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Although ancient civilizations used emissaries and representatives in political negotiations, modern diplomacy began with ambassadorial practices in fourteenth-century Europe. Diplomacy has seen many different forms over the centuries, such as raison d’etat and realpolitik, but the essential concept remains unchanged. Present-day diplomacy, known as summit diplomacy, will dominate the politics of the future and provide a meaningful role in the development of world organizations.
The term diplomacy refers to the conduct of relations between kingdoms, empires, states, and nation-states. Diplomacy has existed as long as humans have lived in organized societies. Early records from ancient civilizations around the world show that rulers regularly used emissaries to convey messages to one another and to negotiate agreements. But most historians would agree that modern diplomacy originated in Renaissance Italy.
Rise of Modern Diplomacy
During the fourteenth century the Italian city-state of Venice emerged as a major commercial power in Europe. The prosperity and strength of Venice depended on accurate knowledge of economic and political conditions in the states with whom the Venetians were trading. Venice stationed permanent representatives in foreign states in order to obtain reliable information. The Venetian system was quickly taken up by the other Italian city-states. During the Renaissance the Italian peninsula was divided into a number of city-states that engaged in constant intrigue and bouts of warfare. The need for accurate information encouraged the stationing of agents, or ambassadors, in both friendly and rival states. The use of ambassadors then spread to the kingdoms of Western Europe. The constant stream of reports from ambassadors resulted in the creation of bureaucracies, tiny by modern standards, to process and collate information, and to send out instructions. By the early eighteenth century practically all the states of Europe had foreign offices in order to manage and administer their relations with other states. The head of the foreign office became known as the foreign minister, and foreign ministers soon became key members of the cabinets of all European states, wielding great power and influence. As diplomacy became increasingly systematized, various commentators began offering books of advice on the best way to conduct diplomacy. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, first published in 1513, is only the most famous of many such volumes.
Early Practice of Diplomacy
Over the centuries many practitioners of diplomacy have left their mark on history. In the seventeenth century the French cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII from 1624 to 1642, promoted a doctrine known as raison d’etat, which held that the good of the state was supreme, and that diplomacy must be conducted free of sentiment, ideology, or religious faith. Alliances must be forged and broken with the interests of the state as the only guide. Contemporaries criticized Richelieu for his alleged lack of morality, but Richelieu replied that protecting the state was the highest form of morality. Richelieu was enormously successful, and by the time of his death, France had emerged as the dominant power in Europe, a position it maintained for the next 170 years.
France’s dominant position in Europe threatened other European states, however, leading to the creation of coalitions during the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to contain French ambitions. Political observers and commentators of the eighteenth century, such as the Scottish philosopher David Hume, soon began to refer to the concept of the balance of power, under which states, acting in their own selfish interests, would create a balance, or equilibrium, in the state structure of Europe. The emergence in Europe of a network of states encouraged the growth of diplomacy.
Diplomacy in Asia revolved around the concept of a single strong state, China, ringed by tributary states, and the use of emissaries to maintain the system. The major exception occurred during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) when central authority in China was weakened, and something approaching a balance of power emerged temporarily. The Byzantine and Ottoman empires practiced a similar style of diplomacy under similar situations.
The Early Nineteenth Century
Following the brutality of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that began in 1792 and ended in 1815, a new style of diplomacy emerged. The Congress of Vienna, held from September 1814 to June 1815, was intended not only to divide the spoils of war but also to lay the foundations for longterm peace in Europe. The Austrian foreign minister, Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859), masterminded what he hoped would be an enduring state system in Europe. The five major powers of Europe would exist in a balance of power. Rather than acting in their own interests and hoping that a balance would result naturally, they would act in concert, hence the use of the phrase “concert of Europe.” Self-interest would be put aside in favor of the larger good, according to Metternich. The larger good meant the supremacy of the conservative, authoritarian monarchies of Europe, and the struggle to suppress the new forces of liberalism and nationalism. Metternich favored an ideological approach to diplomacy. The Congress (or concert) system was maintained until the Crimean War of 1853–1856. Russia’s defeat in 1856 resulted in its alienation from the concert system and ushered in fifteen years of instability in Europe.
The years after the Crimean War saw the return of the idea that state interest had primacy in the conduct of diplomacy, a concept now known as realpolitik. But realpolitik was little different from the style of diplomacy conducted by Richelieu. Realpolitik had three prominent practitioners: Count Camillo Cavour (1810–1861), prime minister of the Italian state of Piedmont; Louis-Napoleon (1808–1873, also known as Napoleon III), emperor of France; and most notably, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), who served first as chancellor of Prussia, and then later of Germany. All three made and broke alliances, commitments, and understandings according to the ever-changing needs of the state. Their actions frequently appalled contemporaries, but the good of the state was the primary consideration for those who conducted realpolitik. Count Cavour was successful in leading the campaign for Italian unification before his premature death in 1861. Louis-Napoleon was less competent, and met military defeat and humiliation in war with Prussia in 1870. Louis-Napoleon’s nemesis was Bismarck, the most successful diplomat of the nineteenth century. Bismarck orchestrated the creation of a unified Germany under Prussian leadership in 1871. France had been sidelined, and Germany was now at the center of European diplomacy.
