Diplomacy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Diplomacy can be defined as the conduct of relations between sovereign entities such as nation-states, empires, and kingdoms.


Diplomacy can be defined as the conduct of relations between sovereign entities such as nation-states, empires, and kingdoms. Diplomacy takes the form of negotiations between duly appointed agents, known as diplomats. Diplomacy is relevant to an understanding of all aspects of war, since diplomats are closely involved with war origins, the conduct of war, and the conclusion of hostilities. Historical studies of diplomacy have traditionally focused on the study of state papers and documents. In recent years, historians have widened the scope of the study of diplomacy to include all aspects of exchanges between states, including cultural and social contacts.DiplomacyInternational relationsNegotiationsDiplomacyInternational relationsNegotiations


Diplomats are heavily involved in negotiations that precede the outbreak of wars. No student of World War I, for example, could come to a proper understanding of that war without developing a familiarity with the war’s origins. During wartime, diplomats are actively engaged in attempting to win the active, or passive, support of neutral states. In coalition wars, or wars between alliance systems, diplomats are responsible for maintaining the strength of the coalition through the ups and downs of war. Diplomats discuss peace proposals with the enemy and take the leading role in talks that conclude the war. Postwar peace conferences, such as the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, are likewise the responsibility of diplomats.

History of DiplomacyAncient World

Diplomacy in the ancient world consisted of Emissariesemissaries who were sent by the ruler of one state to the ruler of another state on a specific mission. Emissaries might be used to negotiate trade agreements, arrange dynastic marriages, or conduct discussions aimed at resolving a conflict. In order to lend credibility to the mission, emissaries were always members of the ruling elite or members of the ruler’s family. Empires, such as those of the Assyrians (which reached its peak around 650 b.c.e.) and Persians (which dominated the Middle East by 513 b.c.e.), needed to manage relations with tributary states or with rival states on their borders. Diplomacy was particularly intense when a network of states of roughly equal power emerged, such as the Greek city-states of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.). Diplomats were usually ranked according to the importance of their mission and their social standing. When the mission was completed, emissaries would return home.

Medieval World

Diplomacy in the medieval world followed patterns established in the ancient world. One of the most frequently cited examples of medieval diplomacy is the relationship between CharlemagneCharlemagneCharlemagne (742-814), king of the Frankish Empire, which governed most of western and central Europe, and Hārūn al-RashīdHārūn al-Rashīd[Harun al Rashid]Hārūn al-Rashīd (763/766-809), ruler of the ՙAbbāsid caliphate, which included modern Iran, most of the Middle East, and North Africa. In China, the diplomacy of the Ming DynastyMing Dynasty, which emerged in 1368, involved the management of relations with subordinate, tributary states that existed on the periphery of the empire. The same could be said for the diplomacy of the Ottoman, Mughal, and Persian empires. The PapacyPapacy was particularly active diplomatically, at one point maintaining a permanent mission at the Byzantine court. Permanent diplomatic missions would become a hallmark of the modern conception of diplomacy.

Modern World

Most scholars would trace the origins of the modern system of diplomacy to Renaissance Italy;city-statesItaly. By the time of the Renaissance, the Italian peninsula was divided into a number of city-states, which engaged in frequent bouts of warfare. Venice emerged as a major commercial power in the Mediterranean by the fourteenth century. All the Italian city-states needed accurate information from their rivals in order to keep ahead of the intrigues that dominated the Italian peninsula at the time.

The court of the influential French minister Cardinal de Richelieu, who was a dominant diplomatic figure during the reign of Louis XIII.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Venice, AmbassadorsVenicein particular, required information on foreign markets and the activities of its competitors. Such needs led to the stationing of agents, or ambassadors, in foreign capitals on a permanent, not temporary basis. The concept was soon adopted across Europe. Written reports by ambassadors and their subordinates had to be analyzed and filed on receipt in the home country. Governments established foreign ministries, staffed by bureaucrats, to process incoming reports and send out instructions. The heads of these ministries, known as foreign ministers or foreign secretaries, emerged as some of the most powerful members of the cabinets of European states. Diplomacy continued to be dominated by the aristocracy. Commentators wrote books giving advice to rulers on the practice of diplomacy and statecraft. Machiavelli, NiccolòMachiavelli, NiccolòPrince, The (Machiavelli) Perhaps the most famous of these works is Il principe (1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640), by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527).

