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Exploring international relations: What is diplomacy?

Discover the definition, purpose and different types of diplomacy and learn why it’s an essential part of international relations.

Diplomats chat amongst each other

By Rhiannon Wardle

You may have often heard people say that it’s good to be diplomatic, but what exactly are they talking about when they say that? The idea comes from the broad concept of diplomacy, an essential tool that governments worldwide use in foreign relations. We’ll delve into a definition shortly, but without diplomacy, the world would fall into chaos pretty quickly. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the main functions of diplomacy, the role of a diplomat, and diplomatic immunity before thinking about some of the main types of diplomacy, including public, economic and cultural diplomacy. Finally, we’ll discuss why it’s such an important tool.

How do we define diplomacy?

The word diplomacy originally came from the ancient Greek term diplōma meaning “an object folded in two”. This referred to a document allowing one to travel or be permitted special privileges, often tied to the role of a diplomat. 

As time went on, diplomacy became more concerned with international relations. The 18th-century French term diplomate referred to someone who acted as a negotiator for their country. This is more in line with the current definition of modern diplomacy.

Diplomacy is a method that governments use to influence the actions of foreign governments through peaceful tactics such as negotiation and dialogue. It’s typically carried out by a countries representatives abroad, but a diplomat’s actions will be largely controlled by the government they serve.

The term diplomacy can also be used to describe when someone deals with a person or difficult situation with skill, in a way that creates a peaceful solution without offending or upsetting them. 

What are the main functions of diplomacy?

As we’ve established, the main function of diplomacy is to ensure peaceful relations between countries. This might include negotiating trade deals, discussing mutual problems, implementing new policies, and tackling disputes. The consequences that can arise if diplomatic relations are not had can be very serious – conflict, violence, and even war.

Alternatively, the consequences of a lack of diplomatic conversations and negotiation can be things like the destruction of the planet – if world leaders don’t find solutions for pressing issues. Something that’s happening currently is COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. To learn more about this example of diplomacy, you can read our COP26 blog post or join our Learning for a Sustainable Future: Live at COP26 course. 

It’s also worth mentioning that diplomacy doesn’t always take place between different governments, but sometimes occurs between other sites of power and influence. This may include huge corporations, religious organisations, NGOs and even terrorist groups. Institutions with this much power sometimes need to be handled using diplomacy because of the enormous amount of authority they possess over citizens of a country. 

There are actually some official functions of diplomacy, as stated by The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This convention was created in 1961 and is an international treaty providing a guideline for diplomatic relations. It has currently been ratified by 193 different states globally. It states that the functions of a diplomatic mission include:

  1. The representation of the sending state in the host state at a level beyond the merely social and ceremonial
  2. The protection within the host state of the interests of the sending state and its nationals, including their property and shares in firms
  3. The negotiation and signing of agreements with the host state when authorised
  4. The reporting and gathering of information by all lawful means on conditions and developments in the host country for the sending government
  5. The promotion of friendly relations between the two states and the furthering of their economic, commercial, cultural, and scientific relations. 

These guidelines basically ensure that the diplomatic representatives responsible for a discussion or negotiation are welcomed peacefully. The convention states that diplomats must gather and discuss information lawfully, receive full protection, and ensure that any solutions are authorised with a signed agreement.

What is the role of a diplomat?

As you’ve probably gathered, a diplomat is the countries representative who conducts official diplomatic business abroad. The practice of sending official envoys to foreign countries as political representatives is an ancient one, with rulers in ancient Greece, China and Persia all using envoys to send messages, create alliances, and sign treaties.

The responsibilities of an individual diplomat will depend on their specific role, as there is a range of different paths they might choose from. For instance, some diplomats focus on economic operations, while some might focus on embassy operations or public affairs.

Some general examples of responsibilities of a diplomat include:

  • Researching and analysing overseas events that may impact the nation
  • Offering advice to government officials on how to act
  • Dealing with press queries related to international relations
  • Collecting and reporting vital information affecting the nation
  • Attending official events as country representatives
  • Organising diplomatic visits
  • Having discussions and negotiations with foreign diplomats

Diplomatic immunity

Earlier, we talked about the way diplomats are offered protection as a result of the Vienna Convention guidelines on diplomatic relations. This is where diplomatic immunity comes in. 

Being a diplomat, there is a lot of potential for conflict, since you’re dealing with complicated government matters and foreign relationships. Diplomatic immunity means that the receiving state (the country the diplomat visits as a guest) is not allowed to prosecute diplomats.

Instead, the state must protect them, their families and their homes since they are placing themselves in a vulnerable position. This is not only for the safety of diplomats, but also ensures that they are able to carry out their work without difficulties or threats from the receiving state.

Diplomatic immunity has recently come under fire, however, for potentially offering immunity in situations where it is not viable or necessary. The wife of a US diplomat was involved in a fatal road accident in the UK and was able to leave the country under diplomatic immunity, despite having committed manslaughter. As a result of instances like this, we may see some changes to diplomatic immunity guidelines in the future. 

The main types of diplomacy

In this next section, we’re going to look at the main types of diplomacy. This should give you more insight into the function that diplomacy serves in society, and how it takes many different forms. 

If this article has grabbed your attention, you might be interested in our International Relations: Politics in Turbulent Times microcredential. In this 12 week course, you’ll be able to explore key political challenges confronting diplomacy in the 21st century and enhance your knowledge of modern global politics.