The Later Nineteenth Century
Having successfully orchestrated the unification of Germany despite intense pressure both domestically and from other European states, Bismarck was now determined to maintain its central position in Europe. Bismarck feared that Germany was surrounded by potentially hostile states. He established a complex network of alliances designed to ensure that France remained isolated and that the other leading powers of Europe remained bound to Germany in some way. European diplomacy after 1871 was dominated by Bismarck’s alliances and the need to maintain them. Bismarck demonstrated great skill in doing so. He maintained that Germany was a “satiated” power and could act as an honest broker in disputes between powers. In 1884, for example, Bismarck hosted the Berlin Conference, which set the ground rules for European expansion into vast areas of Africa and Asia. European diplomacy always had an impact on the peoples of North and South America, Africa, and Asia in the late nineteenth century. European powers fought not only in Europe, but also for advantage in overseas possessions and territories. But the Congress of Berlin was the most dramatic illustration of the global impact of European diplomacy up to that time. During the nineteenth century attempts by European powers to subjugate Asian and African states became known as “gunboat diplomacy,” or “coercive diplomacy.”
Bismarck left office in 1890. His successors were much less skilled in maintaining his alliances. By 1914 Germany was surrounded by an alliance system known as the Triple Entente, which included Britain, France, and Russia. As a result, Germany headed the Triple Alliance, along with Austria-Hungary and Italy, but Italy remained neutral when war broke out in 1914.
It is common to refer to the nineteenth century as the era of classical diplomacy. Diplomats of all European countries came from similar social backgrounds, usually the aristocracy, shared many common assumptions, and conducted diplomacy largely free from the impact of public opinion and domestic lobby groups.
The New Diplomacy
The trauma of World War I, with 9 million dead, led many to condemn what they referred to as the “old diplomacy,” by which they meant diplomacy conducted by professionals. Allegedly the diplomats, acting often in secret, had created a network of alliances that plunged Europe into a horrific war. In 1918, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) emerged as the leading spokesman for the “new” diplomacy. Wilson argued that diplomacy should be conducted in the open, and that “open covenants” should be openly arrived at. Instead of secret alliances, Wilson advocated the creation of a League of Nations so that the rule of international law would replace the anarchy of the prewar years. Instead of going to war, nations would submit disputes to the League for resolution. Aggressors that ignored the League would face economic sanctions and possibly military action. Some of Wilson’s ideas were implemented in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. The Treaty of Versailles contained the charter for the newly created League of Nations.
Wilson, a liberal internationalist, introduced ideology once again into the conduct of diplomacy. Vladimir Lenin, who led the Bolsheviks to power in Russia in 1917, challenged Wilson’s ideas. As a Marxist, Lenin wanted to transform the war between nations and empires into a class war. His newly appointed commissar for foreign affairs, Leon Trotsky, said that he would issue a few proclamations, then close up shop. Once the worker’s revolution had swept away the old order, the need for diplomacy would vanish. The Bolsheviks also published secret documents drawn up by the Allies during the war for the partition of the Turkish Empire, further discrediting the old diplomacy. By 1921, however, it was clear that the worker’s revolution had succeeded only in the Russian Empire, renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin (1879–1953), had to maintain the security of the Soviet state, which required a great deal of diplomacy.
Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) came to power in Germany in 1933 determined to destroy the Versailles system. Hitler wanted Germany to obtain Lebensraum, or living space, in Eastern Europe, and did not shy away from the use of war to achieve his goals. Hitler found the traditional mechanism of German diplomacy wanting, and he pushed aside professional diplomats in favor of Nazi party appointees such as Joachim von Ribbentrop, German ambassador to Britain in 1936 and, after 1938, Nazi foreign minister.
By the mid-1930s the unity that held nineteenth-century diplomacy together had fractured. Diplomats were divided by ideological differences and increasingly came from differing social backgrounds. Public opinion exerted an unparalleled influence on diplomacy. The League of Nations Union, formed to ensure that the British government followed League principles in the conduct of its foreign relations, attracted tens of thousands of followers in Britain. The old diplomacy had virtually ceased to function. Following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the foreign ministers of France and Britain—Pierre Laval and Samuel Hoare, respectively—attempted to make a secret deal with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to end the crisis. Such dealings would have been routine in the nineteenth century. However, details of the agreement, which would have given Mussolini most of Ethiopia, were leaked to the press, forcing the resignations of both Hoare and Laval.
The approach of war in 1938 saw the emergence of summit diplomacy. Heads of state had been expressing frustration with what they felt was the plodding pace of diplomatic activity. Soon after taking power, Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), prime minister of Britain from 1937 to 1940, said that he wanted to “stir up” the British foreign office. Modern communications and transportation meant that leaders could conduct their own diplomacy, and no longer had to rely on professionals. In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany three times to meet with Hitler in a bid to defuse the crisis over Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain’s actions created a sensation at a time when air travel was still the preserve of the wealthy elite. Chamberlain’s efforts proved futile, but face-to-face meetings of leaders, known as summit diplomacy, proved an enduring innovation. The Allied leaders met repeatedly during World War II to coordinate their efforts. Summit meetings between presidents of the United States and Soviet leaders became a regular feature of the Cold War. During the early 1970s the constant movements of United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger between Middle Eastern capitals, in an attempt to resolve the Arab–Israeli conflict, gave rise to the phrase “shuttle diplomacy.”
Diplomacy in the New Century
Summit diplomacy remains the preferred form of diplomacy for world leaders at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Foreign ministries continue to debate foreign policy issues and offer advice to heads of state. Ambassadors are less important than in the past, but they still play a key role in the functioning of diplomacy. Summit diplomacy will continue to dominate the future of diplomacy, especially as it presents world leaders in a positive light. But diplomacy will also increasingly function in the context of international multilateral organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the G-7 concert of the world’s economic powers, the European Union, and the United Nations.
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