Diplomacy Research Paper

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Diplomacy is the art of obtaining agreement between countries who need one another’s cooperation to create or maintain a situation in which each of them has an interest. The needed cooperation may involve refraining from certain kinds of behavior as well as changing the location or condition of people, goods, structures, military deployments, and other assets. The premise of diplomacy is that these behaviors would not occur automatically: they require the positive or negative stimuli of deliberate international (usually intergovernmental) interaction among those with the power to bring about the desired results. It is not diplomacy, for example, when the immigration officials of a country bar a group of refugees from coming into the country, nor when the supporters of the refugees voice their outrage; diplomacy transpires when officials of the affected countries interact with one another to clarify or modify the rules and procedures each of them will be applying to deal with the situation.

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1. The Essential Characteristics Of Diplomacy

Conventionally equated with negotiations to resolve international conflict, diplomacy is widely regarded as an alternative to war—and war as a failure of diplomacy. But diplomacy can also be the essential process in a nonadversarial interaction of friendly countries attempting to obtain the best allocation of costs and benefits in a commonly sought project. The term ‘diplomatic’ has been imported from the international into the domestic realm, where it is commonly applied to relations among groups or individuals in which polite interaction is artfully employed to avoid otherwise tense confrontations; however, the discussion here will be confined to the characteristics and role of diplomacy in the international realm.

Diplomacy, so defined, refers mainly to agreement seeking behavior on the part of national governments. Diplomats are the officials who do the actual negotiation. But not all diplomats are engaged in negotiations; some merely represent their governments in foreign lands or international forums, conveying information about their home countries, and reporting back on conditions at their posts. Bargaining and informational diplomacy are practiced as well by international actors other than nation states—namely, the United Nations, the European Union, numerous specialized intergovernmental organizations, and, increasingly, various nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are accorded quasi-official status in certain international forums.

Although the most important and characteristic aspect of diplomacy is face-to-face bargaining among officials of governments, such bargaining is also frequently conducted through unilateral pronouncements by officials of what they will or will not accept. Diplomacy’s principal medium is verbal communication—spoken, written, often electronically transmitted—and therefore is itself basically nonviolent; but the words may threaten, or be delivered simultaneously with coercive action, even massive military attacks, to alter an adversary’s assessment of the costs and benefits of accepting or rejecting particular arrangements. Diplomacy’s attribute resides in its purpose—international agreement; as such it requires a modicum of nonviolent interaction, even when that interaction is coerced (as in the imposition of surrender terms at the end of a war by the victors on the vanquished). Diplomatic undertakings may fail, in that agreement is not obtained; but, succeed or fail, as long as the purpose of the international interaction is agreement, it is still diplomacy. Without any interaction, however—in particular, verbal interaction to at least explore possibilities for agreement—there can be no diplomacy.

2. Diplomacy As A Reflection Of World Politics

The rules and rituals of international diplomacy have never been a self-contained system. The picture of the diplomat as an impeccably mannered aristocrat exchanging toasts, repartee, and subtle threats with his counterparts is a caricature derived from the Parisian scene in the court of Louis XIV. Rather, the protocols of diplomacy have always been a subsystem of the more comprehensive system of political relationships prevailing during a particular era among various sets of countries and international organizations. Thus, as world politics have evolved, so have the rituals, forms, and objectives of diplomacy, even though its most basic function—to forge agreements among international actors—has persisted.

2.1 The Evolution Of Diplomacy

The evolution of diplomacy parallels and reflects the transformation of international relations from a system of maneuvering and secretive deal-making by kings and their emissaries to the contemporary practice of conducting foreign policy as a continuation of domestic politics through public speech-making and media manipulation. While late twentieth-century diplomacy is unique in many respects, some of its prominent features are inherited from past international systems.

The most significant legacy from previous international systems are the norms that were codified in the Westphalian peace treaties ending the wars of religion in 1648 and which became the cardinal principles of statecraft—at least for Western Europe. No longer regarding their rivals as agents of the devil, the Protestant and Catholic monarchs, re-established the ancient imperial rituals of polite dialogue among governments, their high officials, and plenipotentiaries, even when threatening or engaging in war against one another. Most important, they pledged respect for state sovereignty and the principle of noninterference in one another’s domestic affairs. This structurally anarchic yet mutually respectful society of states prevailing in Western Europe from the last half of the seventeenth century to the last quarter of the eighteenth century is often referred to by diplomatic historians as the ‘classical’ system. The so-called Classical Balance of Power denotes the presumably self-equilibrating characteristic of the system, featuring short-term and shifting alliances through which states, big and small, preserved their sovereignty through balancing one another’s military power.

