How International Law Really Works – And Why It Matters


When I first joined the Foreign Office, a venerable legal adviser gave me sound advice on international law. He told me never to ask what I could do under international law, because the answer would be nothing. Rather I should tell him what I wanted to do, and he would compose me a legal justification. However, if I wanted to commit genocide, I needed to give him an extra week’s notice as that would be more complicated. This was not just diplomatic black humour. It was legal advisers in the British foreign office who subsequently constructed the legal justification for the NATO bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. There is, however, a more important point about how international law functions, and what that means for diplomacy.


Neither the realists, who think that international law does not exist, nor the liberals, who think it an amplified version of domestic law, really understand how international law functions. Hedley Bull’s concept of the international community, to which countries want to belong, captured it much better, as those who have done diplomacy understand. I have yet to encounter a government that asks its officials what international law says that it should do. Rather the government establishes the actions that national interest dictate, and then seeks advice from its officials and diplomats how those actions can be made to appear to accord with international law. Governments are not concerned with obeying international as much as with appearing to do so. Although this may appear unduly cynical, and betraying an amorality almost equivalent to that of the realists, in fact this way in which international law functions does provide a significant limitation on what governments can do.


The Russian invasion of the Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine provide an example. Although much western media tends to portray Putin as an authoritarian dictator who ruthlessly pursues Russian interests without thought for international law or human rights, this is not altogether true. Putin has his own image of himself as a moral actor, however much we may disagree, and of Russia as a major international player. Although he may not be shy of the ruthless pursuit of what he perceives as Russia’s interests, he wants to do so with at least the appearance of obeying international law. The Crimea was secured by Russian forces without insignia at the “request of local people”. The Crimea was annexed only after a referendum voted in favour of it becoming part of Russia. Putin repeatedly denied the presence of Russian regular forces in eastern Crimea. We may know this is all a charade, but it was important for Putin to appear to be behaving with at least some kind of international legality, in this case calling on the principle of self-determination (which we ourselves had used not long before to justify the independence of Kosovo). This need for the appearance of legality constrained what Putin was able or willing to do in the Ukraine. Although most military experts believe that the Russian army would have easily and quickly over run the whole of the Ukraine, Putin was unwilling to do so. To have done so would have put Russia outside the international community, and destroyed any pretence of international legality in Russian foreign policy.


There are some important points here for how we do diplomacy in the 21st-century. Firstly, we must think very hard before expelling any state from the community of nations. Once a government feels itself outside that the community, it no longer needs to maintain the pretence of obeying international law. At that point the self constraint which international law encourages disappears, and the country becomes a more dangerous and unpredictable international actor. Conversely, there is much to be said for bringing countries within the international community wherever possible. I have argued in a previous blog that we should do this with North Korea. Once North Korea feels itself a full member of the international community, and its diplomats are socialised into the international community of diplomats, the incentives will increase for appearing to behave legally. While this might not get rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (which is in any case in part a response to the incoherence of western policy) it could discourage their use. Secondly we should accept that the functioning of international law is messy, far from consistent and subtle. We should not obsess about its rigid application lest we exclude more countries from its embrace.


This may have particular application in cyberspace. This is the subject for another blog. However, at present we confront the risk of cyberspace developing as a Hobbesian world of all at information warfare with all (not to mention other forms of cyber warfare and cyber espionage). One of the objections to negotiating protocols or norms of behaviour in cyberspace is that you cannot know if a country is obeying them, and that there are many international actors you cannot trust. However, if we see international norms and protocols as social constructs, rather than rigid legal systems, which countries want to be seen to be following, we might make better progress. If Russia’s or China’s (or the US’) behaviour in cyberspace is seen as just as an important element in their pretence to international legality as their behaviour in the real world, it could serve to constrain that behaviour. As ever in diplomacy, the outcome is not perfect, but it might just be good enough.


The EU is Wasting Money on Strategic Communication



The EU has announced that it will provide an extra €1 million funding per annum to the East Stratcom Unit. The Unit was established in 2015 to counter fake news and hybrid information warfare emerging from Russia. The additional funding is a waste of EU money, and shows only the extent to which the EU does not understand the fake news issue or how to counter it. The East Stracom Unit has achieved little, and will achieve little more with the extra money. What the EU needs to do is to develop effective public diplomacy strategies. But that looks a long way off, even if the EU can bring itself to understand the concept of public diplomacy.


First let us dispose of this nonsense about strategic communications. It is another one of these buzz terms, like nation branding, which enable its a proponent to make good money as consultants, but is no more than snake oil. There seems to be a general view at the moment that by putting the term strategic in front of a noun you somehow create something deep and profound. But strategy implies agreed objective or preferred outcomes which the strategy is designed to implement. This is not true of any aspect of EU external policy, and especially not true of EU policy toward Russia and the east. For example, the EU has no agreed outcome for it sanctions against Russia, other than the unrealistic withdrawal of Russia from the Crimea. Given that this is not going to happen, it is hard to see what the sanctions are designed to do, other than punish Russia and possibly lead to political or economic collapse. It is hard to see how this outcome would benefit the EU. It is also difficult to discern any deeper EU objective in Russia, other than the surreal hope that it will one-day convert itself into a European post modern and democratic state. Given that the EU has no agreed objectives or preferred outcomes for its policy towards Russia, there can be no strategy to achieve them, and talk of strategic communication is therefore nonsense.

Fake news word tag cloud. 3D rendering, blue variant.

Of course, in reality, strategic communication is no more than propaganda, or in this case counterpropaganda against fake news, by another name. Calling counterpropaganda strategic communication makes it sound better, but no more credible to its intended audience. The EU appears not to have heard of the phenomenon of echo chambers, whereby people listen only to the news and views with which they agree. It is the echo chambers, reinforced by social media and the algorithms that drive them, which make fake news so powerful. There is an illusion in Europe that we are credible because we are European, and presumedly because we are nice guys. This European discourse that we are reasonable and correct, and that this will be recognised by others, no longer cuts the mustard in the 21st-century. European values and ideas are being contested by alternative cultures and histories across the globe. They are no longer considered universal by much of the world’s population. The challenge is to the universality of European values combined with echo chamber effect poses major, possibly insurmountable, problems for the EU’s East Stratcom unit. Promoting European values and ideas in a multipolar world of echo chambers requires long-term engagement, dialogue and debate, not the unidirectional monologue of strategic communication.


