PSI 201



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.



The tradition that ultimately inspired the birth of modern diplomacy in post-Renaissance Europe and that led to the present world system of international relations began in ancient Greece. The earliest evidence of Greek diplomacy can be found in its literature, notably in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Otherwise, the first traces of interstate relations concern the Olympic Games of 776 bc. In the 6th century bc, the amphictyonic leagues maintained interstate assemblies with extraterritorial rights and permanent secretariats. Sparta was actively forming alliances in the mid-6th century bc, and by 500 bc it had created the Peloponnesian League. In the 5th century bc, Athens led the Delian League during the Greco-Persian Wars.

Greek diplomacy took many forms. Heralds, references to whom can be found in prehistory, were the first diplomats and were protected by the gods with an immunity that other envoys lacked. Their protector was Hermes, the messenger of the gods, who became associated with all diplomacy. The herald of Zeus, Hermes was noted for persuasiveness and eloquence but also for knavery, shiftiness, and dishonesty, imparting to diplomacy a reputation that its practitioners still try to live down.

Because heralds were inviolable, they were the favoured channels of contact in wartime. They preceded envoys to arrange for safe passage. Whereas heralds traveled alone, envoys journeyed in small groups, to ensure each other’s loyalty. They usually were at least 50 years old and were politically prominent figures. Because they were expected to sway foreign assemblies, envoys were chosen for their oratorical skills. Although such missions were frequent, Greek diplomacy was episodic rather than continuous. Unlike modern ambassadors, heralds and envoys were short-term visitors in the city-states whose policies they sought to influence.

In marked contrast to diplomatic relations, commercial and other apolitical relations between city-states were conducted on a continuous basis. Greek consular agents, or proxeni, were citizens of the city in which they resided, not of the city-state that employed them. Like envoys, they had a secondary task of gathering information, but their primary responsibility was trade. Although proxeni initially represented one Greek city-state in another, eventually they became far-flung; in his famed work History, Herodotus indicates that there were Greek consuls in Egypt in about 550 bc.

The Greeks developed archives, a diplomatic vocabulary, principles of international conduct that anticipated international law, and many other elements of modern diplomacy. Their envoys and entourages enjoyed diplomatic immunity for their official correspondence and personal property. Truces, neutrality, commercial conventions, conferences, treaties, and alliances were common. In one 25-year period of the 4th century bc, for example, there were eight Greco-Persian congresses, where even the smallest states had the right to be heard.

The Development of the Foreign Ministry and Embassies

The first modern foreign ministry was established in 1626 in France by Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu saw diplomacy as a continuous process of negotiation, arguing that a diplomat should have one master and one policy. He created the Ministry of External Affairs to centralize policy and to ensure his control of envoys as he pursued the raison d’état (national interest). Richelieu rejected the view that policy should be based on dynastic or sentimental concerns or a ruler’s wishes, holding instead that the state transcended crown and land, prince and people, and had interests and needs independent of all these elements. He asserted that the art of government lay in recognizing these interests and acting according to them, regardless of ethical or religious considerations. In this, Richelieu enunciated principles that leaders throughout the world now accept as axioms of statecraft.

Richelieu’s practice of raison d’état led him to ally Roman Catholic France with the Protestant powers (equally pursuing raison d’état) in the Thirty Years’ War against France’s great rival, Austria. He largely succeeded, for the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 weakened Austria and enhanced French power. The four years of meetings before its signature were the first great international congresses of modern history. Princes attended, but diplomats did most of the work in secret meetings, especially because by this time there was a corps of experienced diplomats who were mutually well acquainted. However, the task of the diplomats was complicated by the need for two simultaneous congresses, because the problem of precedence was otherwise insoluble.

The Treaty of Westphalia did not solve precedence disputes, which reflected rivalry between states. The war between France and Spain, which continued from 1648 to 1659, was partly about this issue. Shortly thereafter, in 1661, there was a diplomatic dispute in London concerning whether the French ambassador’s carriage would precede that of his Spanish rival. War was narrowly averted, but questions of precedence continued to bedevil European diplomacy. As larger states emerged after the Thirty Years’ War, a network of embassies and legations crisscrossed Europe.