The classical power-balancing diplomacy could work as long as the games of maneuver and alliance making could be played by elites who did not have to answer to the people within their jurisdictions. But as the countries of Europe (and America) evolved into nation–states in which major governmental undertakings required broad cooperation from their commercial, industrial, and intellectual classes, often in the form of parliamentary approval, the conditions allowing for flexible and shifting alliance commitments began to erode. Following the American and French Revolutions, war—now to be fought by citizen armies and industrially produced arsenals, rather than lightly armed mercenary troops—could no longer be credibly threatened or sustained without the consent of the governed. And such support would not be forthcoming unless the nation as a whole could be convinced that the country’s vital interests and way of life were at stake. Accordingly, as became evident in World War I, military hostilities once begun became more difficult to stop. War, previously regarded as an instrument of diplomacy, was becoming its antithesis, at least for the democracies. The democratic aversion to war’s disruptions of normal life was one of the reasons why Hitler and the Japanese militarists were able to bully the world as much as they did before a balance of power could be mobilized against them. The development and use of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II reinforced these trends.

For many statespersons and citizens, the highest imperative of diplomacy has become to manage international conflicts without resorting to war. But for others, the threat or actual use of military force, even the new weapons of mass destruction, would continue to be an instrument of diplomacy. Moreover, the expanding and deepening interdependence of the world’s peoples has, paradoxically, moved the issue of military intervention to the top of the world’s diplomatic agendas.

2.2 The New Diplomacy

The new diplomacy, generated by the events and forces since World War II that have transformed the world polity—the Cold War, decolonization and self-determination movements, the human rights ideology, terrorism, economic globalization, and threats to the planet’s ecologies—involves an expansion of the ends and means of foreign policy, and of the functions of international organizations. Political, economic, and environmental conditions in the majority of the world’s countries have become the world’s business. Accordingly, the new diplomacy features efforts by governments and nongovernmental actors to affect conditions within other countries, not only to adjust relations between countries.

Guardians of traditional statecraft are concerned that the norms and structures that have sustained the ‘anarchical society’ of mutually respectful sovereign countries are being undermined by the new interventionist diplomacy. They worry that the new diplomacy is lending support, whether purposefully or inadvertently, to the forces subverting the capacity of governments to protect their national polities and cultures, and is giving license to unaccountable actors to impose their will on others. The anarchical international society is in danger of degenerating into an uncontrolled anarchy in which only the most aggressive thrive. Yet, realistically, there is no going back to the traditional Westphalian system, for the technology-driven mobility of people, things, and information that has been eroding the sovereignty of the territorially-defined nation state is irreversible. At the most, defenders of the authority and power of nation states can attempt to slow the process through protectionist economic measures to control access into their markets and through restrictions on immigration. National governments will still retain their role, into the foreseeable future, as the main authorities for assuring that people remain accountable to larger community standards for how they treat one another, and how they manage the natural environment. But, increasingly, the national government will need to share this role with supranational and subnational authorities. And these political entities, as they assume more responsibility for determining who gets what, when, and how in world society, will themselves need to engage in diplomatic interaction with the existing nation states and with each other.

3. The Requisites Of Effective Diplomacy

Diplomacy in the world polity, like legislation in domestic polities, is directed toward getting parties to agree on a particular course of action (or inaction), so they will not have to be physically forced to accept it. But unlike the domestic legislative process, in which it is sufficient to obtain agreement among a controlling majority for the course of action to take place, in international diplomacy each participating state normally has the recognized unilateral right to accept or refuse what even a substantial majority of the states have agreed upon. (The major exception to this norm is the UN Security Council’s authority, in situations threatening international peace and security, to order all states to obey its resolution.) Thus, diplomatic strategies must always be targeted specifically on each state whose adherence to an agreement is sought. Each state must be convinced that its own interests will be better served by agreeing to the arrangements under discussion than in refusing to agree.

Effective diplomacy, accordingly, requires the ability to induce agreement from states that may initially be opposed to a contemplated arrangement, but whose acquiescence is essential for its realization. Skillful diplomats are able to secure favorable terms for their countries by persuasively outlining the benefits and costs their counterparts can expect from alternative arrangements. This requires a detailed and accurate understanding of both the material conditions and the political circumstances (domestic and international) of the countries involved in a particular diplomatic encounter.

States with the material resources to affect their counterparts’ preferences for alternative outcomes by credibly offering to provide valued objects (‘carrots’) or threatening to apply uncomfortable or painful sanctions (‘sticks’) have traditionally enjoyed an enormous advantage in the arenas of international diplomacy. But increasingly, states, international organizations, and political movements, deficient in the relevant material assets are able to redress such resource–power imbalances through artful appeal to, and manipulation of, the cultural and political values of the parties to a negotiation, other governments, and implicated transnational and subnational groups. Success in regional and global coalition-building (what used to be called ‘balance of power’ politics), now penetrating beyond the crust of state sovereignty, has become the most important requisite of effective diplomacy, especially the new diplomacy.


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