filipino diplomats also receive the same treatment in Australia.

Categories: Essays in Diplomacy
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