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Diplomacy Definition

Diplomacy (Fr. diplomatie), the art of conducting international negotiations. The word, borrowed from the French, has the same derivation as Diplomatic (q.v.), and, according to the New English Dictionary, was first used in England so late as 1796 by Burke. Yet there is no other word in the English language that could supply its exact sense. The need for such a term was indeed not felt; for what we know as diplomacy was long regarded, partly as falling under the Jus gentium or international law, partly as a kind of activity morally somewhat suspect and incapable of being brought under any system.

Moreover, though in a certain sense it is as old as history, diplomacy as a uniform system, based upon generally recognized rules and directed by a diplomatic hierarchy having a fixed international status, is of quite modern growth even in Europe. It was finally established only at the congresses of Vienna (1815) and Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), while its effective extension to the great monarchies of the East, beyond the bounds of European civilization, was comparatively an affair of yesterday. So late as 1876 it was possible for the 295 writer on this subject in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to say that “it would be an historical absurdity to suppose diplomatic relations connecting together China, Burma and Japan, as they connect the great European powers.” (1)

Diplomacy may be defined as practices and institutions by which nations conduct their relations with one another. Originally, the English term diplomatics referred to the care and evaluation of official papers or archives, many of which were treaties.


In the 18th century diplomatic documents increasingly meant those pertaining to international relations, and the term diplomatic corps was used to signify the body of ambassadors, envoys, and officials attached to foreign missions. In 1796 the British philosopher Edmund Burke castigated the French for their “double diplomacy” during the Napoleonic Wars; since then the term diplomacy has been associated with international politics and foreign policy.

History of Diplomacy

As soon as people organized themselves into separate social groups, the necessity of regularizing contacts with representatives of other groups became apparent. Even the earliest civilizations had rules for interaction. See more about the history of diplomacy here.

Early Development

The first civilization to develop an orderly system of diplomacy was ancient Greece. Ambassadors and special missions were sent from city to city to deliver messages and warnings, to transfer gifts, and to plead the cases of their own people before the rulers of other city-states. These diplomatic missions, however, were occasional and sporadic. See more about the History of Diplomacy here.

Renaissance Diplomacy

Modern diplomacy had its origins during the Italian Renaissance. Early in the 15th century, a group of city-states developed in Italy, but none could dominate the rest, and all feared conquest by the others. See more about the History of Diplomacy here.

Diplomacy in the European State System

The rise of nation-states in 17th-century Europe led to the development of the concepts of national interest and the balance of power. The former concept meant that the diplomatic objectives of nations should be based on state interests and not on personal ambition, rivalries, sentiment, religious doctrine, or prejudice. See more about the History of Diplomacy here.

The New Diplomacy

In 1914 the countries of Europe were thrust into another violent confrontation. The carnage of World War I brought the European system of diplomacy into disrepute. See more about the History of Diplomacy here.

Diplomatic Machinery

The conduct of relations with other countries has three requirements:
(1) an establishment in the home country to formulate policy and instruct personnel sent
(2) an establishment abroad from which contacts are made in the foreign country; and
(3) personnel to make the system work.

See more about the History of Diplomacy Machinery here

Departments of Foreign Affairs

Government agencies that deal with foreign affairs are usually called the ministry or department of foreign or external affairs (see Department of Foreign Affairs here). In the U.S., foreign affairs is handled by the Department of State. Such a department is headed by the foreign secretary (or, in the U.S., by the secretary of state). In democracies, the foreign secretary is always a political appointee who is selected by the nation’s leader. Drawing on the expertise within the department and its establishments abroad, the secretary advises the head of state on matters of foreign policy, helps formulate and coordinate policy, and administers the agency over which he or she presides. At times, the foreign secretary is also directly involved in negotiations with other nations. A small number of politically appointed undersecretaries and assistant secretaries aid in running the department.

