Stop Inventing “New Diplomacies”

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We must end the obsession with creating new “types” of diplomacy. It was probably a mistake “inventing” public diplomacy and digital diplomacy. It undoubtedly led both scholars and practitioners into unhelpful, and potentially harmful, cul de sacs like nation-branding or the obsession with social media presence. But now a plethora of new kinds of diplomacy are being offered up, ranging from education diplomacy, via sports and science diplomacy, to gastronomic diplomacy. No doubt such concepts are useful for securing academic funding and publication in academic journals. But they are frequently conceptually confused, risk these new kinds of diplomacy being seen as an end in themselves, rather than as part of broader diplomatic strategies, and, more seriously, risk emptying the concept “Diplomacy” of any meaning.

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The conceptual confusion arises from the failure to distinguish between tools that can be used as part of a broader diplomatic strategy and the subject matter of diplomacy. Thus education diplomacy confuses educational networks as tools that can be used in the pursuit of broader diplomatic strategies with the application of diplomacy to resolve or manage issues arising in international education (e.g. the impact of Brexit on European educational exchange programmes). Likewise, science diplomacy confuses the use of networks of scientists to advance broader diplomatic agendas (e.g. during the Cold War) with applying diplomacy to international scientific issues (e.g. Climate Change). I have previously pointed out the same confusion in digital diplomacy (https://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/blog/cyber-diplomacy-vs-digital-diplomacy-terminological-distinction), suggesting the term “digital diplomacy” be confined to the use of digital tools in support of broader diplomatic strategies, while the term “cyberdiplomacy” be used to describe the application of diplomacy to problems arising in cyberspace. Failure to make this distinction between tools and subject matter does not create new kinds of diplomacy. It merely causes confusion.

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Equally, these new “kinds” of diplomacy frequently lack any context. Diplomacy does not exist in a vacuum. Nor is diplomacy an end in itself, divorced from all other activities. Diplomacy is a way of achieving broader objectives, set from outside diplomacy. Diplomacy does not itself have content. It is not the pursuit of peace and international understanding. It can be, if that is what their political masters instruct the diplomats to pursue. But equally diplomacy can be used to provoke war, or secure better conditions for fighting one (think Bismarck in 1869 or Blair in 2003). In governmental diplomacy, which remains the most common kind, diplomacy, together with Warfare and geoeconomics, comprises one of the ways in which governments can pursue their policy objectives. Public diplomacy is a subset of diplomacy, which seeks to help pursue those policy objectives through influencing foreign (and domestic) public opinion. By and large the new “kinds” of diplomacy are no more than subsets of public diplomacy, offering thematic areas and tools to help influencing foreign public opinions. Like diplomacy itself, they can be coercive. For example, sporting boycotts can be used to pressure just as sporting links can be used to attract. But it only makes sense to talk about sporting (or educational, or scientific, or gastronomic) activities if they form part of a broader diplomatic strategy in pursuit of policy objectives. Otherwise it is just sport, education, science or lunch.

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There is understandable enthusiasm for extending the concept of “diplomacy” beyond government diplomats, reflecting the plethora of new state and non-state actors participating in international relations. But the lack of intellectual rigour with which this is often done risks emptying “diplomacy” of all meaning. When courses on diplomacy seriously discuss diplomacy in the family context, then diplomacy ends up meaning little more than getting what you want through negotiation or manipulation, rather than just thumping someone. If everything is diplomacy, then diplomacy no longer means anything useful, and we can give up using the term (and presumably close down the diplomatic studies courses).

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Similarly, it is not clear if all those new state and non-state actors participating in international affairs do so as diplomats. They may be doing similar things to diplomats, or participating in the same activities, but are they doing so in the same way as diplomats, or with the same world-view? Is there a diplomatic way of doing things, or thinking about the world, which allows us to distinguish between diplomats and non-diplomats doing diplomat-like things? The question is crucial. If, as some have suggested, it is the pragmatic and almost amoral world view of the diplomat (seeing the world in shades of grey) that allows them to mitigate international conflict, what happens when international actors with less morally flexible world views (e.g. NGOs, seeing the world in black and white) multiply? These are questions for another blog, but which show up the lack of intellectual rigour behind the invention of new “kinds” of diplomacy. Meanwhile, let’s be done with these “new diplomacies”.

