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Diplomacy, the established method of influencing the decisions and behaviour of foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence. Modern diplomatic practices are a product of the post-Renaissance European state system. Historically, diplomacy meant the conduct of official (usually bilateral) relations between sovereign states. By the 20th century, however, the diplomatic practices pioneered in Europe had been adopted throughout the world, and diplomacy had expanded to cover summit meetings and other international conferences, parliamentary diplomacy, the international activities of supranational and subnational entities, unofficial diplomacy by nongovernmental elements, and the work of international civil servants.
The term diplomacy is derived via French from the ancient Greek diplōma, composed of diplo, meaning “folded in two,” and the suffix -ma, meaning “an object.” The folded document conferred a privilege—often a permit to travel—on the bearer, and the term came to denote documents through which princes granted such favours. Later it applied to all solemn documents issued by chancelleries, especially those containing agreements between sovereigns. Diplomacy later became identified with international relations, and the direct tie to documents lapsed (except in diplomatics, which is the science of authenticating old official documents). In the 18th century the French term diplomate (“diplomat” or “diplomatist”) came to refer to a person authorized to negotiate on behalf of a state.
This article discusses the nature of diplomacy, its history, and the ways in which modern diplomacy is conducted, including the selection and training of diplomats and the organization of diplomatic bodies. For a discussion of the legal rules governing diplomatic negotiation and the preparation of treaties and other agreements, see international law. One venue for diplomacy, the United Nations (UN), is considered in detail under that title.
Nature and purpose
Diplomacy is often confused with foreign policy, but the terms are not synonymous. Diplomacy is the chief, but not the only, instrument of foreign policy, which is set by political leaders, though diplomats (in addition to military and intelligence officers) may advise them. Foreign policy establishes goals, prescribes strategies, and sets the broad tactics to be used in their accomplishment. It may employ secret agents, subversion, war, or other forms of violence as well as diplomacy to achieve its objectives. Diplomacy is the principal substitute for the use of force or underhanded means in statecraft; it is how comprehensive national power is applied to the peaceful adjustment of differences between states. It may be coercive (i.e., backed by the threat to apply punitive measures or to use force) but is overtly nonviolent. Its primary tools are international dialogue and negotiation, primarily conducted by accredited envoys (a term derived from the French envoyé, meaning “one who is sent”) and other political leaders. Unlike foreign policy, which generally is enunciated publicly, most diplomacy is conducted in confidence, though both the fact that it is in progress and its results are almost always made public in contemporary international relations.
The purpose of foreign policy is to further a state’s interests, which are derived from geography, history, economics, and the distribution of international power. Safeguarding national independence, security, and integrity—territorial, political, economic, and moral—is viewed as a country’s primary obligation, followed by preserving a wide freedom of action for the state. The political leaders, traditionally of sovereign states, who devise foreign policy pursue what they perceive to be the national interest, adjusting national policies to changes in external conditions and technology. Primary responsibility for supervising the execution of policy may lie with the head of state or government, a cabinet or a nominally nongovernmental collective leadership, the staff of the country’s leader, or a minister who presides over the foreign ministry, directs policy execution, supervises the ministry’s officials, and instructs the country’s diplomats abroad.
The purpose of diplomacy is to strengthen the state, nation, or organization it serves in relation to others by advancing the interests in its charge. To this end, diplomatic activity endeavours to maximize a group’s advantages without the risk and expense of using force and preferably without causing resentment. It habitually, but not invariably, strives to preserve peace; diplomacy is strongly inclined toward negotiation to achieve agreements and resolve issues between states. Even in times of peace, diplomacy may involve coercive threats of economic or other punitive measures or demonstrations of the capability to impose unilateral solutions to disputes by the application of military power. However, diplomacy normally seeks to develop goodwill toward the state it represents, nurturing relations with foreign states and peoples that will ensure their cooperation or—failing that—their neutrality.
When diplomacy fails, war may ensue; however, diplomacy is useful even during war. It conducts the passages from protest to menace, dialogue to negotiation, ultimatum to reprisal, and war to peace and reconciliation with other states. Diplomacy builds and tends the coalitions that deter or make war. It disrupts the alliances of enemies and sustains the passivity of potentially hostile powers. It contrives war’s termination, and it forms, strengthens, and sustains the peace that follows conflict. Over the long term, diplomacy strives to build an international order conducive to the nonviolent resolution of disputes and expanded cooperation between states.
Diplomats are the primary—but far from the only—practitioners of diplomacy. They are specialists in carrying messages and negotiating adjustments in relations and the resolution of quarrels between states and peoples. Their weapons are words, backed by the power of the state or organization they represent. Diplomats help leaders to understand the attitudes and actions of foreigners and to develop strategies and tactics that will shape the behaviour of foreigners, especially foreign governments. The wise use of diplomats is a key to successful foreign policy.