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This page is about negotiations; for the board game, see Diplomacy (game).
The , with its headquarters in , is the largest international diplomatic organization.
The United Nations, with its headquarters in New York City, is the largest international diplomatic organization.

Diplomacy is the art and practice of conducting negotiations between accredited persons (the diploma of the diplomat) representing groups or nations. It usually refers to international diplomacy, the conduct of international relations through the intercession of professional diplomats with regard to issues of peace-making, culture, economics, trade and war. International treaties are usually negotiated by diplomats prior to endorsement by national politicians.

In an informal or social sense, diplomacy is the employment of tact to gain strategic advantage, one set of tools being the phrasing of statements in a non-confrontational, or social manner.



There are two major forms of diplomacy. The simplest and the oldest is bilateral diplomacy between two states. Bilateral diplomacy is still common with many treaties between two states (e.g. the Canadian-American Free Trade Agreement), and it is the main concern of embassies and state visits. The other form of diplomacy is multilateral diplomacy involving many states. Formal multilateral diplomacy is normally dated to the Congress of Vienna in the nineteenth century. Since then, multilateralism has grown in importance. Today most trade treaties, such as the WTO and FTAA, arms control agreements, such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and environmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Accord, are multilateral. The United Nations is the most important institution of multilateral diplomacy.

There is a third form of diplomacy, in fact a variant of multilateral diplomacy, i.e. regional diplomacy, that is multilateral diplomacy that is practiced within a closed circle of geographic neighbors. We might call it 'multilateral diplomacy among intimates'. Since neighborhood is a fact of life, regional diplomacy involves a close blend of the bilateral and the limited group multilateral methods in pursuit of mutual interests.

Diplomats and diplomatic missions

A diplomat is someone involved in diplomacy; the collective term for a group of diplomats from a single country is a diplomatic mission. An ambassador is the most senior diplomatic rank; a diplomatic mission headed by an ambassador is known as an embassy. The collective body of all diplomats resident in a particular country is called a diplomatic corps. (See also diplomatic rank.)


The ability to practice diplomacy is one of the defining elements of a state, and diplomacy has been practiced since the first city-states were formed millennia ago. For the majority of human history diplomats were sent only for specific negotiations, and would return immediately after their mission concluded. Diplomats were usually relatives of the ruling family or of very high rank in order to give them legitimacy when they sought to negotiate with the other state.

One notable exception involved the relationship between the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor; papal agents, called apocrisiarii, were permanently resident in Constantinople. After the 8th century, however, conflicts between the Pope and Emperor (such as the Iconoclastic controversy) led to the breaking of close ties.

Modern diplomacy's origins are often traced to the states of Northern Italy in the early Renaissance, with the first embassies being established in the thirteenth century. Milan played a leading role, especially under Francesco Sforza who established permanent embassies to the other cities states of Northern Italy. It was in Italy that many of the traditions of modern diplomacy began, such as the presentation of an ambassadors credentials to the head of state.

From Italy the practice was spread to the other European powers. Milan was the first to send a representative to the court of France in 1455. However, Milan refused to host French representatives fearing espionage and that the French representative would intervene in its internal affairs. As foreign powers such as France and Spain became increasingly involved in Italian politics the need to accept emissaries was recognized. Soon the major European power were exchanging representatives. Spain was the first to send a permanent representative; it appointed an ambassador to the Court of England in 1487. By the late 16th century, permanent missions became customary. The Holy Roman Emperor, however, did not regularly send permanent legates, as they could not represent the interests of all the German princes (who were in theory subordinate to the Emperor, but in practice independent).

During this period the rules of modern diplomacy were further developed. The top rank of representatives was an ambassador. At that time an ambassador was a nobleman, the rank of the noble assigned varying with the prestige of the country he was delegated to. Strict standards developed for ambassadors, requiring they have large residences, host lavish parties, and play an important role in the court life of their host nation. In Rome, the most prized posting for a Catholic ambassador, the French and Spanish representatives would have a retinue of up to a hundred. Even in smaller posting ambassadors were very expensive. Smaller states would send and receive envoys, who were a rung below ambassador. Somewhere between the two was the position of minister plenipotentiary .

Diplomacy was a complex affair, then even more so than now. The ambassadors from each state were ranked by complex levels of precedence that were much disputed. States were normally ranked by the title of the sovereign; for Catholic nations the emissary from the Vatican was paramount, then those from the kingdoms, then those from duchies and principalities. Representatives from republics were considered the lowest of the low. Determining precedence between two kingdoms depended on a number of factors that often fluctuated, leading to near constant squabbling.

 diplomat is considered one of the most skilled diplomats of all time
French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand is considered one of the most skilled diplomats of all time

Ambassadors, nobles with little foreign experience and no expectation of a career in diplomacy, needed to be supported by large embassy staff. These professionals would be sent on longer assignments and would be far more knowledgeable than the higher-ranking officials about the host country. Embassy staff would include a wide range of employees, including some dedicated to espionage. The need for skilled individuals to staff embassies was met by the graduates of universities, and this led to a great increase in the study of international law, modern languages , and history at universities throughout Europe.

At the same time, permanent foreign ministries began to be established in almost all European states to coordinate embassies and their staffs. These ministries were still far from their modern form, and many of them had extraneous internal responsibilities. Britain had two departments with frequently overlapping powers until 1782. They were also far smaller; France, which boasted the largest foreign affairs department, had only some 70 full-time employees in the 1780s.