In short, the EU is no longer trusted because it is the EU. The counterpropaganda of the East Stratcom unit will be credible only to those already inclined to doubt the fake news it is trying to contest. Those inclined to believe Russia’s fake news will see the outpourings of the Stratcom unit as merely the Europeans’ own version of fake news. As I have argued in a previous blog, this becomes one of the major problems of 21st-century diplomacy, and in particular public diplomacy: how to break down the echo chambers which are increasingly being reinforced by the algorithms driving social media. The challenge for diplomats is how do you get to those who disagree with you. If you cannot reach them, you have no chance of convincing them to change their mind. On the other hand, there is little point in expending large sums of money simply to reach those who are already inclined to agree with you. The EU’s decision to reinforce the Stratcom unit rather than invest in effective public diplomacy suggests that it has little idea about the problem, let alone the solution. Strategic Communication needs effective prior Public Diplomacy to be credible. But the propagandist nature of Strategic Communication undermines Public Diplomacy.

We Need to Talk About Algorithms


Algorithms are becoming increasingly important to diplomacy in the 21st-century. Yet few diplomats understand them, and even fewer understand their implications for the theory and practice of diplomacy. In this blog I will look at them in two particular contexts: geopolitical analysis and public diplomacy.


The value of big data in the analysis and of likely future developments is evermore touted by artificial intelligent experts. The private sector is already making extensive use of big data in market and product analysis. Different approaches to predictive and prescriptive analysis are being developed. It is inevitable that governments too will increasingly rely on big data analysis to understand geopolitical trends and the reactions to their policy initiatives. The latter could be a particularly tempting solution to the challenges of evaluating the impact of public diplomacy. However, there are two problems: more information does not always make for better analysis; and big data analysis depends on algorithms which the users of the analytical product may not understand.


When I worked in Beijing I recall being invited to the Political Section of the US Embassy to exchange views on where China was going after Tianmen Square. It was a depressing place. Concerned that the Chinese would be spying on them, there were no windows and no natural light. However, what it lacked in natural light it made up in the enormous quantities of data about economic and agricultural development from across different Chinese provinces. The quantity of data was exponentially greater than what we collected in the British Embassy. However, I was not, and am not, convinced that it led to better analysis. Drowning in detail, many of the American political officers could not see the big picture or broader trends, which is what both of our political masters needed. Over the years I have been in many discussions about what makes a good political analyst. I have concluded that it is the knowledge of the subject that comes from years of experience, that gives the analyst an instinctive grasp of what she is looking at, combined with a capacity for self criticism which enables her constantly to question her own conclusions. Excessive data is not good for either.


It is clear that the vast quantities of data available on the Internet are vastly too great for any human analyst, or group of analyst, to manage. This is where algorithms come in. Algorithms allow the data to be scanned for key trends or indicators relating to current and future development. Ironically, the first effort at this kind of big data analysis work carried out by the KGB in the early 1980s. Concerned that President Reagan was preparing a first strike attack against the Soviet union, KGB Rezidenturas around the world were instructed to collect information with certain key factors being identified as predicting an attack. The failure of this exercise, which nearly led to nuclear war, should serve as a warning for big data advocates today. KGB had in effect created their own algorithm, although without the technology that accompanies it tod. The problem was that the algorithm was biased towards the prejudices and presuppositions of those who designed it. It remains a key problem.


Someone has to design the algorithm. The way in which the algorithm is designed and structured will affect analytical output from scanning the data. Algorithm design and construction is highly technical. How many diplomats understand how algorithms function or how they are designed? If you do not know the basis on which the algorithm is designed, and what epistemological biases are operating in that design, you do not know how reliable the output is. Most policy officers, and government ministers, relying on the big data analysis for their policy decisions will see the algorithm only as a magical black box. Because it is not human, they will regard it as more objective, over-looking the subjective element in its design. They will have excessive confidence in its conclusions.


It is not only a question of accuracy. One of the major problems in policy-making is the phenomenon of groupthink. Once a particular analytical or policy framework has been established within a group, no one is inclined to question it and it will continue even when evidence from the world contradicts it (I have written previously about this in the context of the former Yugoslavia). The danger is that big data analysis, dependent on its algorithms, will reinforce the epistemological framework created when the algorithm was designed. In other words the use of algorithms in big data analysis could reinforce the phenomenon of groupthink.


Challenging existing analytical frameworks is a major problem in foreign policy making. Foreign ministries, in my experience, are really not very good at sitting down and questioning their analytical assumptions about the world. They are no better at questioning the policy that is constructed on the base of that analytical framework. This is why the US in particular has developed the technique of red teaming to question assumptions and prejudices. The term comes from war gaming during the Cold War when the red team was the Soviet Union (and the blue team was NATO). The task of a red team is to challenge all the assumptions behind the analysis and decisions in a particular policy area. It tests the analysis or policy recommendation to the point of destruction. It gives policymakers a better idea of how good the analysis is or how resilient is the policy. The issue becomes how can we red team algorithms. Do we need analysts capable of understanding the inside of the algorithms, or do we need to develop algorithms that themselves can red team other algorithms? If we cannot find effective ways by which analysts and policy makers can challenge the algorithms behind big data analysis, we are handing our destiny to those who designed the algorithms.


Incidentally, this has happened before. One of the causes of the global financial crisis (or at least a major contributory factor) was the dependence of investment funds and banks on complex financial models. The models were designed by PhDs in maths and physics (“quants”) who knew little about the real economy. The executives who took the key investment decisions understood little, if anything, about how the mathematical models were designed or the epistemological biases they contained (this is captured when Kevin Spacey’s market trader in Margin Call complains he can’t understand the data on a screen). We could be in danger of creating a similar disjunct in Diplomacy.


