Understanding diplomacy. Definition and differences to foreign policy and international relations

Essay, 2017

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Defining Diplomacy

Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations

Who Formulates Foreign Policy?



In the diplomacy literature, both practitioners of and theorists regarding diplomacy provide several definitions of diplomacy that are state-centric, omitting non-state actors. However, any definition of diplomacy has to be inclusive because non-state actors also participate in diplomacy. There are also misconceptions about the differences between diplomacy, foreign policy, and international relations (IR).

Therefore, this essay provides a comprehensive definition of diplomacy and explains the differences between diplomacy, foreign policy, and IR. The diplomacy literature is reviewed in order to achieve these aims.

Defining Diplomacy

This paper presents fifteen different definitions of diplomacy that are state-centric and partially consistent with the conduct of diplomacy. Der Derian (2001) defines diplomacy as a ‘communication between strangers.’ Watson (1982) argues that diplomacy is a ‘dialogue between states,’ whereas Bull (1995) argues that diplomacy is a ‘communication that facilitates international society, the diplomatic profession being the custodian of the idea of international society.’

Viotti and Kauppi (2001) describe diplomacy as the ‘management of international relations by communications to include negotiations, leading to a bargain or agreement.’ Nicholson (1969) states that 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 diplomat.’ Satow (1979) contends that diplomacy is an ‘application of tact and intelligence to the conduct of official relations between governments of independent states.’

According to Nichols (2009), diplomacy is ‘the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock.’ Siddique and Alam (2009, pp. 3–4) assert that diplomacy is ‘honorable spying,’ as well as ‘lying’ (‘an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’). White (2001) claims that diplomacy is a ‘process of communications and negotiation between states and other international actors.’ Berridge (1995, p. 1) argues that ‘diplomacy is the conduct of international relations by negotiation rather than by force, propaganda, or recourse to law, and by other peaceful means.’ However, Griffiths and O’Callaghan (2002, p. 79) maintain that diplomacy is the ‘conduct and content of foreign affairs as a whole.’

McDermott (1973) explains that diplomacy is the ‘management of relations (political, security, military, economic, scientific, cultural, etc.) between states and between states and other international actors, such as global/regional organizations, INGOs, transnational corporations, etc., by negotiation.’ Conversely, Marshall (1999) describes diplomacy as ‘advising, shaping and implementing foreign policy from the state’s perspective’ and as an ‘apparatus for managing international affairs.’ Finally, Elassar (2014) defines diplomacy as ‘the art of communication between different parties.’

The above definitions all have weaknesses. Almost all of them contend that the state is the actor in diplomacy and that diplomacy is about negotiation. However, these are flawed notions. Diplomacy not only involves negotiations, but also includes ceremonial functions, information gathering, and image management. Furthermore, describing diplomacy as a state phenomenon ignores the role of non-state actors in transnational diplomacy.

For example, the definition of diplomacy as ‘communication between strangers’ is irrelevant in the contemporary world, where communication is not only among strangers. In the modern diplomatic world, no one is a stranger to anyone else as a result of modern communications technology, which facilitates the spread of knowledge. The Supreme Leader of Iran knows of the existence of the Presidents of Nicaragua, Zambia, and Mongolia, even if they have never talked. Similarly, the Greek Prime Minister is aware of the existence of the Prime Ministers of Fiji, Ethiopia, and the Solomon Islands, while the Emir of Qatar knows of the existence of the Kings of Swaziland, Lesotho, and Thailand. Thus, if they were to meet, it would not be a meeting of strangers.

Furthermore, terrorist groups, multinational corporations, and private citizens actively engage in transnational diplomacy, and even forge strong diplomatic relations with sovereign states. Al Qaeda had links with sovereign states during the climax of its struggle against the West. Jimmy Carter, the former president of the United States, has been active in diplomacy as a private citizen trying to resolve international conflicts. Thus, diplomacy is not only a state phenomenon, nor is it only communication between strangers. It encompasses ‘new faces’ such as private citizens, de facto governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious institutions, multinational corporations, civil societies, and ethnic groups.

However, nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors are not at fault in describing diplomacy as a state phenomenon because ‘new faces’ were not as active in diplomacy then as they are in the twenty-first century. Since diplomacy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was predominantly a state phenomenon, perhaps this was why authors omitted non-state actors from their definitions of diplomacy. No matter what their rationale, the conventional definition of diplomacy has had to change with the emergence of ‘new faces’ in diplomacy.

When defining diplomacy, one has to ask, who does what, and how? In other words, it is necessary to reflect on the objective, purpose and conduct of diplomacy, and the system in which it operates when defining diplomacy. These factors explain the very nature of diplomacy. The definition should be compatible with the character of the subject, coherent, and include all the actors who participate in diplomacy.

Therefore, what is diplomacy? Diplomacy is an instrument of statecraft for the implementation of a state or non-state actor’s interest by official or unofficial agents through communication according to a recognized system. Here, ‘a recognized system’ refers to amicable channels.

Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations

In IR discourse, there is often misunderstanding when distinguishing diplomacy from foreign policy and IR. These are all different instruments of statecraft, and are not synonymous in any way. The academic discipline of IR is the study of a state’s relationship with other countries. It is an ‘interdisciplinary and heterogeneous’ field of study comprising history, international law, and security.

Foreign policy ‘is what a country does; diplomacy is ‘how it does it’ (Uddin 2013). Diplomacy is the ‘master institution’ or ‘engine room’ of IR (Jönsson 2002, p. 21). Although diplomacy is the ‘chief’ instrument in foreign policy, it is not the only tool that is used. States also use economic and military statecraft to implement foreign policy.

Thus, IR establishes the political marketplace in which a state can sell its foreign policy. Without diplomacy, a state would be hard-pressed to sell its foreign policy. However, even though diplomacy goes a long way toward accomplishing the task, the foreign policy has to be attractive to other countries. Who would accept a state’s policy of eliminating its opponents in a diaspora? A state’s foreign policy has to be acceptable in all its forms.

Who Formulates Foreign Policy?

Foreign policy is formulated by the head of state/government, with input from various cabinet ministers, especially the secretary of state or foreign minister, diplomats, and intelligence and military officers. Input from these people is valuable because foreign policy is an amalgamation of numerous aspects, and requires diverse expertise. Nevertheless, the execution of foreign policy remains the task of diplomats, who are required to implement foreign policy as directed by politicians. A diplomat is not a politician, and vice versa, apart from the foreign minister, who must combine both roles. In relation to foreign policy formulation and implementation, a politician represents the legislature, whereas a diplomat represents the executive branch.

Diplomacy has been unfairly treated in the academic world, with most curricula categorizing diplomacy under IR. However, most IR syllabi do not include diplomacy. Thus, the study of IR is not the study of diplomacy, unless the curriculum specifically incorporates diplomacy studies. Among Australian universities, only (finding is relevant to the research duration) Monash University and the Australian National University offer diplomacy as a separate field of study from IR. One may be tempted to say that he studied diplomacy while studying IR, even though the syllabus did not include diplomacy. However, as noted above, diplomacy is not IR, and vice versa. There is a distinction between ‘what you do’ and ‘how you do it.’

Furthermore, being trained in diplomacy does not mean that a person is automatically qualified to be a diplomat. A gap between theory and practice may still exist. Since diplomacy is about communication or speaking (eDiplomat 2017), a diplomat must be a skilled communicator. A diplomat must shine in diplomatic circles, and this is achievable through effective professional training.

In summary, diplomacy is not only a state phenomenon. It also encompasses non-state actors because non-state actors also engage in transnational diplomacy. Moreover, diplomacy, foreign policy, and IR are not synonymous. They are different tools of statecraft that are all used in IR. Foreign policy is ‘what you do’ and diplomacy is ‘how you do it.’


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Understanding diplomacy. Definition and differences to foreign policy and international relations
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Tethloach Ruey (Author), 2017, Understanding diplomacy. Definition and differences to foreign policy and international relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/373969


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