Cultural diplomacy

The first type of diplomacy we’re going to discuss is cultural diplomacy. This term encapsulates a wide range of practices and can generally be defined as the exchange of arts and culture that aims to increase understanding between different countries. 

Some good examples of cultural diplomacy include opening libraries abroad, offering language courses, and granting educational scholarships. Practices like this can ease tensions between countries by improving a country’s image and developing cultural links.

In our open step, we discuss how art and culture can be diplomatic tools. In the 19th century, culture was viewed as a vital tool in creating a strong and homogenous society, and this included promoting your culture abroad. While this could help to keep the peace, as we previously described, by creating cultural links and offering gifts such as educational institutions, it has some pretty colonial roots.

The idea of cultural diplomacy came at a time where several European countries had large empires and essentially ruled the world. When you look at cultural diplomacy through this lens, you can see how it contributed to colonial ideas, art, architecture, and even language being spread all over the world. 

To learn more about these ideas, you can join our Cultural Diplomacy course by The European University Institute, and explore the methods and outcomes of cultural diplomacy in depth.

Economic diplomacy

This form of diplomacy is fairly self-explanatory – it involves any kind of diplomacy that helps the economy thrive and the country prosper. This is a huge part of international relations as it involves anything related to trade, investments and taxation. Trade, in particular, is absolutely fundamental to positive international relations, so this is a business that needs to be handled tactfully.

Foreign aid also comes under the umbrella of economic diplomacy and is an example of how money can be used to show support for a struggling country while at the same time demonstrating power. Being able to help countries financially when they face natural disasters or conflicts can show other nations that your country has enough money to defend itself against any threats. You can learn more about Doing Business in Conflict Zones in our new course presented by Dr Aisha Ahmad.

Or if you’re interested in learning more about global economics, you can try our course The Politics of Economics and the Economics of Politicians by the University of Nottingham. For an overview, you can read our blog post, How does the economy work?

Dollar diplomacy

Dollar diplomacy isn’t so much an essential feature of diplomacy today but is a tactic that refers to the manipulation of foreign affairs for monetary gain. Generally, the term is used to describe a foreign policy created by former US president William Howard Taft.

He served between 1909 and 1913 and used dollar diplomacy in Latin America and East Asia to further US interests. Essentially, Taft promised loans to these countries in exchange for minimised military force and other US commercial interests. 

The tactic didn’t work very well and led to international suspicions about the US’ motives when offering financial assistance. In Taft’s own words, this program was “substituting dollars for bullets.” 

Gunboat diplomacy / Big stick diplomacy

Another diplomatic tactic, gunboat diplomacy is still used today. The Political Dictionary defines gunboat diplomacy as “the practice of backing up diplomatic efforts with a visible show of military might”. The term gunboat diplomacy comes from the idea that gunboats are quite small and easy to manoeuvre, yet they have strong weapons concealed. 

By showing a strong military, a country can make implicit military threats while appearing peaceful and amicable. The most famous type of gunboat diplomacy is known as “big stick diplomacy”, made famous by US Vice President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.

Roosevelt suggested that one should “speak softly, and carry a big stick” when carrying out foreign relations, and this is where the name comes from. Soon after saying this, he became President. He went on to use this tactic throughout his presidency with much success and even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for negotiating peace between Japan and Russia.

In more recent times, Obama used big stick diplomacy in 2010 when he sent an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea near North Korean shores. This show of naval strength followed an attack by North Korea on an island in South Korea and had the aim to send a warning message to both North Korea and China.

If you’re interested in the way diplomacy is used within politics, you might enjoy our Introduction to Politics ExpertTrack by the University of Kent. It’s the perfect precursor to a politics degree and will give you an introduction to political philosophy, democracy and ideology.

Public diplomacy

Often, when we think about diplomacy, we think about secret agreements and important meetings. While these definitely happen, there is also a very public aspect of diplomacy. Public diplomacy is part of a state’s strategy to communicate directly and openly with other countries and the press. In our open step, What is public diplomacy? we explore two different approaches to public diplomacy: branding and advocacy. 

Branding is to do with promoting a positive image of the country to the press and foreign nations and involves projecting ideas about the country’s history, culture and foreign policy in order to make it look attractive. Positive branding can also be a reactive tactic to rectify negative stereotypes, particularly if a country has received bad press recently.

On the other side of the coin, advocacy refers to public strategies that have particular objectives. For example, the US provided a narrative to explain their actions when they intervened in Iraq in 2003, positioning themselves as spreaders of democracy. This kind of advocacy again serves the purpose of painting a country in a good light to members of the public and foreign countries.

It’s also worth noting that there is some overlap between public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy. Having a distinct culture and great music or art, for example, can be seen as part of a countries’ branding, because it makes them look good to the outside world.

Why is diplomacy important for international relations?

As we’ve discovered, diplomacy is a pretty essential part of international relations. While it’s mostly used to serve the interests of individual countries or governments, the end result is a more peaceful international community. 

Diplomatic activities maximise the position and power of different countries without bringing intense risk or repercussions, and this is the safest way to handle international business and relationships. Even though diplomacy can’t always promise friendships between countries, it can at least usually guarantee neutrality over hostility.

To learn more about international relations, we have an excellent ExpertTrack in Global Studies: International Relations and World Politics by the University of Grenoble. If you join, you’ll discover the threats facing our world and explore how cultures and organisations can work together to overcome them.

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