There is one further point worth bearing in mind about the use of algorithms and big data analysis. Algorithms by their very nature must be online. They must be integrated with the Internet where the data is to be found that they are analysing. However, this makes them inherently vulnerable to cyber attack. Redesigning algorithms online, changing the assumptions on which they are operating or the kind of trends they are looking for in the data, could be an effective way of undermining a rival’s analytical and policy-making capacities. This suggests that algorithmic big data analysis will not replace human analysts, who will still be needed to ensure that the algorithmic output makes sense when compared to the real world.


Algorithms also pose problems for public and digital diplomacy. Foreign ministries have, with more or less enthusiasm, adopted social media as a valuable way of getting messages across to foreign publics. There are various problems with this. The obsessive focus on social media can result in success being measured in terms of likes and retweets rather than an analysis of impact on foreign publics. More important may be the role of algorithms in social media. All major social media companies have developed highly sophisticated algorithms to ensure that we receive the posts or tweets (and adverts!) that will most interest us. They will recommend to us friends or followers that are most likely to fit in with our existing social network. Facebook, for example, is unlikely to ever suggested a Donald Trump supporter as a friend for me. As has been frequently noted, this increases the echo chamber effect whereby we only exchange views with or receive information from people with whom we already agree. Over time, the effective operation of social media algorithms mean that the echo chambers get ever smaller and ever better defined. The impact is worsened by the growing number of adults who get their news from social media (Pew reports that 67% of US adults get news from social media, 20% often). The problem for public diplomacy is that if you are using social media to get your message across you are only going to reach those who already agree with you. It also means that agile non-state social media users can associate themselves with more popular causes to undermine a country’s public diplomacy. We may have seen that to some extent with the Catalan crisis, where Catalan separatists have been able to identify themselves with antiestablishment, anticapitalist and pro human rights operators on the Internet. On the one hand this has meant their successful entry into self reinforcing echo Chambers among these groups. On the other hand it makes it very difficult for the Spanish government to challenge the image been put across of an authoritarian Spain. The social media make it hard for the Spanish government to break into these echo chambers.


The fragmenting of foreign public opinion into ever more restricted echo chambers questions the entire purpose of public diplomacy. Whereas in the past diplomats could engage with media in a foreign country knowing that they could reach the majority of the population, now no such assumptions can be made. As public opinion fragments so does public diplomacy. More sophisticated digital diplomats try to get round this by using hashtags and other ways of reaching out across the echo chambers. But this is not guaranteed to work either. As Ilan Manor recently pointed out ( social media algorithms are increasingly personalising what we receive, so that the context in which each individual receives her posts is now very different. This shapes the context in which information put out by government is received by individuals, and how those individuals interpret it. It makes a great deal of difference if I see a government or embassy post on Facebook immediately after a heartwarming clip of dog or a heart rending clip of the wreckage of Raqaa. This suggests that future diplomats will have to be far more aware of how social media algorithms function, and ways of gaming them. This applies equally to search machines, where far right groups in the past have shown their ability to game how they work to ensure that material comes up first on Google searches.


The upshot of these examples from geopolitical analysis and public diplomacy suggests that tomorrow’s diplomats must be much more aware of how algorithms work and better trained in making use of them. This is all the more important given the apparent Russian success with Bot factories in placing their interpretations or events in western social media.

How Would a Diplomat Deal With North Korea


North Korea has launched ballistic missiles passing over Japan before crashing into the sea. It claims to have successfully tested a thermonuclear device. Western politicians and media have responded with more less coherent outrage. Trump calls Kim Jongun “little rocket man”, denigrated the diplomatic efforts of his own Secretary of State and claimed there is only one way of dealing with N Korea (although he declines to say what it is. Nobody appears to have an effective answer, other than to demand that China (and/or Russia) fix it. This blog explores what a “diplomatic approach” might look like, and what the policy implications could be. By “diplomatic approach”, I do not mean what the media and most commentators mean when they talk about a diplomatic solution, which seems to amount to little more than any solution that does not involve bombing N Korea.


In recent blogs I have focused on what is diplomacy, or more precisely, what is it like to be a diplomat. Is there a way of being in or interacting with the world that is peculiarly diplomatic? If such discussions are to have real value, other than being a pleasant intellectual game, they should be able to offer clues to a “diplomatic way” of thinking about international issues or crises. In this case, they out to be able to offer clues to what a diplomatic way of thinking about the N Korea missile crisis would look like, and the implications it could have for policy making.


In previous blogs I have tried to identify the attributes shared by diplomats which might constitute a diplomatic way of looking at and engaging with the world: a diplomatic life-form or Lebensform. These include the ability to see and understand the linkages between the different issues and actors; the empathy that allows diplomats to see the issues through the eyes of other actors, including rivals and even enemies; the tendencies to see the world in shades of grey, rather than black and white, and manage acceptable outcomes, rather than insist on optimal solutions; and their socialisation into an international community of diplomats that allows them to maintain the conversation when others can’t. Given these attributes of a diplomatic life-form, and I do not claim the list is either exhaustive or definitive, what would a diplomatic approach to N Korea look like?


The key elements will include:

– Identify all the key actors and the relationships between them;
– Avoid facile moral judgements on the actors, or moral outrage;
– Analyse the situation through the eyes of the other actors, trying to understand their objectives, motivations and red-lines;
– Focus on managing an acceptable outcome rather than insisting on pursuing an optimal solution;
– Attempt to socialise all actors, as far as possible, within the international community of diplomats (and by extension within the international community of states).

We can identify the key actors: Russia, the US, Japan, S.Korea, China and N.Korea (neither the EU or the UK are relevant, and should learn from Chirac’s injunction to the Eastern Europeans at the time of the Iraq War: know when to keep quiet). To avoid taxing my readers’ patience, the rest of the blog will focus on China, Russia and N Korea.