8 thoughts on “Stop Inventing “New Diplomacies”

  1. I find this topic very interesting. In fact, I’m thinking on focusing my PhD dissertation on the issue of the subject matter of diplomacy. All these new diplomacies, and also non Western or pre-post Westphalian diplomacies are essentially different from each other? Is it the “new” diplomacy, or non-state diplomacy just qualifications of the word “diplomacy”? If diplomacy is considered to be an action (doing something to achieve whatever goal), does its meaning change depending on who is performing the action? If so, in which ways? How ngo diplomacy is different from state diplomacy, for instance? If not, then what is the content of “diplomacy”? Anyway, I’m just starting to explore the subject and any suggestions you could give me would be highly appreciated.

    • Lina, im glad you found the blog interesting. Sorry for the delay in replying. I suspect that diplomatic studies all too often ducks the question of what Diplomacy is. Is an NGO activist participating in international affairs automatically a diplomat, or only if she is doing so in a “diplomatic way” or with a “diplomatic mindset or worldview “? If the latter, what are “diplomatic ways and world views”? It’s all kind of important if we want to judge the impact of the intrusion of non-diplomats into international relations. But above all else, we really must introduce some intellectual rigour into all this!

  2. When the term “diplomacy” is applied to an activity, always ask “what is diplomatic about it? Why do we/you feel the need to use the term here?”

    Also, in one’s own thinking about diplomacy, always ask are you identifying it by who does it or by what is being done?

    I do think the term is in danger of disappearing in the sense of being conceptually and analytically useful, and I think scholarship has contributed greatly to this on the lines that you suggest. The extent to which this development is a good or bad thing, however, is difficult to answer.

    • Absolutely Paul. You won’t be surprised that I agree wholeheartedly. This is where I think your concept of a diplomatic way of being or life form could be really useful. Also for thinking about what happens when actors who do not share this Lebensform get on the stage. We must thrust Wittgenstein to the heart of diplomatic studies (next to Hedly Bull!)

  3. I can see the distinction and agree very much that eg “digital diplomacy” is simply diplomacy using digital means. Interesting to think of warfare as “military diplomacy” i.e. the pursuit of political objectives by military means. I’ve always thought of myself as a lawyer, whose duty is to get the best for his client whatever views he might have about the client’s innocence or morals.
    What I am not sure about is the fixation which some people have about diplomacy being the preserve of States. An NGO like Greenpeace is a campaigning body, but a group like E3G I would argue is using diplomacy. And funding a campaigning NGO can itself be a tool of public diplomacy.

    • Thanks for the comments Tim. I would actually talk about both Warfare and diplomacy as components of strategy, in pursuit of policy objectives (rather than if warfare as “military strategy@). I do not object to talking about non-governmental actors acting as diplomats, but if the concept of diplomacy is to retain conceptual content, we have to be intellectually rigorous about what it means for a non-governmental actor to be a diplomat.

  4. Hi Shaun, just to say, thank you again for a blog post that provoked a lot of reactions and a useful discussion. For those interested, here is my reply: https://www.diplomacy.edu/blog/would-real-diplomacy-please-stand
    I have two suggestions: a) to distinguish between the profession and the practice of diplomacy and b) to look at the purpose of declaring a new diplomacy (reaction to empirical evidence, attention to specific practices and tools, and expressions of aspirations for a better world).
    And here is, of course, Shaun’s reaction: http://www.shaunriordan.com/?p=505 What I think moves this debate forward is the suggested focus on agency, process, substance.

    • Hi Katharina, it was my pleasure to kick off the debate – colleagues will tell you I love to provoke. That said, I think this is an important debate, and centres on what it means to be a diplomat ir “do diplomacy”. Let’s keep it going!

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