Departments of foreign affairs usually are divided into geographic and functional divisions. The former consists of bureaus for major geographic areas that are then broken down into smaller divisions and, ultimately, into “country desks.”Desk officers are career diplomats who specialize in various aspects of the country to which they are assigned. Instructions to and reports from embassies abroad are handled first by the country desks. The functional division deals with problems or issues that do not appropriately fall under the domain of any one country: trade, international organization, human rights, intelligence, public information, international law, and passports and visas. Coordination of policy between geographic and functional divisions is a continually perplexing problem.

Departments of foreign affairs also have an administrative section that is in charge of running the agency. This section deals with internal matters such as budget allocations, personnel recruitment and management, training, and logistics.

In an age of interdependence and total diplomacy, foreign affairs departments must coordinate their activities with the foreign activities of other government agencies. Treasury departments, for example, are increasingly involved in negotiations over trade and money. Agricultural departments are concerned with foreign trade and world food problems. Defense establishments are involved in supporting foreign governments abroad and training their armed forces. Intelligence agencies provide heads of state with alternate sources of information about other countries. In some cases, a foreign minister has trouble merely keeping informed of all the activities the nation is engaged in abroad.

Foreign Missions

The embassy abroad, or foreign mission, is headed by an ambassador assisted by a career diplomat who serves as deputy or first secretary. The deputy secretary oversees and coordinates the work of the staff and assumes the responsibilities of the mission as “chargé d’affaires”whenever the ambassador is away or incapacitated or is between ambassadorial assignments.

Organization of Diplomatic Missions

A mission is organized into a series of functional sections that observe, report, and deal with issues in their respective areas. See more about Diplomatic Missions here.


The activities of a diplomatic mission are extremely varied. They range from such serious tasks as negotiating issues of great political significance and reporting and commenting on important events in the foreign country to meeting with foreign students, arranging itineraries of exhibits about life in the home country, and issuing visas.See more about Foreign Missions here

The Foreign Service

Today, most nations staff their foreign services with career civil servants who are selected on the basis of competitive examinations. Until recent times, however, foreign service personnel were political appointees, often from noble or wealthy families, who could afford the considerable expense that a life of diplomatic activity entailed. See more about the Foreign Services here.

Diplomatic Conventions

The modes and conventions of diplomacy are highly stylized and formal. Language always tends toward understatement, and emotion-charged words are taboo. The etiquette and manners of diplomatic meetings are carefully prescribed. The privileges and immunities of diplomats are found in conventions and treaties that have evolved over a long period. Whenever etiquette is breached, a diplomatic “rebuff”occurs. Although this formality and ceremony has an air of make-believe, it serves a practical purpose: It allows diplomats to deal with issues of war and peace in a calm and unemotional manner. In the tense hours of crisis, a cool head, tact, and good humor are necessary.


Detailed and universally accepted conventions exist concerning most of the formal ways in which countries interact. In the early days of the nation-state system, the departure of an ambassador was a ceremonial event, as was the ambassador’s reception by a head of state.

Because ambassadors personally represent the heads of their governments, the relations among ambassadors within a country have always involved issues of prestige. Thus, such details as where an ambassador rode in a procession or which ambassador entered a room first assumed great significance.

Such issues plagued European courts until they were resolved at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 and, more recently, at the Vienna meetings to draft a Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961. As a result of these meetings, diplomats were divided into three classes:
(1) ambassadors, legates, and papal nuncios who are always accredited to heads of state;
(2) envoys, ministers, and other persons accredited to heads of state; and
(3) chargés d’affaires who are accredited to ministers of foreign affairs.

Only members of the first class represent their nation’s leader. Precedence among representatives in a capital is now based on seniority within its diplomatic corps. The most senior member of that corps is designated the doyen, or dean. The doyen usually represents the entire diplomatic corps at ceremonial functions and in matters of diplomatic privileges and immunities. The most concise digest of the protocol of diplomacy is the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, consisting of 53 short articles completed under UN auspices.

Privileges and Immunities

From the earliest times, privileges, immunities, and courtesies were extended to visiting heralds and envoys. Currently the privileges and immunities of diplomats are highly developed and universally accepted. See more about Privileges and Immunities here.