Sultan Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Mu'Adzam Shah of Malaysia Visits China

Seen through Beijing’s eyes, China’s priority is clear: keep Korea divided. China knows that any reunification in the foreseeable future will result in a pro-American Korea. Mao Zedong sacrificed 150,000 Chinese soldiers, including his own son, to keep the Americans away from the River Yalu in the 1950s. No Chinese leader can let them back, even less so one like Xi Jinping who is looking to build his own personality cult. The need to keep Korea divided means that China needs to maintain the Kim Jungun regime. It cannot risk regime collapse, which the US and South Koreans would use to force unification on their terms. This limits the pressure that Beijing is willing or able to put on the Kim regime. It also makes it reluctant to take on the risks of regime change. Kim knows this, and knows the leeway it gives him. US insistence therefore that China can control the Kim regime and needs only the will to do so, misses the point. China would no doubt like more control over N Korea. But a willful nuclear N Korea is better than no N Korea at all.


It sometimes seems, certainly from the western media, that the N Korean regime is mentally unstable, and beyond the pale of the international community. It is certainly murderous, though primarily of its own people. But it is not necessarily irrational. It seems capable of calculating effectively its room for manoeuvre in Beijing. Its overriding objectives are survival and international recognition. The former requires it to develop nuclear weapons, but not to use them. It has learnt well the lessons from Saddam Hussein (didn’t have nuclear weapons – overthrown by the west and killed) and Qadafi (collaborated with the west to dismantle his nuclear programme – overthrown by the west and killed). Possession of nuclear weapons is the regime’s best guarantee that the US will not move against them. However, using them would be suicidal inviting a massive counter-strike. The constant test flights and other provocations serve both to remind Washington of their military capabilities and as a cry for attention. Apart from survival, Kim wishes to be treated as another head of state. This is an opportunity.


In many respects Russia is the wild card in the pack. It no longer has any real interests in N Korea (even when the Soviet Union had ideological interests there, Stalin left the fighting, and the dying, to the Chinese) and no real skin in the game. However, Russia’s involvement in N Korea serves three main purposes for Putin. It again demonstrates that Russia is a global power, which must be taken into account in resolving international issues. It challenges China’s position in Pyongyang offering Kim an alternative patron, but more importantly offering a bargaining chip for China’s growing presence in Russia’s own backyard. And it tweaks Washington’s tail.


Against this analysis, what policies or strategy would a “diplomatic approach” to N Korea suggest:

– Make clear to China that the West does not support Korean unification and that any collaboration with China over N Korea is based on keeping N Korea divided. Liberals and neo-cons would argue this is morally repugnant for condemning the people of N Korea to life under a repressive regime. But the West’s record of regime change has not been one of unblemished success. Would inadvertently provoking a nuclear war be less repugnant?

– Learn to live with a N Korean nuclear bomb. Nuclear proliferation has been a steady process since 1945, yet the US remains the only country to have used them. It is difficult to argue that N Korea is less stable than Pakistan. In any case, it is difficult to identify policies that would remove N Korea’s nuclear capability without unacceptable risks.

– Mitigate the threat of N Korea’s nuclear weapons by socialising N Korea into the international community and its diplomats into the diplomatic community. The more N Korea and its diplomats are integrated in this way, the more likely that N Korea and its leaders will want to seek to behave as normal members of these communities. In the past, diplomacy has succeeded in socialising revolutionaries from the Soviet Union and China to Libya. But this means talking to them and spending time with them. Expelling N Korean envoys as a punishment for the nuclear programme, as Spain did recently, is worse than pointless. It is counter-productive.

– This is not to argue that the diplomatic approach is always the right one, or superior to other approaches. It can be argued that Chamberlain’s appeasement policies in 1937-9 embodied the diplomatic approach, and was not exactly successful. Rather it is to argue that if there is a way of being, or if seeing the world, that is diplomatic, then this ought to generate a diplomatic approach to international problems (which extends just talking rather than fighting).


The Real New Diplomacies – Emerging in the East



Both diplomacy and international relations are European constructs, products of the specific contingencies of European history. They dominate global governance not because they are universal concepts, but because of the domination firstly of European powers and then the US. As US hegemony declines and a more genuinely multipolar world system emerges, will alternative approaches to diplomacy and global governance also emerge?


The concepts of diplomacy and international relations emerge from the series of hegemonic wars that dominated European history from the 16th century onwards. A series of would be European hegemons, from Spain and France to Germany, attempted to establish their domination of the European continent. Each one was supported by other European powers balancing off against the would be hegemon, supported by Britain in its role as an offshore balancer. The outcome was what was called the Westphalian system of a series of states of theoretically equal status. Diplomats and diplomacy in their European sense emerge as a means of managing the relations between these states. Much has been written recently suggesting that the decline in the power and relevance of states and their governments would undermine this Westphalian system. But these obituaries of the state may be premature. As long as security remains crucial, whether in the real world or cyberspace, governments and their officials will remain the most important, if not the only, players in international relations.


The real threat to the Westphalian international relations system may come from elsewhere. With the possibilities of territorial expansion within Europe limited by the nature of the European geopolitical system, European powers increasingly looked to expand outside Europe. The continual innovation in technology and management, driven by the perpetual conflict and competition on the European continent, gave the European powers significant advantage over non-European powers. The upshot was the growth of European imperialism, whereby increasing number of territories in the world became European colonies. Those countries able to resist colonisation nevertheless had to accept the European approach to managing international relations. Thus Imperial China created a Foreign Ministry (总理 衙门 – Zongli Yamen) not because of any desire to develop it is capacity for international relations, but because it was forced to do so by the western imperialist powers. In short, European ideas of diplomacy and international relations were not accepted by the rest of the world but imposed on them, first by European imperialism and then by US hegemony.


The interesting question is whether as US hegemony declines and the importance of Europe itself continues to reduce, the rest of the world will continue to operate an international and diplomatic system designed to deal with the contingencies of the European continent, or whether other more indigenous approaches to managing global government will emerge. An interesting case study will be China.


In what we now call China one group, the Han, successfully achieved hegemony in the way that no European power was able to do. Thus, rather than consist of independent powers in a continual struggle for power and influence, China became a single empire with no immediate rivals. When unified and successful (China periodically fell into chaos before a new dynasty emerged), the Chinese Empire encountered no other state of even approximately similar wealth and power. There was no question of managing relations between states of equal status. Rather China constructed a tributary system radiating out from China itself. This would be better understood if China’s name 中国 was more correctly translated into English as the country in the centre rather than the Middle Kingdom. The terms of the tributary relationship were not among equals. Countries or peoples accepted their position in the Chinese system in exchange for the favours and benefits offered to them by the Chinese Emperor or the Chinese government. What the Chinese Emperor offered was always an expression of his greatness and generosity rather than obligation. This implies a very different mindset to the European one, both among the Chinese and among the subordinated members of their system. It explains the mutual incomprehension when George III sent Lord McCartney as a would be ambassador to the court of the Qianlong Emperor.