To communicate securely with its own installations, England established the first modern courier service in 1641, and several states used ciphers. A wide variety of people had been employed as ambassadors, ministers, or residents (a more economical envoy usually reserved for lesser tasks). The glittering court of Louis XIV late in the 17th century transformed this situation dramatically. Because a king’s honour at such a court required that his emissaries be well-born, aristocratic envoys became common, not least because of the expense involved. Also, as kings became better established, nobles were more willing to serve them. Thus, diplomacy became a profession dominated by the aristocracy. Another result of Louis XIV’s preeminence was that French became the language of diplomacy, superseding Latin. French continued as the lingua franca of diplomacy until the 20th century.

Louis XIV personally directed French foreign policy and read the dispatches of his ambassadors himself. The foreign minister belonged to the Council of State and directed a small ministry and a sizable diplomatic corps under the king’s supervision. Envoys were assigned for three or four years and given letters of credence, instructions, and ciphers for secret correspondence. Because ambassadors chose and paid for their own staff, they were required to have great wealth. Louis XIV’s frequent wars concluded in peace congresses, which were attended by diplomats. To counter the cost of the king’s wars, the French foreign minister stressed commerce and commercial diplomacy.

Some states regularized the position of consuls as state officials, though they were not considered diplomats. The French system was imitated in the 18th century as other major states established foreign ministries. The ambassadors they sent forth were true plenipotentiaries, able to conclude treaties on their own authority. The title of ambassador was used only for the envoys of kings (and for those from Venice). The diplomacy of the time recognized the existence of great powers by according special rank and responsibility to the representatives of these countries. New among these was Russia, which entered European diplomacy in the 18th century. Its diplomatic tradition married elements derived directly from Byzantium to the now essentially mature diplomatic system that had arisen in western Europe.

At the century’s end an independent power of the second rank appeared outside Europe: the United States. The founders of American diplomacy—people such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—accepted the norms of European diplomacy but declined to wear court dress or to adopt usages they considered unrepublican. To this day, U.S. ambassadors, unlike those of other countries, are addressed not as “Your Excellency” but simply as “Mr. Ambassador.”

By the 18th century diplomacy had begun to generate a sizable literature, written mostly by its practitioners. Most of these authors argued that to be effective, ambassadors needed to exercise intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, foresight, courage, a sense of humour, and sternness (if only to compensate for the not-infrequent lack of these qualities in the national leaders in whose names they acted). One of the earliest such writers, the Dutch diplomat Abraham de Wicquefort, in 1679 termed an envoy “an honourable spy” and “a messenger of peace” who should be charming, silent, and indirect, though, he asserted, deceit was invariably counterproductive. The French diplomat François de Callières, who wrote a manual of diplomacy in 1716 that is still read and regarded by diplomats as a classic, argued in favour of the professionalization of diplomacy, declaring that “even in those cases where success has attended the efforts of an amateur diplomatist, the example must be regarded as an exception, for it is a commonplace of human experience that skilled work requires a skilled workman.” By 1737 another French diplomat-theorist, Antoine Pecquet, had declared diplomacy to be a sacred calling requiring discretion, patience, accurate reporting, and absolute honesty, themes that have been repeated through succeeding centuries.

The Concert of Europe to the Outbreak of World War I

Balance of Power and the Concert of Europe

Through the many wars and peace congresses of the 18th century, European diplomacy strove to maintain a balance between five great powers: Britain, France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia. At the century’s end, however, the French Revolution, France’s efforts to export it, and the attempts of Napoleon I to conquer Europe first unbalanced and then overthrew the continent’s state system. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna was convened in 1814–15 to set new boundaries, re-create the balance of power, and guard against future French hegemony. It also dealt with international problems internationally, taking up issues such as rivers, the slave trade, and the rules of diplomacy. The Final Act of Vienna of 1815, as amended at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in 1818, established four classes of heads of diplomatic missions—precedence within each class being determined by the date of presentation of credentials—and a system for signing treaties in French alphabetical order by country name. Thus ended the battles over precedence. Unwritten rules also were established. At Vienna, for example, a distinction was made between great powers and “powers with limited interests.” Only great powers exchanged ambassadors. Until 1893 the United States had no ambassadors; like those of other lesser states, its envoys were only ministers.

