Essence of Diplomacy

(Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke and New York, 2005), pp. ix, 207 incl. index. ISBN 13:978-1-4039-9225-3; 10:1-4039-9225-8

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Christer Jönsson is Professor of Political Science at Lund University in Sweden, where Martin Hall is a Researcher. Their book is described as an exercise in ‘theorizing’ diplomacy, that is, an attempt to provide a general account of its causes and consequences. (The authors are thus severe in denying the title of ‘theory’ to the ‘prescriptive tracts’ which scholar-diplomats have written about their art over hundreds of years, though I notice that they are more indulgent to the use of the term ‘political theory’ as in, for example, ‘liberal political theory’.) Not surprisingly, therefore, the book is also described as a deliberate attempt to ‘build bridges’ between those who work in International Relations theory and those – like me – who focus just on diplomacy. Its thrust is that diplomacy is an ‘institution’ which has certain ‘essential dimensions’, among which communication between ‘polities’, the representation of principals abroad, and the reproduction of international society are chosen for special emphasis. These are analysed in separate chapters and subsequently tied together with a view chiefly to showing how diplomacy supports any international society, while at the same time being both adaptable to changing circumstances and instrumental in shaping them. This is a work of great erudition and historical depth, carefully worked out, and – in the main – tightly argued. It also has many lucid and stimulating passages. In the end, however, I was left with a sense of disappointment, as well as with a suspicion that the advantages of bridge-building – while real – can be exaggerated.

I have no quarrel at all with the general thrust of this book, not least in so far as it emphasises the importance of treating diplomacy as an institution from its first appearance. (The authors mistakenly number me among those who take the view that diplomacy only assumed the form of an institution in the early modern era. In fact, my view was – and remains – that the Amarna system in the Ancient Near East was crude and relatively ineffective but obviously an institution nevertheless.) However, I am bound to say that the conclusions of this work (summed up in barely four pages after central chapters that cover much familiar ground) are hardly startling, and they suggest that when diplomacy is treated on this level of generality its causes and consequences are not especially problematical, i.e. the ‘scientific’ theoretical challenge is not a great one. This would have been clearer, I think, if the authors had employed terms less vague than ‘essential dimensions’, alternatively described as ‘constitutive elements’, ‘component parts’, ‘basic parameters’, or ‘timeless features’ of diplomacy. All of these terms imply the machinery of diplomacy whereas what in fact Jönsson and Hall are in the main rightly talking about are its enduring functions.

Having said this, I found two conclusions exceptionable, the first being the claim that diplomats as a class ‘represent’ the international society as well as their immediate principals, thus strengthening ‘universalism’ relative to ‘particularism’. This seems to me a bit far-fetched. A number of writers are cited who assert this, or think it would be a good thing, but I would like to see the evidence for it. However, I thought the comments on the strengthening view ‘in a few democratic states’ that diplomatic services should now ‘represent’ their states in the sense of reflecting their ethnic mix were apposite. In Britain there is now also a great anxiety to achieve this in relation to gender. What Jönsson and Hall might have added here is consideration of the possibility that the trend towards increasing representation of this sort may be pushing the balance between particularism and universalism in the opposite direction.

The second conclusion on which I have a reservation is the claim that ‘It is primarily through recognition that diplomacy contributes to the reproduction [relative stability] of international society’. I think that this is exaggerated. First of all, it is not true that in the absence of recognition only ad hoc communication is possible (p. 166). For example, for the greater part of the 1970s the United States and Communist China communicated via liaison offices in each other’s capital, though the latter was not recognized by the former as the government of the state of China. Secondly, what about the absolutely vital role played by diplomacy in relation to the balance of power? Unless this point is lurking somewhere in the language about the role of diplomacy in mediating between universalism and particularism, or is regarded as too self-evident to require explicit comment, we may well have been offered Hamlet without the prince.

Finally, I am doubtful that the study of diplomacy is illuminated to the extent claimed by Jönsson and Hall not only by International Relations theory but also by ‘concepts, ideas and insights from other fields than IR’. I agree that the literatures on institutions and ritual are important, and they have drawn on them most instructively. However, I was left cold by the extra-mural sources of reflection on ‘representation’ which they detail at some length, which seem to add nothing at all to the explication of this concept in existing … ahem … diplomatic theory or to our understanding of the tensions to which in practice it perennially gives rise.

The serious diplomatic theory is analogous to political theory, where ‘What ought to be done?’ is always a central question. These days I suppose I should call this the ‘public policy’ approach to diplomacy. This is not a book dealing with this kind of theory, though it touches on it indirectly at many points.

2017-02-15T19:41:51+00:00 November 29th, 2005|Tags: , |