As noted above, the Chinese imperial government only created a Foreign Ministry under pressure from the Europeans. Since 1949, Chinese diplomats have been progressively socialised into the western system of diplomacy and international relations (with a brief pause during the Cultural Revolution), to the extent that many Western diplomats and commentators would regard them as essentially the same as any other diplomats. The question then becomes whether this acceptance of Western diplomatic norms and behaviour is genuine, or only skin deep and to the extent necessary to operate in a Western dominated international system. If the latter, is there any evidence of a more traditional Chinese approach to global governance emerging as US hegemony declines and the world evolves into a genuinely multipolar system. I would argue that there is some evidence of this in the world view which lied behind the One Belt One Route Strategy (OBOR – 一带一路).


The OBOR strategy offers infrastructure investment for those countries willing in effect to become parts of the Chinese system. The economic development projects foreseen along both the Maritime and Land roots are aimed essentially at increasing the economic influence of China and improving its economic performance. The infrastructure envisaged radiates out from China. Little if any is lateral between other countries. It seems that the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIDB – 亚投行) will similarly offer investment in development projects in exchange for acceptance of Chinese economic and political leadership. There appears, at last, to be some realisation of the political cost of China’s economic support. European leaders were divided over the recent OBOR summit, with wealthier western countries represented only at diplomatic level, whereas poorer eastern countries sent government ministers or even heads of government. India declined to attend at all, accusing China of neo-imperialism. But in doing so, it may have missed the point. Rather than neo-imperialism, OBOR (and the AIDB) may reflect a return to an older tributary form of diplomacy. By abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s low-key freeloader approach, relying on the US to provide global commons, Xi Jinping might be harking back both to the more assertive policies of Mao Zedong and the more traditional approaches of the Ming and Qing dynasties. In doing so, he may be replacing international relations with a more relational style of diplomacy where the status of states is not by definition equal, but in terms of their relationship to, and distance from, the country in the centre – 中国.

Sultan Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Mu'Adzam Shah of Malaysia Visits China

This is all very tentative and at an early stage of both analysis and development. However, there seems no inherent reason why non-European countries should continue to practice the style of international relations and diplomacy which grew out of Europe’s historical contingencies once European (including US) global hegemony has declined. If China feels able to develop, or return to, an approach built around the philosophical inheritance of Confucius and the practice of previous regimes and dynasties, there appears no reason why India and other Asian, or African, countries should not do the same. The reaction of those countries more embedded in European ways of thinking may depend on the political and economic benefits seen to accrue from participating in these new diplomacies. Indeed thinking of new diplomacies in terms of new approaches to global governance and management of international affairs based on alternative culture and historical experiences may prove a more interesting area of study than the new hyphenated diplomacies I complained about in an earlier blog (


What Is A Diplomat?


What is diplomacy or, more relevant, what is it like to be a diplomat? The question is important and lies at the heart of my discussion earlier in the summer with Katharina Hone about the plethora of new diplomacies. My objection to such a new or hyphenated diplomacies is not just the lack of intellectual rigour that most display (the inability, for example, to distinguish between agency, process and subject matter), but also the risk of emptying out the concept diplomacy. If everything is diplomacy then nothing is. One solution, favoured by more conservative colleagues, would be to argue that diplomacy is only done by government diplomats. But, given the irruption into international affairs of so many new state and non-state actors, this minimalist approach strikes me as unsustainable. Nevertheless, if we want to admit the possibility that some non-state actors maybe diplomats or do something we want to call diplomacy, then we must have a clear idea of what diplomacy is, what it is like to behave in a diplomat-like way. The answer may have important implications for how we do international relations the 21st century.


One approach is simply to list the activities undertaken by diplomats. Indeed Katharina tried this in her response to my rant against new diplomacies ( It is not a pointless task, not least because it reminds us of the continuities as well as the changes in what diplomats do. But it does not solve the problem, as pretty much all the things that diplomats do are also done by other actors whom we would not want to call diplomats (and who would not thank us if we did). Thus journalists and geopolitical risk companies collect and analyse political intelligence about foreign countries. Travel insurance companies and travel agents assist distressed citizens abroad. Corporations and lawyers negotiate international contracts and agreements. Lobbyists and public affairs companies seek to influence the decisions of foreign governments. CSR consultants and marketing companies seek to influence public opinion. Indeed the only diplomatic function that seems to belong exclusively to diplomats is representing their country abroad, which again restricts the concept of diplomat the government diplomats. Nor does it help to say that what distinguishes a diplomat is an accumulation of these functions. Very few diplomats perform all of them in a single posting, or even in any entire career.


The key question we need to answer is what is it about the activity of a non-state actor that would allow us to say they are behaving like a diplomat. To give a concrete example, I’ve recently been doing a lot of work on business diplomacy. I have argued that modern corporations have to analyse and manage geopolitical risk, engage with foreign governments and international organizations, and participate in multilevel regulatory networks. But even if they are doing all these things, are they doing them in a way that could be described as diplomatic? Or are they buying political reports from consultancies, employing lobbying companies to influence governments, appointing retired ambassadors to the boards of directors, using marketing companies to influence foreign public opinion and contracting security companies to protect their staff abroad? If business diplomacy is to survive as a subset of diplomacy it must be more than this. The same arguments apply, mutatis mutandi , to other would-be non-state actors (including different levels of subnational government – much so called city diplomacy seems to be more about tourist promotion than diplomacy).