More unwritten rules were soon developed. Napoleon’s return and second defeat required a new peace treaty with France at Paris in November 1815. On that occasion the four great victors (Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia) formally signed the Quadruple Alliance, which called for periodic meetings of the signatories to consult on common interests, to ensure the “repose and prosperity of the Nations,” and to maintain the peace of Europe. This clause, which created a Concert of Europe, entailed cooperation and restraint as well as a tacit code: the great powers would make all important decisions; internal changes in any member of the Concert had to be sanctioned by the great powers; the great powers were not to challenge each other; and the Concert would decide all disputes. The Concert thus constituted a rudimentary system of international governance by a consortium of great powers.

Initially, meetings of the Concert were attended by rulers, chancellors, and foreign ministers. The first meeting, which was held at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, resulted in the admittance of France to the Concert and the secret renewal of the Quadruple Alliance against it. The meeting also refined diplomatic rules and tackled other international questions. Aix was the first international congress held in peacetime and the first to attract coverage by the press, relations with whom were conducted by the secretary-general of the congress. Thus was born the public relations aspect of diplomacy and the press communiqué.

Thereafter, congresses met in response to crises. Owing to disputes between the powers, after 1822 the meetings ceased, though the Concert of Europe itself continued unobtrusively. Beginning in 1816 an ambassadorial conference was established in Paris to address issues arising from the 1815 treaty with France. Other conferences of ambassadors followed—usually in London, Vienna, or Paris—to address specific international problems and to sanction change when it seemed advisable or unavoidable. Diplomats continued to adjust and amend the European system with conferences, ranging from the meeting held in London in 1830 that endorsed Belgian independence to the meeting in 1912–13, also held in London, to resolve the Balkan Wars. The Concert was stretched and then disregarded altogether between 1854 and 1870, during the Crimean War and the unifications of Italy and Germany. The century during which it existed (1815–1914) was generally peaceful, marred only by short, limited wars; the bloodshed of one of these wars, the second war of Italian independence, inspired the creation in the 1860s of the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded (later the International Red Cross) as an international nongovernmental agency.

Conference Diplomacy and the Impact of Democratization

After three decades Europe reverted to conference diplomacy at the foreign ministerial level. The Congress of Paris of 1856 not only ended the Crimean War but also resulted in the codification of a significant amount of international law. As European powers extended their sway throughout the world, colonies and spheres of influence in areas remote from Europe came increasingly to preoccupy their diplomacy. Conferences in Berlin in 1878 and 1884–85 prevented conflagrations over the so-called “Eastern” and “African” questions—euphemisms, respectively, for intervention on behalf of Christian interests in the decaying Ottoman Empire and the carving up of Africa into European-ruled colonies. Furthermore, multilateral diplomacy was institutionalized in a permanent form. The Paris Congress created an International Commission of the Danube to match Vienna’s 1815 Commission of the Rhine and established the Universal Telegraph Union (later the International Telecommunication Union). In 1874 the General Postal Union (later the Universal Postal Union) was established. Afterward, specialized agencies like these proliferated. The peace conferences at The Hague (1899–1907), which resulted in conventions aimed at codifying the laws of war and encouraging disarmament, were harbingers of the future.

During the 19th century the world underwent a series of political transformations, and diplomacy changed with it. In Europe power shifted from royal courts to cabinets. Kings were replaced by ministers at international meetings, and foreign policy became a matter of increasingly democratized politics. This, plus mass literacy and the advent of inexpensive newspapers, made foreign policy and diplomacy concerns of public opinion. Domestic politics thus gained increasing influence over European foreign policy making.

Meanwhile, European culture and its diplomatic norms spread throughout the world. Most Latin American colonies became independent, which increased the number of sovereign states. With their European heritage, Latin American countries adopted the existing system without question, as the United States had done earlier. The British Empire, through the East India Company, gnawed away at the Mughal dynasty and India’s many independent states and principalities and then united all of the subcontinent for the first time under a single sovereignty. In the middle of the 19th century, an American naval flotilla forced Japan to open its society to the rest of the world. Afterward, Japan embarked on a rapid program of modernization based on the wholesale adoption of Western norms of political and economic behaviour, including European notions of sovereignty and diplomatic practice.



Diplomacy is a method of influencing foreign governments through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence. The word "diplomacy" is derived from the ancient Greek diploma, meaning an object folded in two-a reference to the documents through which princes granted permission to travel and other privileges.