The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Scott Romaniuk, Manish Thapa, Péter Marton

International Diplomacy

  • Claire YorkeEmail author
Living reference work entry


Communication Cooperation Dialogue International community Negotiation 


International diplomacy can refer both to diplomacy between and among states and related actors and to diplomacy at an international level. In this form, it can take place through more formalized channels and international organizations such as the United Nations, at conferences, high-level summits, or through collaborative initiatives to address common challenges. International diplomacy is primarily concerned with global issues such as war and peace; security; the environment; economics; international development; global health; migration; and human security (Bjola and Kornprobst 2018).


International diplomacy has a long history that can be traced back to ancient informal systems of communication, representation, and the mediation of conflict between communities. Today, international diplomacy has become a more formal mechanism for interactions between states and involves dialogue, communication, and negotiation as a means to further state interests without violence. This does not mean, however, that the threat of violence is completely absent. Coercive diplomacy, for example, rests on a credible sense of economic or military threat that is connected to a clear demand. Yet, communication, dialogue, understanding, and the representation of collective interests are central to diplomacy’s conduct. Ernest Satow, the author of a classic text on diplomatic practice, writes that diplomacy is “the best means devised by civilisation for preventing international relations from being governed by force alone. The field in which it operates lies somewhere between power politics and civilised usage, and its methods have varied with the political conventions of each age” (Satow 1979, p. 3).

There have been debates about the differences between foreign policy and diplomacy. The terms are sometimes used synonymously, yet others claim that they are distinct (e.g., Watson 2013). For those who take the latter position, foreign policy relates to the content of a state’s initiatives, designed and developed within national governments, whereas diplomacy refers to the means and methods of enacting and pursuing national objectives.

International diplomacy involves efforts to gain greater understanding of other states, to gather intelligence and knowledge about their country, and to build constructive relationships with foreign counterparts. In the process, diplomats are normally required to develop awareness and receptivity to different cultures and societies in order to better understand them. Furthermore, diplomacy helps states to manage change, to navigate and mediate a rapidly shifting environment, and to reduce the likelihood of conflict. To assist the process, most states maintain embassies in foreign countries which offer national representation to foreign governments and build connections at a local and national level.

Diplomatic practices often adhere to widely accepted standards, codes, and norms of behavior, such codes of diplomatic immunity. Some of these have been formalized in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, signed by over 192 parties, which codifies the nature of diplomatic relations and provides protection under international law for diplomats and state representatives. Earlier efforts to codify practices began in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna. Beyond the formalized rules, diplomacy is an iterative, performative, and communicative space, where words and deeds convey manifold meanings and messages to multiple audiences. How states present themselves to others, how they welcome other states, and how they communicate conform to both expected normative diplomatic behaviors and also convey meaning about relations between states.

International diplomacy has public and private dimensions, and domestic politics has an important influence on its conduct. Although diplomats and leaders may be addressing global issues, or seeking to build a relationship with another state, they are constantly balancing domestic expectations, appetites, and political and social contexts. Robert Putnam conceptualized this in 1988 when he wrote of the “two-level game” (Putnam 1988). It requires those conducting diplomacy to speak simultaneously to their diplomatic counterparts, to the domestic audiences of both countries, as well as communicating to allies and adversaries alike.

Although diplomacy has been traditionally the domain of states and agents of the states (Watson 2013), there has been an increase in the role that non-state actors play within the diplomatic sphere. Commercial diplomacy involves businesses, trade organizations, and industry in efforts to secure favors, build relationships and ties between countries, and aid domestic growth. Citizen diplomacy points to the ways in which citizens have become more significant actors in the international sphere, aided by the interconnectedness and access afforded by social media and technology. They can include teachers, students, cultural leaders, celebrities, athletes, and tourists, both as intentional and unintentional representatives of the state. International climate change initiatives, for example, have been aided by nongovernmental organizations, charities, and citizen diplomats, who have called on states to cooperate and find solutions for a global problem.

Diplomacy involves engagement with enemies as well as allies. Significant shifts in international relations have occurred when former adversaries have used diplomatic means to engage in dialogue, such as Israel and Egypt in 1977, the USA and the People’s Republic of China in 1972, and the USA and Soviet Union in the 1980s. Nevertheless, there have been failures in international diplomacy, where states have been unable or unwilling to act in unison to address a conflict or pressing problem. One example is the lack of sufficient international response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and another is the failure of international actors to halt the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s (see Gow 1997). Effective collective diplomacy requires resources, capacity, and political will.