An important aspect of diplomacy which we need to capture is its intentionality: diplomacy is a set of activities or processes aimed at achieving objectives. In the case of government diplomacy, diplomats seek to achieve the policy objectives laid down by the government. Diplomats (and diplomacy) do not necessarily seek to promote international peace and understanding, unless they are the policy objectives of the government. The role of Russian diplomats within hybrid warfare strategies may be seen as aiming to secure freedom of movement for their military colleagues. In 2003 British diplomats did not seek to avoid war with Iraq, but rather secure broader international support for launching it (not to mention Bismarck’s diplomacy in the 1860s). This intentionality of diplomacy links it with strategy (in its non-business school sense). The government decides policy objectives and diplomacy is one of the resources or practices available to be pulled together in a strategy to achieve them. A link to strategy and policy objectives is a necessary element in deciding if an activity counts as diplomacy. Non-governmental actors also have policy objectives and strategies to achieve them. If an activity is diplomatic, it must set itself within a strategy for securing policy objectives. Gastrodiplomacy without strategy is just lunch.


This raises an interesting question. If diplomacy must form part of a strategy to secure policy objectives, do all the activities of government diplomats qualify as “diplomatic”? While it is clear that political or public diplomacy (“engaging with foreign publics to generate a political and social environment favourable to specific policy proposals”) qualify, does consular protection or issuing visas? It is interesting that, in the British system at least, visa operations are often semi-independent from the rest of the embassy and staffed by Home Office officials. Tensions arise between diplomatic officers trying to encourage foreigners to visit and engage with Britain and immigration officers who often seem to be trying to keep them out. Consular protection is more complicated. Issuing an emergency passport or visiting an arrested citizen may be difficult to link to any broader diplomatic strategy. But to the extent that the government has laid down a policy objective relating to the protection of its citizens abroad and a strategy has been developed (implicitly or explicitly) to meet it, much of consular work is indeed diplomatic. A good consul, for example, will network as much as a political officer to ensure that he has the contacts that will enable him to help his fellow citizens when in distress.


But being part of a strategy to secure policy objectives is not a sufficient criterion of diplomatic activity. Warfare (cyber all real) and Geoeconomic tools are equally available to governments pursuit of policy objectives. We need something else. Paul Sharp’s concept of the diplomatic community (from his wonderful book “The Diplomatic Theory of International Relations”) may help in identifying what it is like to be to be a diplomat. Sharp argues that diplomats from whatever country have much in common with each other which allows them to function as diplomats. Diplomacy as an activity is a way of being in the world (Heidegger) or a life-form (Lebenform – Wittgenstein). Diplomats become socialised in certain ways of behaving and thinking which they share with other diplomats, but not necessary with other people including fellow nationals. This enables them to maintain the conversation with other diplomats including from hostile countries in a way that others, for example politicians, cannot. This way of being or life-form also shapes the policy recommendations they make and their approach to implementing strategies to secure policy objectives.


As a former diplomat, and with experience of dealing with theoretically hostile diplomats in the Cold War and the Balkans Wars, this approach makes intuitive sense. There is undoubtedly a camaraderie among diplomats from different countries, and a sense in which this distinguishes them from non-diplomats. Attitudes or ways of seeing the world shared within the diplomatic community includes a tendency towards realism and a tendency to see the world in shades of grey rather than black-and-white. Diplomats tend to be satisficers, looking for outcomes that are good enough, rather than maximisers insisting on optimal solutions. Indeed diplomats generally think in terms of managing international relations rather than resolving international problems. They prioritise long-term engagement rather than short-term wins. Unlike many traditional companies, who are focused on year end financial results, diplomats know, or think they know, that they are in it for the long term. Empathy, the ability to see the situation with the eyes of the other, including an enemy, is seen as a key quality.


These qualities and attitudes of professional diplomats (their life-form or Lebensform) may be essential to maintaining the diplomatic conversations that have a moderating impact on international relations. This shared diplomatic life-form allows diplomats even from hostile countries to talk to each other in a way that politicians and soldiers cannot, and can thus contribute to reducing conflict and increasing international understanding (thus peace and international understanding come back into diplomacy not as an objective but as a byproduct of the nature of the diplomatic community). However, the nature of the diplomatic life-form also causes problems. Wittgenstein argued that understanding the language requires participation in the language game underlining it (grasping the rules of the language game, social and cultural as well as linguistic). As Wittgenstein famously said, if a lion could talk I wouldn’t be able to understand it. This may explain why diplomats are so often accused of going native (the odd sensation as a diplomat that you are more trusted by other diplomats than by your own government). The politician confuses empathy with sympathy. The ambassador is seeking to explain the foreigner’s understanding of the situation to his government. The government thinks that he’s supporting the foreigner. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, if and diplomat could talk, a politician wouldn’t be able to understand her.


If diplomacy is a Lebensform or life-form or, more prosaically, a shared set of attitudes of ways of seeing and thinking about the world, it offers a way of deciding if different activities are diplomatic or if different actors are behaving like diplomats. I do not necessarily insist on the list of attitudes and characteristics above as being definitive (this is an area for investigation). But in principle any activity would be diplomatic if it meets two criteria: it is part of a broader strategy to secure policy objectives (whether set by state or non-state actors) and if it is being done in a diplomatic like way. Likewise an actor would be a diplomat if she was pursuing policy objectives as part of a broader strategy and doing so in a diplomatic like way. Returning to my earlier example of business diplomacy, it would not be sufficient that the company was gathering and analysing political information when negotiating with a foreign government. To be business diplomacy, the company would need to be doing so as part of a strategy to secure its objectives and in a diplomatic like way. Otherwise it is Public Affairs, lobbying or some other Business School inspired activity.


Thinking of diplomacy as a life-form raises another issue that may prove crucial in the 21st century. If there is a diplomatic way of being which, through seeing the world in shades of grey and satisficing , moderates and reduces international conflict and tension, what happens if an increasing number of new actors (state or non-state) do not share this life-form engage with international affairs. As already discussed, many companies focus on short-term wins rather than long-term engagement. Many NGOs definitely do see the world in black and white. They insist on optimal solutions rather than managing acceptable outcomes (one of my Accidental Diplomatist blogs recounts a, slightly, fictionalised example: ). As more of these new actors engage in international debates, will they become socialised into the diplomatic life-form (as were the diplomats of revolutionary regimes like the Soviet Union andChina)? Or will they retain their black and white views and their increased engagement in international affairs lead to greater volatility and more conflict. This may prove the major diplomatic challenge of the 21st century.


