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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

20 - Diplomacy

from Part III - The traditional agenda: States, war and law



This chapter makes three main arguments. First, ideas and practices of diplomacy have a multi-millennial history – much longer than is generally thought. Second, this long history has been characterised by both continuity and change. As a result, diplomacy has been as much adaptive as resistant to change. Third, diplomacy is not diminishing in importance and both it and the diplomats who carry it out should be regarded as evolving and as important to the theory and practice of international relations. To assess these claims, the chapter first addresses the issue of defining diplomacy, before examining the evolution of diplomacy in terms that may be characterised broadly as pre-modern, modern and postmodern. The relationship between diplomacy and the study of international relations (IR) is then evaluated.


  • Some definitions of diplomacy

  • Diplomacy is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states, extending sometimes also to their relations with vassal states; or, more briefly still, the conduct of business between states by peaceful means. (Satow 1979 [1917]: 1)

  • Diplomacy is the management of international relations by negotiation; the method by which these relations are adjusted and managed by ambassadors and envoys; the business or art of the diplomatist. (Harold Nicolson 1969 [1939]: 4–5)

  • [Diplomacy is] the conduct of relations between states and other entities with standing in world politics by official agents and by peaceful means. (Bull 1977: 162)

  • Diplomacy is concerned with the management of relations between states and other actors. From a state perspective diplomacy is concerned with advising, shaping and implementing foreign policy. (Barston 1988: 1)

  • Diplomacy is the conduct of international relations by negotiation rather than by force, propaganda, or recourse to law, and by other peaceful means (such as gathering information or engendering goodwill) which are either directly or indirectly designed to promote negotiation. (Berridge 2015: 1)

  • Diplomacy is the peaceful conduct of relations amongst political entities, their principals and accredited agents. (Hamilton and Langhorne 2011: 1)

  • Diplomacy is conventionally said to refer to the processes and institutions by which states [and others with standing] represent themselves and their interests in the conduct of their relations with one another. (Sharp 2019: 1)

  • Berridge, G.R. 2015, Diplomacy: Theory and practice, ed., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. The standard text on the diplomacy of states, focusing on the activity of negotiation, bilateral and multilateral modes of diplomacy plus summitry and mediation.
    Cooper, A.F. 2014, Diplomatic afterlives. Cambridge: Polity Press. Uncovers the emerging phenomenon of life after politics for world leaders with global celebrity status. It explains and conceptualises the trend, carefully scrutinising its limits and opportunities for global governance.
    Hamilton, Keith and Langhorne, Richard 2011, The practice of diplomacy: Its evolution, theory and administration, 2nd ed., London: Routledge. A wide-ranging historical treatment of how the institution of diplomacy developed.
    Jönsson, Christer and Hall, Martin 2005, Essence of diplomacy, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. A sociological study of diplomatic practice, which interprets diplomacy as a sub-set of standard human behaviours that seek to mediate between universals and particulars through communication, representation and reproduction.
    Nicolson, Harold 1954, The evolution of the diplomatic method, London: Macmillan. These essays take great liberties in terms of the national stereotyping of diplomatic methods, but are valuable for their insights and for what they reveal about the outlook of the classical diplomatist.
    Pouliot, Vincent 2015, International pecking orders: The politics and practices of multilateral diplomacy, New York: Cambridge University Press. Compellingly demonstrates that the distribution of a country's material resources can only partly account for the fact that not all ambassadors carry the same weight at the multilateral negotiating table. Rather, multilateral diplomats produce, reproduce and sometimes compete in an informal hierarchy of influence to which practitioners refer as the ‘international pecking order’.
    Sharp, Paul 2009, Diplomatic theory of international relations, New York: Cambridge University Press. This book argues that diplomats have characteristic ways of viewing international relations and what is important in them, which is neglected by academics and other experts, but from which much is to be learned.
    Sharp, Paul and Wiseman, Geoffrey (eds) 2007, The diplomatic corps as an institution of international society, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Presents a series of case studies testing the thesis that diplomats stationed in the world's capitals constitute an epistemic entity engaging in socialisation practices, many of them internalised, with significance for international society.