Evolutions in International Diplomacy

The nature and means of international diplomacy are constantly changing to adapt and respond to the wider environment (e.g., Kerr and Wiseman 2013). In recent years, there has been greater interconnectedness and interdependence between states in order to address common challenges and threats, such as climate change, migration, and online extremism and radicalization. Yet simultaneously there have been shifts in power as countries such as China rise and challenge the distribution and locus of power, and those who possess it, within the international system.

For states seeking greater power, there has also been a rise in regionalism and groups of states acting in concert on the international stage in order to pursue common interests and agendas. Such initiatives lend greater power and influence to the members than if they were acting alone. The European Union (EU), for example, is a political and economic actor that exerts greater power on the world stage through cooperation between member states. Such regional arrangements, including the EU, originate often, but not exclusively, with trade blocs and economic relationships, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In the future, regional groups are likely to expand their diplomatic power in order to exert greater leverage within international fora.

Moreover, developments in communications technology and social media are changing how diplomacy is conducted. Political leaders and diplomats can harness the power of social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook to reach a wider audience or to make overtures or threats to other states: communicating directly with other actors outside of the traditional diplomatic channels. This shift enables the general public to be more involved in diplomacy, both as citizen diplomats and as witnesses to the performative dimensions of relations between states. However, there is a risk that these new forms of communication bypass some of the formal mechanisms and the art of diplomacy and undermine sustained diplomatic practices and longer-term strategic and political objectives.

Although it has expanded opportunities to engage with a larger audience, the Internet has posed further challenges for states. The exposure of secret cables from the US State Department by Wikileaks beginning in November 2010 has been just one example of how the Internet can present challenges for security, secrecy, and privacy within diplomacy. Although those behind the launch of the secret documents stated it was in the name of transparency, to reveal what went on behind the scenes, the publication of millions of documents also threatened both national security interests and the security and privacy of those acting on the state’s behalf. Such actions raise questions about the balance between security, secrecy, and accountability in diplomacy.

In recent years, an emphasis on security and military solutions to contemporary problems has led to a weakening of diplomacy. It has often suffered from financial cuts and reductions in resources for embassies and officials, as governments in countries including the USA and the UK have prioritized defense and security at a time of perceived heightened security threats. A lack of investment in embassies, diplomats, foreign relations expertise, and language training, however, can reduce a state’s capacity to gather knowledge and understanding of other countries, and it curtails their ability to use dialogue, communication, and engagement to resolve conflicts and mediate against misunderstandings and further national interests.

Academically, there are interesting developments in the study and theory of diplomacy. In particular, recent academic work in history, political science, and international relations has turned to the role of emotions in diplomacy, such as through the communicative and performative dimensions of diplomatic initiatives, the power of interpersonal relations and face-to-face contact between diplomats and political leaders, and the symbolism and ceremony attached to diplomacy (e.g., Wong 2016; Holmes 2018; Hall 2015). Further work has started questioning the implications of communications and digital technology on the conduct and practice of diplomacy (Bjola and Holmes 2015), an area likely to undergo significant changes in the future with the rapid pace of technological change.


International diplomacy remains an integral part of international relations and a critical part of enabling collaborative approaches to global security challenges. As a concept it is constantly evolving to incorporate changes in how people and states interact, shifts in power and influence, and new practices that aim to keep pace with technological changes. The rise of new actors and the plurality of voices within the diplomatic space have compelled an expansion of its traditional definition. At its heart, however, the emphasis on dialogue, communication, and engagement as a means by which to foster understanding, gain knowledge, and build relations in the furtherance of national and international objectives remains constant.



  1. Bjola, C., & Holmes, M. (2015). Digital diplomacy: Theory and practice. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bjola, C., & Kornprobst, M. (2018). Understanding international diplomacy: Theory, practice and ethics. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Gow, J. (1997). Triumph of the lack of will: International diplomacy and the Yugoslav war. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
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  6. Kerr, P., & Wiseman, G. (Eds.). (2013). Diplomacy in a globalizing world: Theories and practices. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
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  9. Watson, A. (2013). Diplomacy: The dialogue between states. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  10. Wong, S. (2016). Emotions and the communication of intentions in face-to-face diplomacy. European Journal of International Relations, 22(1), 144–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Further Reading

  1. Barston, R. P. (2013). Modern diplomacy: Fourth edition. London/New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bjola, C., & Kornprobst, M. (2018). Understanding international diplomacy: Theory, practice and ethics. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cassidy, J. A. (Ed.). (2017). Gender and diplomacy. Taylor & Francis. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon and New York, NY.Google Scholar
  4. Kerr, P., & Wiseman, G. (Eds.). (2013). Diplomacy in a globalizing world: Theories and practices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Kissinger, H. (1994). Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Yale UniversityNew HavenUSA