The True Lessons of the G20 Summit


The immediate reactions to last week’s G20 summit focused on the isolation of Donald Trump and particularly the 19+1 communique. But they have missed the deeper points: the bifurcation of international relations and who, if anyone, can fill the shoes of the US. The actual G20 communique is, of course, of little importance in itself. These documents are confected in such a way as to include everyone’s pet themes, but in such a way as to cause no offence. Countries sign them with little if any intention to carry through the commitments (e.g. Russia on climate change, China on education). The document’s shelf life is so short that no-one notices. Which makes it all the more surprising Trump couldn’t find a meaningless form of words to sign up to.


Turning to more the more significant aspects, there were two very different kinds of activities going on at the summit. On the one hand, there was the summit itself. The G20 met to tackle a broad range of global issues such as climate change. I have argued elsewhere that this amounts to the New International Security Agenda ( key issues include climate change, poverty, pandemic disease, financial stability etc. Although governments remain key players in this agenda, they cannot resolve these issues on their own. Collaboration must extend beyond governments to a broad range of state and non-state actors, including international organisations, NGOs and companies. This is the Networked world of multi-stakeholder diplomacy. This agenda provided the issues for the G20 communique (although, as suggested above, getting your pet issue name-checked in the communique doesn’t amount to much, unless you use it as a pretext for pushing on hard).


The second kind of activity were the series of bilateral meetings held in the margins of the G20, for example the much touted meeting between Trump and Putin. Although global issues may have been name checked (“please, President Trump, think again about Paris”), these meetings focused on more traditional geopolitical issues: N Korea, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, interference in US elections. These are issues diplomats a hundred years ago would recognise. These are also issues where states remain the main players, in large part because they still deploy the greatest capacity to apply violence. Interestingly, the cyber world, and in particular cybersecurity, looks to reinforce rather than undermine the role of the state.


Ironically, and not altogether politically correctly, the geopolitical bilaterals were more significant than the G20 plenaries (perhaps symbolised by the presence of Ivanka Trump in the US seat in the plenary). This is not to say that the global issues of the New International Security Agenda are not important. They are existential for human kind. But they exist in an almost parallel universe from the geopolitical agenda. Say whatever they say, most governments give priority to the geopolitical agenda because its issues have the greater short term impact. The multistakeholder and multilevel diplomacy associated with global issues contrasts strongly with the bilateral diplomacy of the geopolitical agenda (and it is bilateral – multilateral approaches emerge from bilateral ground work). Geopolitical issues distract from, and undermine dealing with, the global issues.


This bifurcation between the two agendas risks tearing diplomacy apart, with the result that neither agenda ultimately is dealt with. The challenge for diplomacy is to evolve structures and techniques that allow both agendas to be tacked together, and in ways that are self-reinforcing. Ironically it may be the Russians that point the way: what is hybrid Warfare but the application and techniques of the Networked Age to the geopolitical agenda?


The other significant aspect was the vacuum left by the lack of US leadership. I wrote some time ago about the schoolbus whose US driver got off at the last stop (see the home page to this blog). But Trump has accelerated the process. Apart from driving this lesson home, the G20 Summit was an audition for those aspiring to fill the leadership vacuum. None convinced. China has too many enemies and rivals on its borders (see its latest confrontation with India in Bhutan), and is not trusted (even by the Europeans). The EU is more divided than the current bromance between Macron and Merkel suggests (how long will Merkel put up with Macron’s Napoleonic pretensions?). It is any case militarily weak, and talk about a new European defence union will change little in the medium term. Russia, of course, is economically too weak, as is India. Randall Schweller’s prediction (in his excellent “Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple”) of an entropic world system of continual, and increasing, low-level conflict and disorder, looks ever more on the money. Welcome back to the 16th Century.


Diplomats in a Networked Age


Tom Fletcher has launched another thought provoking blog on the world ( But I wonder, if this time, his enthusiasm for new technology ( has got carried away. The networked world he describes, where new technologies undermine the power of the state and empower citizens, for good or bad, to shape their world directly, may be further away than he thinks.


The blog makes a series of important claims: “technology gives the prospect of the world’s population having an instant, global and unfiltered means of communicating, of consuming information, of forming opinions, preferences and communities”; that this could be a force for global development, but also leave us feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable to corporate algorithms; and that as a system based on states and hierarchies weakens, the role of Diplomats becomes more important. Against this background, Tom sets three challenges for diplomacy: using social media in massive campaigns of influence; thinking about the implications of AI, not just for diplomacy itself but more generally for our societies; and digitising service delivery. It is a fun vision, but raises a number of problems.


Firstly, it exaggerates the extent to which ICT is undermining the authority of the nation state. This was a common position some years ago (Manuel Castells and Parag Khanna have much to answer for). But since then the nation state has made something of a come back. It is not only that authoritarian states like China and Russia increasingly control cyberspace within their sovereign territory, putting the globality of the internet at risk. Developments in cyberspace, and especially cybersecurity, are reinforcing the role of the state. Recent cyberattacks ( make all too clear the limits of technical perimeter defences, against even relatively unsophisticated attacks. Discovering intruders once they are inside a system is not easy (on average it takes companies over 150 days to realise that their systems have been penetrated). The most effective form of cyber defence in the future may be the penetration of the computers of would be hackers to explore their capabilities and intentions. Governments already do this (Ben Buchanan’s “The Cybersecurity Dilemma” explores some of the IR implications of these defensive penetrations). But companies may lack both the technical capacity and legal cover for hacking potential hackers. They may end up as dependent on government for security in Cyberspace as they are in physical space.


Secondly, although it does mention the risks of corporate algorithms, it may underestimate the extent to which algorithms already mediate our online interactions. Far from an “unfiltered” means of communication and interaction, our interactions are shaped and limited by the algorithms that drive platforms like Facebook, Google or Twitter. These algorithms reinforce echo chambers, distort the information (news) we receive and insure that our personal networks consist of the like-minded (and similarly prejudiced – Facebook will never suggest I be friends with a Trump supporter). Some lobby groups already know how to manipulate these algorithms (e.g. the Neo-Nazis who gamed Google to give prominence to holocaust denial webpages). We may already have lost this game. Liberal idealists may want to fight against the algorithms to secure the unfiltered communications they yearn after. But it is not clear why diplomats would want to. Algorithms should matter to them, whether using then to analyse big data or understanding how they shape foreign public opinions (even learning how to game them), but as part of broader diplomatic strategies in pursuit of policy objectives.