Prominent practitioners of diplomacy included France’s Richelieu, Cardinal deRichelieu, Cardinal deCardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642). Richelieu served as chief minister to King Louis XIIILouis XIII (king of France)[Louis 13]Louis XIII from 1624 to 1642. Richelieu put forward the concept of Raison d’étatraison d’état, by which he meant that the good of the state is supreme. Diplomacy, according to Richelieu, must be conducted free of sentiment or ideology. Alliances, he held, should be made and broken according to the interests of the state. Critics denounced Richelieu for his alleged lack of morality, but Richelieu merely replied that the good of the state was the ultimate in morality.

The Westphalia, Peace of (1648)Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War (1608-1648);peace treatyThirty Years’ War (1618-1648), is often cited as the first diplomatic conference. The treaty explicitly recognized and formalized the principle of state Sovereignty, statesovereignty. States now had the right to govern their affairs, free of interference from outside powers. By the eighteenth century, observers of international affairs, such as the Scottish philosopher Hume, DavidHume, DavidDavid Hume (1711-1776), began articulating a concept known as Balance of power“balance of power.” The new doctrine held that international relations should be dominated by a number of states of equal power that could restrain the ambitions of any one power that tried to dominate the others.

U.S. president Richard M. Nixon is widely credited with having helped open China to the West during the height of the Cold War.

(White House photo by Byron Schumaker)

Restoring the balance of power in Europe was the main aim of the Congress of Vienna (1815)Congress of Vienna (1815), the most important diplomatic conference of the nineteenth century. The Congress of Vienna, held at the end of the wars of the French Revolution (1789-1793) and the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), tried to restore peace to Europe after many years of turmoil. Dominated by the Austrian foreign minister Prince Metternich, Klemens vonMetternich, Klemens vonKlemens von Metternich (1773-1859), the Congress redrew the borders of Europe. Metternich hoped that the five great powers of Europe (France, Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia), acting in concert, could maintain stability in Europe. Metternich’s Concert of Europe“Concert of Europe,” however, sought to maintain the rule of authoritarian, antidemocratic empires increasingly at odds with awakening nationalist and liberal sentiments in Europe.

By the 1860’s, the concept of RealpolitikRealpolitik came to dominate diplomacy. Major practitioners of Realpolitik included Count Cavour, CamilloCavour, CamilloCamillo Cavour (1810-1861), prime minister of the Italian state of Piedmont; Napoleon IIINapoleon III (emperor of France)[Napoleon 03]Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III, 1808-1873), emperor of France; and Bismarck, Otto vonBismarck, Otto von (chancellor of Germany)Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), chancellor of Prussia and then Germany. Realpolitik returned to the style of diplomacy advocated by Richelieu, Cardinal deRichelieu, Cardinal deRichelieu. Once again, national interest assumed supreme importance in the conduct of diplomacy. Treaties and moral obligations could be thrown overboard if the situation demanded. Cavour succeeded in uniting the scattered Italian states using the methods of Realpolitik. Louis Napoleon was less successful in his diplomatic career, and France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War]Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Louis Napoleon’s enemy, Bismarck, chancellor of the German state of Prussia and an unapologetic practitioner of Realpolitik, masterminded the unification of the German states and the defeat of France. The new German state became the center of diplomacy in Europe.

Bismarck put Germany at the center of a web of alliances designed to maintain Germany’s predominant position in Europe. In 1884 he presided over the Berlin Conference (1884)Berlin Conference, which established the ground rules for European expansion into Africa and Asia at the end of the nineteenth century. Diplomacy in Europe now had dramatic, worldwide consequences.

