Diplomacy and Its Practice

by Dr. Luis Ritto*

In my previous article about this same subject, I explained how diplomacy developed over time and how protocol developed jointly with it. I mentioned the important diplomatic developments that took place in Europe from the 13th to 19th centuries and also after the Second World War when the Organisation of the United Nations was established and the world gradually became more global and open.

Diplomacy predates recorded history and has been used for centuries by societies to further their interests and to safeguard their security, integrity and economic interests. It is linked to power, to soft power in particular, as it aims to be an instrument of peace which does not use force, intimidation or any means of coercion. In this sense diplomacy is the contrary of war and conflict.

In the history of modern diplomacy, that is the system that developed in Europe from the 13th to the 19thcenturies, diplomacy began by being mainly bilateral. Then after 1945 with the establishment of the UN and a number of other international and regional organisations, diplomacy moved to become multilateral too. The 20th century also saw with globalisation and the new means of communication diplomacy becoming more open and more public. Today in democratic countries, foreign policies require the approval of parliaments after being the object of open public discussions; they are not therefore any more the monopoly of Foreign Ministries. In fact, MFAs propose and carry out foreign policies; they are not the only actors in international relations and diplomacy.

Therefore after 1945 diplomacy embraced new forms, such as economic diplomacy, cooperation and development diplomacy, regional diplomacy, public diplomacy, science and education diplomacy, sports diplomacy and (more recently) e-diplomacy (or virtual diplomacy, as some call it also).  Important subject matters like democracy, good governance and human rights, conflict prevention, trade, cross-border crime and security, sustainable development and the environment, food aid, the rights of refugees, water rights and so on are now the daily working business of diplomats.

Diplomacy has thus become more complex than in the past and more demanding in its essence and characteristics. Managing external affairs requires today that diplomats have technical skills in a multitude of fields of expertise, involving focus on performance and reaching out to wider publics. In fact, experts consider that modern diplomacy is more multidirectional, proactive, inclusive and challenging than ever before.

In this context it is worth to have a look at what are the characteristics and skills of modern diplomats. And that is what we are going to do in this paper.

I have always read that a diplomat needs to have (i) good appearance, charm, elegance and good manners, (ii) sound judgement, (iii) cultural sensitivity, (iv) speak foreign languages, (v) be good at collecting information and writing good reports,(vi) have the power to inspire credibility and (vii) be a good negotiator. To these abilities, I would like to add the ones mentioned by Sir Harold Nicholson in his classic work called “Diplomacy”: tact, precision, modesty, loyalty, truthfulness, calm and patience (1). All these major qualities, which have marked the life of diplomats in the past, are still valid today and therefore are still needed in modern diplomacy.

However, to these attributes (which are also common to protocol officers) there are others which I would call “diplomatic soft skills” and which are the ones that motivate diplomats to be and act in a certain way: by this, I mean the skills related to influence and leadership, which are important (even instrumental) in diplomacy. Leadership in this sense is about taking stands and making decisions (problem solver), remaining in charge no matter how difficult the situation is and about handling with grace and intelligence whatever emergency arises.

In parallel to soft skills there are the “hard skills”, that is the skills that get the job (work) of diplomats done with efficiency and mastery. This is very important in the case of modern diplomats because some diplomatic skills are innate and others (which are the great majority) can only be developed with years of training and practice. In a world where diplomats are required to have an increasing number of technical skills, knowledge that they learned through study (education, academic studies, training…), information and experience (accumulative knowledge) are instrumental for their work. Without such knowledge they cannot go far in their professional lives.

And among the hard skills, I would like also to mention the following: communication skills (a good diplomat is a good communicator, able to speak kindly and to control emotional responses) and the skills of conflict resolution.

In fact, diplomats (as well as protocol officers) must be master communicators as well as masters of conflict resolution. They must be able to settle opposing ideas, goals and objectives in a positive manner. Conflicts can trigger strong emotions because they normally arise from differences, both large and small. But, everyone needs to feel understood, nurtured and supported in life and it is the role of diplomats to make sure that people are respected in their beliefs, work and ideas. This is not easy and only life-long training and practice can help diplomats develop these skills.

Finally, former Indian Ambassador Kishan S. Rana in his interesting book called “21st Century Diplomacy-A Practitioner’s Guide” (2) adds a number of traits that diplomats should have. And these are the following: modern diplomats “need to listen to outside experts and need to have deep skills in a few areas plus wide-even-if-shallow lateral skills in other fields; they must work harmoniously with other experts and become proficient at networking” (3). That is, diplomats cannot master all subjects, but they must have the ability to work with others and be supported by good experts.

And for now it is all. In the next article I will continue analysing other abilities and skills of modern diplomacy.

(1). Nicholson, H., “Diplomacy”, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939.

(2). Rana, K. S., “2Ist Century Diplomacy-A Practitioner’s Guide”, The Continuum International Publishing Group, London, 2011.

(3). Idem, page 17.

*About the author:

Dr. Luis Ritto is the former EU Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta and former EU Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations. ISPD Emeritus Professor and expert on diplomacy, diplomatic protocol and world affairs.


Magalhães, J.C.D., “The Pure Concept of Diplomacy”, Greenwood Press, 1988.

Berridge, G.R., “Diplomacy-Theory and Practice”, Third Edition, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Nicolson, H., “The Evolution of the Diplomatic Method”, Constable & Co. Limited, 1984.

Hamilton, K. and Langhorne, R., “The Practice of Diplomacy: Its Evolution, Theory and Administration”, Second Edition, Routledge, Oxon, 2011.


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