Language of Diplomacy

Until the 17th century, Latin was the language of diplomacy because it was the universal language of all educated Europeans. From the 17th century on, however, French increasingly became the language of diplomacy because of the preeminence of France in Europe, the precision of the language, and its use as the “court language”throughout Europe.

The U.S. entry into World War I marked the rise of English as a second language of diplomacy. During the interwar period, the records of the League of Nations were kept in English and French. After World War II, the framers of the UN sought to create a five-language system. Simultaneous translations of French, English, Russian, Spanish, and Chinese take place at all meetings. Most UN documents, however, are published only in French, English, and Spanish. When treaties or conventions are drafted, the parties designate one language—usually French or English—as the basis for any discussions about meanings or interpretations.

Diplomatic Negotiations

Although negotiations have traditionally been left to professional diplomats, very important negotiations are increasingly being undertaken by specially selected envoys or foreign ministers and by heads of state. See more about Diplomatic Negotations here.

Source: “Diplomacy” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia

Concept of Diplomacy

An introductory definition of Diplomacy is provided here: The practice of nation states (or multinational groupings) negotiating with each other over matters of interest. The U.S. Secretary of State directs the United States’ diplomatic efforts, on behalf of the President.

Concept of Diplomacy

Note: explore also the meaning of this legal term in the American Ecyclopedia of Law.


Embracing mainstream international law, this section on diplomacy explores the context, history and effect of the area of the law covered here.


See Also

  • Foreign Affairs
  • National Defense


See Also

  • Foregin Policy
  • Foreign Affairs


See Also

  • Foreign Policy
  • Foreign Relations
  • Trade Regulation
  • Public Policy
  • International Relations


Further Reading

  • The entry “diplomacy” in the Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law (currently, the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law, 2009), Oxford University Press


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

See Also

Open Diplomacy
Consular relations
Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
Treaties resources
Vienna Convention on Consular Relations
International Law

Further Reading

Diplomacy and peace. Bibliography
Diplomacy and Coffee (Book)
Besides general works on international law (q.v.) which necessarily deal with the subject of diplomacy, a vast mass of treatises on diplomatic agents exists. The earliest printed work is the Tractatus de legato (Rome, 1485) of Gundissalvus (Gonsalvo de Villadiego), professor of law at Salamanca, auditor for Spain at the Roman court of the Rota, and bishop of Oviedo; but the first really systematic writer on the subject was Albericus Gentilis, De legationibus libri iii. (London, 1583, 1585, Hanover, 1596, 1607, 1612). For a full bibliography of works on ambassadors see Baron Diedrich H. L. von Ompteda, Litteratur des gesammten sowohl natürlichen als positiven Völkerrechts (Regensburg, 1785), p. 534, &c., which was completed and continued by the Prussian minister Karl Albert von Kamptz, in Neue Literatur des Völkerrechts seit dem Jahre 1784 (Berlin, 1817), p. 231. A list of writers, with critical and biographical remarks, is also given in Ernest Nys’s “Les Commencements de la diplomatie et le droit d’ambassade jusqu’à Grotius,” in the Revue de droit international, vol. xvi. p. 167. Other useful modern works on the history of diplomacy are: E. C. Grenville-Murray, Embassies and Foreign Courts, a History of Diplomacy (2nd ed., 1856); J. Zeller, La Diplomatie française vers le milieu du XVI^e siècle (Paris, 1881); A. O. Meyer, Die englische Diplomatie in Deutschland zur Zeit Eduards VI. und Mariens (Breslau, 1900); and, above all, Otto Krauske, Die Entwickelung der ständgien Diplomatie vom fünfzehnten Jahrhundert bis zu den Beschlüssen von 1815 und 1818, in Gustav Schmoller’s Staats- und socialwissenschaftliche Forschungen, vol. v. (Leipzig, 1885). To these may be added, as admirably illustrating in detail the early developments of modern diplomacy, Logan Pearsall Smith’s Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton (Oxford, 1907). Of works on modern diplomacy the most important are the Guide diplomatique of Baron Charles de Martens, new edition revised by F. H. Geffcken, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1866), and P. Pradier-Fodéré, Cours de droit diplomatique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1881).

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