The elements of modern diplomacy slowly spread to Eastern Europe and Russia, arriving by the early eighteenth century. The entire edifice would be greatly disrupted by the French Revolution and the subsequent years of warfare. The revolution would see commoners take over the diplomacy of the French state, and of those conquered by revolutionary armies. Ranks of precedence were abolished. Napoleon also refused to acknowledge diplomatic immunity, imprisoning several British diplomats accused of scheming against France. He had no time for the often slow moving process of formal diplomacy.

After the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna of 1815 established an international system of diplomatic rank. Disputes on precedence among nations (and therefore the appropriate diplomatic ranks used) persisted for over a century until after World War II, when the rank of ambassador became the norm.

Diplomatic traditions outside of Europe were very different. A feature necessary for diplomacy is the existence of a number of states of somewhat equal power, as existed in Italy during the Renaissance, and in Europe for much of the modern period. By contrast in Asia and the Middle East, China and the Ottoman Empire were reluctant to practice bilateral diplomacy as they viewed themselves to be unquestionably superior to all their neighbours. The Ottomans, for instance, would not send missions to other states, expecting representatives to come to Constantinople. It would not be until the nineteenth century that the Empire established permanent embassies in other capitals. As European power spread around the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth century so too did its diplomatic system.

Diplomatic immunity

The sanctity of diplomats has long been observed. This sanctity has come to be known as diplomatic immunity. While there have been a number of cases where diplomats have been killed, this is normally viewed as a great breach of honour. Genghis Khan and the Mongols were well known for strongly insisting on the rights of diplomats, and they would often wreak horrific vengeance against any state that violated these rights.

Diplomatic rights were established in the mid-seventeenth century in Europe and have spread throughout the world. These rights were formalized by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which protects diplomats from being persecuted or prosecuted while on a diplomatic mission. If a diplomat does commit a serious crime while in a host country s/he may be expelled. Such diplomats are then often tried for the crime in their homeland.

Diplomatic communications are also viewed as sacrosanct, and diplomats have long been allowed to carry documents across borders without being searched. The mechanism for this is the so-called "diplomatic bag" (or, in some countries, the "diplomatic pouch"). In recent years, however, signals intelligence has led to this use of diplomatic bags being largely discarded.

In times of hostility, diplomats are often withdrawn for reasons of personal safety, and in some cases when the host country is friendly but there is a perceived threat from internal dissidents. Ambassadors and other diplomats are also sometimes recalled by their home countries as a way to express displeasure with the host country. In both cases, lower-level employees remain to actually do the business of diplomacy.

Diplomats as a guarantee

The Middle East and other parts of the world had a very different tradition. In the Ottoman Empire, Persia and other states diplomats were seen as a guarantee of good behaviour. If a nation broke a treaty or if their nationals misbehaved the diplomats would be punished. Diplomats were thus used as an enforcement mechanism on treaties and international law. To ensure that punishing a diplomat mattered rulers insisted on high-ranking figures. This tradition is seen by many as the basis of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis . In imitation of previous practices supporters of the Iranian Revolution attempted to punish the United States for its misdeeds by holding their diplomats hostage. Diplomats as a guarantee were also employed sometimes in pre-modern Europe and other parts of Asia.

Diplomacy and espionage

Diplomacy is closely linked to espionage. Embassies are bases for both diplomats and spies, and some diplomats are essentially openly-acknowledged spies. For instance, the job of military attachés includes learning as much as possible about the military of the nation to which they are assigned. They do not try to hide this role and, as such, are only invited to events allowed by their hosts, such as military parades or air shows. There are also deep-cover spies operating in many embassies. These individuals are given fake positions at the embassy, but their main task is to illegally gather intelligence, usually by coordinating spy-rings of locals or other spies. For the most part, spies operating out of embassies gather little intelligence themselves and their identities tend to be known by the opposition. If discovered, these diplomats can be expelled from an embassy, but for the most part counter-intelligence agencies prefer to keep these agents in situ and under close monitoring.

The information gathered by spies plays an increasingly important role in diplomacy. Arms-control treaties would be impossible without the power of reconnaissance satellites and agents to monitor compliance. Information gleaned from espionage is useful in almost all forms of diplomacy, everything from trade agreements to border disputes.

Diplomatic recognition

Diplomatic recognition is perhaps the most important factor in determining whether a nation is an independent state. Receiving recognition has long been difficult, even for countries which are fully sovereign. For many decades after becoming independent, even many of the closest allies of the Republic of the Netherlands refused to grant it full recognition. Today there are a number of independent entities without widespread diplomatic recognition, most notably the Republic of China. Almost all nations do not officially recognize the ROC's existence on Taiwan, but rather retain informal links. The United States, for instance, maintains relations through de facto embassies known as the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.

Other unrecognized countries include Abkhazia, Transnistria, Somaliland, Puntland, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Lacking the economic and political importance of Taiwan, these nations tend to be much more diplomatically isolated.

Though used as a factor in judging sovereignty, Article 3 of the Montevideo Convention states, "The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by other states."

Informal diplomacy

Informal diplomacy has been used for centuries to communicate between powers. Most diplomats work to recruit figures in other nations who might be able to give informal access to a county's leadership. In some situations, such as between the United States and the People's Republic of China a large amount of diplomacy is done through semi-formal channels using interlocutors such as academic members of thinktanks. This occurs in situations where governments wish to express intentions or to suggest methods of resolving a diplomatic situation, but do not wish to express a formal position.

See also


  • A Guide to Diplomatic Practice by Sir Ernest Satow, (Longmans, Green & Co. London & New York, 1917). A standard reference work used in many embassies across the world (though not British ones). Now in its fifth edition (1998). ISBN 0582501091
  • The Rise of the Great Powers: 1648-1815 Derek McKay and H.M. Scott (1983).

Last updated: 08-17-2005 14:49:12
Last updated: 10-14-2005 22:39:27