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Weaknesses of Traditional Definition of Diplomacy

January 24, 2011 1 comment
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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The argument against the traditional notion of diplomacy is that it is outdated and does not reflect present realities.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.”


Strengths of the Statist Definition of Diplomacy

January 22, 2011 2 comments
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Strengths of the Statist Definition of Diplomacy (Part 2)

by Juan E. Dayang, Jr.

The strengths of the state-centric approach to defining diplomacy are as follows:  (a) diplomacy between states has long historical roots, tradition, and established norms; (b) recognition of the crucial role of diplomats in gathering information, sending messages, and negotiating peace and security between states; and (3) a foundation for a legal basis through a treaty on diplomatic and consular relations.

History, Tradition and Norms

The practice of diplomacy has been recorded in ancient China and Egypt, classic Greece and during the Byzantine Empire.  Sending permanent envoys was established when Italian city-states appointed permanent ambassadors in the 15th century. Over the years, diplomatic tradition was established and became a norm, as with the “practice of permanent embassies” and the “immunity of ambassadors and the extraterritoriality of the permanent embassy.”[1] It was in the early 20th century, from 1914 to 1918, when states realized the importance of diplomacy in preventing war. The establishment of resident embassies, consulates and permanent missions overseas as well as the concomitant accreditation of diplomats as official representatives of the states in host countries is a customary norm in bilateral and multilateral relations. Diplomatic tradition and norms,[2] formed through practice and long experience by members of the diplomatic corps, remain relevant in coordinated action among states in facing the challenges of the 21st century.

Recognition of the Crucial Role of Professional Diplomats in Promoting Peace

The function of diplomats as representatives of the state and as messengers and gatherers of information is recognized universally. The role diplomats play in preventing wars and conflict between and among states is also recognised as an effective instrument for peace and confidence building.

Diplomacy gained momentum at the end of the catastrophic World Wars in the 20th century.  It has been suggested that the lack of crucial information was one of the causes of World War I when diplomacy was not yet fully in place to effectively conduct communication among states that viewed one another as actual or potential enemies.[3] After World War II, diplomacy was a vital instrument in crisis management and conflict resolution during the Cold War between the United States and the former USSR.  The conduct of international affairs was left in the hands of diplomats who were seen as capable and adept in navigating the peculiarities of the international political environment.

To this day, accredited diplomats remain as the most reliable agents of the state in achieving   foreign policy objectives through peaceful means. What makes a diplomat unique from a politician is his or her ability to see the bigger international picture and form mutually beneficial relations with key personalities and institutions in host countries.

Codified Law as Legal Basis of Diplomacy

The practice of diplomacy was recognized in the Congress of Vienna of 1815 which gave recognition to diplomats as a special class of profession. In 1961 the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was signed. The treaty defined a framework for diplomatic relations between sovereign states and specified the privileges of a diplomatic mission. The convention, ratified by 186 countries, formed the legal basis for diplomatic immunity. Diplomats were allowed to execute their task without fear of coercion or persecution by the host country. Its provisions were considered a foundation of modern international relations.

In addition, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 is an international treaty that identified a structure for consular relations between independent countries. Under this treaty, ratified by 172 countries, consuls are accorded most of the similar privileges, including consular immunity, a variant of diplomatic immunity.[4] A consul on the whole operates out of an embassy or consulate-general in a foreign country, and performs two important functions: (1) defending in the host country the interests of their citizens, and (2) promoting the economic and commercial relations between the two countries. Although a consul is not a diplomat, they work in the same location and, in most Foreign Ministries, Foreign Service personnel and officers have a dual function as diplomats and consuls when stationed overseas. Such codification of diplomatic practice strengthens the traditional definition of diplomacy conducted by professional diplomats.[5]

………. to be continued 

[1] Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics.

[2] For a more through study on the norms and socialization of diplomats read Mai’a Keapuolani Davis Cross, “A European Epistemic Community of Diplomats,” in The Diplomatic Corps as an Institution of International Society, ed. Paul and Wiseman Sharp, Geoffrey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[3] For more substantive account of the evolution of diplomacy read Harold Nicolson, The Evolution of Diplomatic Method (London: Cassel Publishers, 1957).