The era of classical diplomacy, when diplomats came from similar aristocratic backgrounds and shared common assumptions about the conduct of diplomacy, came to an end with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The war left nine million dead and large areas of Europe devastated. Public opinion increasingly condemned “old diplomacy,” with its secret alliances and treaties, and held diplomats responsible for the outbreak of war. PresidentWilson, WoodrowWilson, WoodrowWoodrow Wilson (1856-1924) of the United States advocated a new style of Open diplomacy“open diplomacy.” The Paris Peace Conference (1919)Paris Peace Conference of 1919, called to redraw the map of Europe following the war, established the League of NationsLeague of Nations, one of Wilson’s most important ideas. The League would substitute the rule of law for anarchy and brute force in international relations. Member nations were required to submit disputes to the League for peaceful resolution. Aggressors faced sanctions and possible military action. Hopes soared that a new era in international affairs had arrived. In 1928 practically all the independent states of the world signed theKellogg-Briand Pact (1928)[Kellogg Briand Pact]Kellogg-Briand Pact. Signatories to the pact promised to renounce the use of war as a means for settling disputes. Arms controlArms control conferences, such as theWashington Naval Conference (1921-1922)Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922, promised to end expensive arms races.

Unfortunately, the League of Nations was hobbled from the start by the absence of the United States, which withdrew into isolation after 1919. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];origins ofThe League proved unable to withstand the challenges of aggressive and expansionist states, such as Japan, Italy, and Germany in the 1930’s. In 1931, Japan conquered the Chinese region of Manchuria with impunity. Fascist Italy, led by Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), invaded Ethiopia in 1935, a final discrediting of the League.

The Camp David Accords (1978), signed by Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat (right) and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (left), were witnessed by U.S. president Jimmy Carter and paved the way for the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty.


The worsening international situation in the late 1930’s, with Nazi Germany under Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler (1889-1945) challenging Britain and France, saw the rise of Summit diplomacysummit diplomacy. Air travel, along with modern communication, meant that leaders could conduct their own face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders to resolve crises. Accordingly, British prime minister Chamberlain, NevilleChamberlain, NevilleNeville Chamberlain (1869-1940) flew to Germany three times in 1938 to negotiate a solution to the crisis over Czechoslovakia. War broke out a year later, but summit diplomacy remained as a key characteristic of modern diplomacy. During World War II (1939-1945), Allied leaders met repeatedly to plan the course of the war.

The numerous crises of the ensuing Cold War (1945-1991)Cold War ensured that the practice continued. The meetings of Soviet and American leaders always received massive publicity and press coverage. The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war, reinforced the need for instant communication between leaders. President Kennedy, John F.Kennedy, John F.John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Soviet premier Khrushchev, NikitaKhrushchev, NikitaNikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) set up a telephone “hot line” to ensure clear communication in a crisis.

Face-to-face meetings between world leaders remain the preferred means of diplomacy in the twenty-first century. International institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) also serve as important venues for diplomacy. Ambassadors and foreign ministries continue to play important roles, if slightly diminished compared to the age of classical diplomacy. The vast increase in the number of independent states since 1945 has ensured that the practitioners of diplomacy today are far more diverse and varied in their backgrounds and worldviews than in the past.DiplomacyInternational relationsNegotiations

Books and Articles
  • Afflerbach, H., and D. Stevenson, eds. An Improbable War? The Outbreak of World War One and European Political Culture Before 1914. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007. Recent collection of essays examining the defining diplomatic crisis of the twentieth century.
  • Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. A survey of diplomacy by the former U.S. secretary of state, one of the most foremost practitioners of twentieth century diplomacy.
  • Lawford, Valentine. Bound for Diplomacy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Memoir of a British diplomat of the 1930’s, witness to the rise of Hitler.
  • Mosslang, Markus, and Torsten Riotte, eds. The Diplomat’s World: A Cultural History of Diplomacy, 1815-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. A collection of essays showcasing the new “cultural” approach to diplomacy.
  • Nicolson, H. Diplomacy. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1939. A study of diplomacy by a British politician and member of the British delegation to the pivotal 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
  • Rich, N. Great Power Diplomacy, 1814-1914. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. A classic diplomatic history of a period when European powers dominated the world.


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