Is traditional diplomacy a dying art in 2023?


Increasingly hawkish international relations may threaten, but not replace, classic statesmanship

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Image by Stephen McGlinchey

By Georgina Spriddell

What do you think of when you hear the term diplomacy? Personally, a misinformed amalgamation between politics and espionage springs to mind. Whilst there certainly is an element of this intermingling, the reality is a line that has to be walked in a much more subtle way. In this subtlety, diplomacy could be considered to be an art form – but recent events across the globe have lent to questions surrounding traditional diplomacy’s presence, or lack thereof. The overarching query – is traditional diplomacy a dying art?

Diplomacy, the profession of maintaining and advancing international relations, was a word first utilised in the English language in the 18th century, by the political theorist, Edmund Burke. Despite this, diplomacy today is an entirely modern concept.

Within the question ‘is traditional diplomacy a dying art?’, there lies two key issues. Firstly, labeling diplomacy as ‘traditional’ in comparison to something more ‘modern’ is, in my view, reductive to its purpose. Secondly, to ask whether it as an art that is dying, is to limit diplomacy’s capability to change and evolve. It is better to emphasise continuity and evolution, rather than revolution, in the development of diplomacy. After all, the ability to adapt to changes across international foreign policy is in the job description.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a testament to this, with parts of the annual meeting of the UN general assembly taking place online in both 2020 and 2021. While routines, procedures, and settings have been modified over the last decades, the basic principles of diplomacy as the basis for negotiations between nation states have an enduring validity.

You may have seen Netflix’s new political drama The Diplomat that aired last spring. It would seem from the script that, although dramatic licence was certainly employed to keep it racing along like a thriller, diplomacy is far from a dying form. Members of the real Foreign Office have reflected on the programme, saying that many of the major plot drivers of the show are unrealistic, such as the London ambassadorship being given to a career diplomat over a wealthy donor, or how, almost immediately, the US ambassador was holding meetings with the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. But, they said the main point Netflix was accurate in was showing the relentless phone calls of the job, and the back-and-forth checking of protocol before the Prime Minister takes over the work started by the diplomats.

Diplomacy, as we imagine it, was crafted in the later 20th century during international incidents, the Vietnam War and the Cold War standing out amongst these in particular; and in the creation of diplomatic bodies such as the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and the European Union. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State during the presidencies of Nixon and Ford, is perhaps the most well-known example of the individuality of diplomacy. Kissinger's role in maintaining relations with China and the Soviet Union won him a Nobel Peace Prize for his work during the Vietnam War.

Today, the 'front-pagers' of diplomacy tend to be the heads of state and the prime ministers, rather than smaller members of the foreign offices. This is not to say that career diplomats are phasing out into a nonentity, quite the opposite. But, the climate of modern international politics requires strong leadership at the front for the work of behind-the-scenes diplomacy to ever be successful. For instance, Tony Blair’s determination in achieving the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was the driving force behind its success, as was Clinton’s role in orchestrating the Camp David Summit in 2000. Indeed, the current Israel/Gaza conflict has seen President Biden exercising diplomacy and urging caution to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Biden has been quite sharp in his advice to Israel, though he was subtle in couching that counsel in terms of the lessons the US has taken from fighting terrorism. Biden bade Netanyahu not to act rashly, referring back to 9/11 – “While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

Of international diplomacy, it has been asked whether it is all showmanship. Consider the meeting of President Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018 – a veritable stream of press photography, smiles all round, the warm shaking of hands and Trump promising a rosy future for Russia-United States relations, but did anything lasting really come of it? Clearly, the answer is pejorative.

Pessimists will say that these agreements, even those led by tanker organisations such as the UN, are merely smoke and mirrors – that today’s political entities no longer have stringent values they cling to, making the art of diplomacy semi-redundant. But, ultimately, the resilience of the diplomatic system in the last century to change in technology and in world order is impossible to ignore. So, diplomacy as an art is continuously shape-shifting and evolving. Perhaps the old world order is dead, but diplomacy certainly is not.