[4] Read the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular relations at “United Nations Treaty Collection,”

[5] Donna and Hudson Lee, David, “The Old and New Significance of Political Economy in Diplomacy,” Review of International Studies 30(2004).

Is ‘diplomacy’ simply ‘what diplomats do’?

January 22, 2011 2 comments
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Is ‘diplomacy’ simply ‘what diplomats do’?

by Juan E. Dayang, Jr.


Diplomacy is bound to intrigue those unfamiliar with the work of diplomats.[1]

If one were to ask professional diplomats whether ‘diplomacy’ is simply ‘what ‘diplomats’ do, one would certainly get mixed replies.

For those who have worked in the Foreign Service for the last 40 years, they would probably answer in the affirmative. For instance, the author asked the feedback of a retired Ambassador.[2] Indeed, the senior diplomat affirmed that diplomacy is what diplomats alone could do and ‘ought to be doing’. He defined ‘diplomacy’ — from a priori knowledge and from his years of experience to capture the “idea” of what diplomats do.  Other matters such as “history of diplomatic practice, problems of diplomacy, significant achievements of diplomacy, etc. —are merely derivative from the basic idea”.

However, when a similar question was raised to a junior Foreign Service officer with eight years of experience in the home office and in an overseas post, he viewed his work as not being confined to traditional notions of diplomacy. [3]

This essay provides a critical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of defining diplomacy as an instrument of the state to pursue its national interests by negotiations and through peaceful means.

First, the classic definition of diplomacy will be presented. Second, the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the argument will be analysed. And third, the essay will conclude that despite the changes in the political and socio-economic environment of world affairs, the classic definition of diplomacy centred on the dominant role of the state remains valid.

However, its apparatus – the foreign ministry and professional diplomats — need to adapt to new international realities by assessing its current practice and modes of conduct and by proactively engaging non-state actors.

Traditional Definition of Diplomacy

Diplomacy is the conduct of foreign relations by sovereign states through peaceful means.  The nation-state is the primary actor in international relations and diplomacy is an instrument of state craft.

The Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which marked the beginning of the modern system of nation-states, initiated the establishment of modern diplomacy. Writings of diplomacy by De Callieres, Satow, and Wicquefort[4] as well as those of  Nicolson, Kissinger and Berridge espouse the centrality of states in diplomacy. [5]

Berridge defines diplomacy as “official channels of communication employed by members of a system of states”[6] and “the conduct of relations between sovereign states through the medium of officials based at home and abroad, the latter being either members of their states’ diplomatic service or temporary diplomats.” [7] Nicolson defines diplomacy as “an ordered conduct of relations between one group of human beings and another group alien to themselves”.[8] Diplomacy, simply defined, is

(a) an instrument of foreign policy used to achieve goals considered to be of vital interest of the state;

(b) done through peaceful means and;

(c) accomplished by way of established diplomatic protocol and procedures represented by accredited agents.[9]











[1] Diplomacy continues to conjure images of diplomats who go overseas and live a life of privilege and accorded with respect and diplomatic immunity by the host country.

[2] Personal communication of the author with retired Ambassador Jose Lino Guerrero, 18 January 2011.

[3] Personal communication of the author with Second Secretary and Consul Arnel Talisayon, 18 January 2011.

[4] Read Sir Ernest Satow, A Guide to Diplomatic Practice (London: Longman, 1922); Francois De Callieres, The Art of Diplomacy, ed. M.A. Keens-Soper (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1983); A. De Wicquefort, The Ambassador and His Functions, trans. Jr  Digby (Centre for the Study Diplomacy, 1997).

[5] See Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1994).

[6] G.R. Berridge, Diplomacy Theory from Machiavelli to Kissinger (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

[7] G.R. and James Berridge, Alan, A Dictionary of Diplomacy, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

[8] See  K.J.  Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[9] See Keith and Langhorne Hamilton, Richard, The Practice of Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 1995); R.P. Barston, Modern Diplomacy (London: Longman, 1988).

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