This raises the main problem (and one I seem to be banging on about too much at the moment). Nowhere does Tom say what he means by diplomats and diplomacy. At one stage he seems to mean government diplomats. But it is difficult to see why government diplomats are particularly well placed to help us manage the challenges of cyberspace (“shape debates on how to protect our basic human needs in the Networked Age?”), especially if the role of state’s and governments is being undermined. If by “diplomacy” he means something that goes beyond government diplomats, then he needs to say what it is, what it is like to be a diplomat and why this is relevant to meeting the challenges of a “Networked Age” and managing AI in our societies. It is the same point I’ve made on “new diplomacies”: if we want to extend the concepts of diplomat and diplomacy beyond governments without emptying the concept of meaning we need to have some idea of what makes a government employee a “diplomat”.


I will conclude where I agree with Tom. Cyberspace poses a series of challenges to governments and their diplomats, and so far they have not done very well. It is not just a question of improving services to citizens, although that certainly needs to be done. But it also needs intellectual rigour. We must not confuse the better use of digital tools in pursuit of broader diplomatic strategies with the use of diplomacy to tackle the problems arising in cyberspace. If Tom is right that now we need more diplomacy, it is because the techniques and mindset of diplomats can be successfully adapted to managing the latter.

Gastronomic Diplomacy Without Strategy Is … Lunch


Katharine Hone ( and Charles Crawford ( have both responded to my earlier blog on multiplying “new diplomacies” ( This blog is by way of reply, and of clarifying some issues in my original blog. If I focus more on Katharine it is because I largely agree with Charles.


Using hyphenated diplomacies is not necessarily unhelpful, provided we don’t turn them into separate diplomacies in their own right. Thus referring to public or digital diplomacy can sometimes be helpful in limiting what we are talking about, provided we understand that both form part of a broader diplomatic strategy to secure policy goals. They are not ends in themselves (sadly too often today that is what they become). Likewise, distinguishing between economic (governments negotiating the frameworks for international trade), commercial (governments promoting their companies) and business (companies acting like diplomats – if they do – see below) diplomacy can be useful. But not, as Charles says, if the terminology becomes too rigid.


Charles is right that non-governmental actors in international relations are nothing new. Nor are diplomats capable of networking with a broad range of governmental and non-governmental actors (see the diaries of Ivan Maisky, Soviet Ambassador in London in the 1930s). But two developments have increased the importance of such non-governmental actors: new information and communications technologies (ICT), which have enhanced their capacities both to gather information and influence decision-making; and the emergence of a global issues agenda including climate change, internet governance etc. Diplomats do have to interact with non-state actors, whether NGOs or companies, more than in the past. But this does not make such non-state actors diplomats.


Katharina’s response is thoughtful, but unfortunately repeats much of the confusion I complained of in my original blog. Firstly it confuses different kinds of new diplomacy. I would argue there are three kinds: agency (focused on who is doing the diplomacy, e.g. business or NGO diplomacy), process (tools which can be used to promote broader diplomatic strategies) and substance (areas or issues which diplomacy can/should address). Thus when talking about digital diplomacy, Katharina appears to be talking about diplomacy being used to address issues arising in cyberspace, whereas most scholars talk about digital tools being used to advance broader diplomatic agendas (I addressed this distinction in a CPD blog: A similar confusion arises over “environment diplomacy”, which apparently combines both the subject matter to be addressed (e.g. climate change) and a new kind of diplomacy needed to address it. Apart from this category confusion, it is not at all clear what this new “kind” of diplomacy would be.


I do agree with Katherina that thinking of diplomacy only in terms of the Vienna Conventions is too limiting (most western diplomats tend to live in breach of Article 41 anyway). I would not exclude the possibility of non-government diplomats. But simply asking what diplomats do, and then assigning the title of diplomat to anyone else doing it (or describing as “diplomacy” anything where people are doing diplomat-like things) won’t wash. Many people gather information, communicate, represent and negotiate (I am not sure what “reproduce international society” means). Some people do all of them, but without being diplomats. For example, private sector lobbying companies do all of these things, but without being diplomats. Most multinational corporations do these things, but without being diplomats. If we want to apply the term “diplomat” to non-government actors without emptying the term of all meaning, we have to start thinking about what it might be like to be a diplomat. It is not just what diplomats do, but the diplomat like way in which they do them, or the diplomat like way in which they see the world while doing them. The key question then becomes not “is a non-governmental actor doing the same things as a diplomat?”, but “is the non-governmental actor doing it in the same way as a diplomat?”. For reasons I will save for another blog, this could one of the key questions in 21st century international relations.


I suspect that only diplomacy scholars fear diplomacy becoming anachronistic. Real world diplomats are too busy managing the changes in global affairs (they were, after all, crucial to the Paris Climate Change Accords). The greater danger is that Diplomatic studies is losing the link between diplomacy, strategy and policy objectives. Diplomacy as practiced is not some kind moral activity aimed at international peace and understanding. It is an approach to securing policy objectives established by the authorised decision makers. It combines in strategy with other approaches (e.g. warfare, economic or cyber coercion). This will not change if we accept that non-governmental actors are “doing diplomacy”: their authorised decision-makers will similarly set policy objectives which their diplomacy will be deployed to promote. The promotors of the “new diplomacies”, by treating them as ends in themselves, break this link to broader strategies and objectives. Cultural diplomacy does not promote a country’s culture as an end in itself, but to increase that country’s influence and thus its ability to secure its policy objectives. A football match without any broader diplomatic strategy is a football match. Gastronomic diplomacy without any broader policy objectives to promote is lunch. Talking of which ….


Stop Inventing “New Diplomacies”


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.


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 (, 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.


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.


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).


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”.