Diplomacy and Its Practice III

by Dr. Luis Ritto*


In the past two articles of mine, I wrote about the evolution of diplomacy and how it developed from a bilateral instrument in the relations between nations to a multi-functional and multi-purpose tool of foreign relations of countries, as it is the case today. In fact, diplomacy nowadays does not only comprise the direct official relations between countries, as we come to know it for several centuries, but consists also of new forms of diplomatic actions, such as multilateral diplomacy, economic diplomacy, public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, educational and science diplomacy and so forth.

Historians say that diplomacy is as old as mankind and predates recorded history. It has been used throughout times as a tool to further the independence and interests of countries without the use of force, coercion and other forceful means. The continuity of diplomacy for thousands of years and throughout all know civilisations shows that it is an institution inherent to international life itself, an instrument of international relations that has survived the test of time and therefore cannot be dispensed with. It is for this reason therefore that the study of diplomacy is so important today, as it was in the past.

This article is basically about power and diplomacy. Indeed the two go together and, as I have said before on many occasions, power shapes diplomacy. In fact, the more powerful a country is, generally the more powerful it is in diplomatic terms. This is a fact of life that cannot be denied!

When we say that diplomacy is linked to power we mean that it is mainly linked to soft power, although unfortunately not only to that power alone. Because soft power alone is normally not enough to make diplomacy work, political scientists say that without hard capabilities to back up diplomacy, countries lack credibility and influence. Therefore, and although diplomats prefer soft power instruments, the fact is that a mixture of soft and hard power is normally necessary in the diplomatic world to make diplomacy produce results.

In order to better understand the place of power in diplomacy, let us try to define it. Scientists and scholars tell us that it is not easy to define power and that power is one of the most difficult concepts in political theory. However, it is conventional to define it as the ability to influence the behaviour of people and other actors within the international system (countries and political organisations). This influence can be coercive (by the use of force, for example) or cooperative (by using collaboration and persuasion, for instance).

Political scientists distinguish between three types of power: hard, soft and smart. Let us have a look at them.

Hard power, as the name indicates, refers to coercive tactics, like for example the use of force (by military forces), economic sanctions and other forms of intimidation. Those who have studied international relations know that realist and neorealist scholars advocate the use of hard power as a means to balance the international system. In fact, it has been for centuries the most traditional foreign policy tool, used widely in the international arena.

In recent decades however a new theory, called “soft power” has seen the day. Coined in 1990 by Joseph Nye of Harvard University, it is based on the principle to attract and co-opt rather than the use of force or coercion as a means of persuasion. Nye defined it as the power to influence other countries without force or money. For him, soft power draws people to it who, by “admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness— want to follow it” (1). And he identifies three broad categories of soft power: culture, political values and policies. Among the main instruments of soft power the following five are the most commonly mentioned by scholars: negotiations, public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, development and scientific aid. It is by far the favourite tool of diplomats, who prefer it other power instruments.

Scholars often say that religious leaders like the Pope and the Dalai Lama only use soft power and that it is sufficient for them to influence others and have their support and backing. Another example of the use of soft power is the European Union.

As it is known, the European Union is not a military organisation and it does not aim to have military power of any extensive nature, other than for defence purposes. It was established by democratic countries with the objective to bring peace and stability to Europe by using power sharing, solidarity and economic development and integration. Its membership grew in sixty three years from six founding members to 28 member-countries. And more countries are knocking at its door for membership. It has a population of more than 500 million people and it is the world’s largest economic market. Even without military power therefore it is a respected voice in world affairs and its soft power approach has unequivocally worked, mainly through the use of trade, diplomacy, aid and the spread of its values (democracy, the rule of law and market economics). More than any other global power, the European Union has been able without coercion to consolidate the democratic transition of southern and then central and eastern Europe and has been the guiding force for reforms in the western Balkans and many countries of the former Soviet bloc. Its soft power remains unrivalled in the world and it has decisively contributed to the current closer union of Europe.

But, in spite of these achievements, soft power has its limits, as any political scientist will tell. Former US President Theodore Roosevelt is said to have written the following in January 1900 in a letter to a friend (Henry L. Sprague): “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far”(2). By it he meant that soft and hard power must be complementary and used in an astute way. Even Professor Joseph Nye, who coined the soft power theory in 1990, suggested later— namely in his book “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics”, published in 2004— that the most effective modern diplomatic strategies require a mix of hard and soft power resources or “smart power”, as he called it. He added that employing only hard power or only soft power in certain situations will prove inadequate and concluded: “Smart power is neither hard nor soft; it is both”(3).

Chester Arthur Crocker, an American University professor and diplomat who served as Assistant Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration (1981 to 1989) and is associated with the theory of “constructive engagement” expanded the smart power theory of Nye saying that it “involves the strategic use of diplomacy, persuasion, capacity building and the projection of power and influence in ways that are cost-effective and have political and social legitimacy”— essentially the engagement of both military force and all forms of diplomacy (4).

When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State of the Obama Administration (2009-2013) she followed resolutely the theory of smart power in the design of US foreign relations. She wrote in May 2009: “We must follow what has been called smart power: the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural—picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation” (5).

Therefore and to conclude this article we can say that power has come a long way and that in modern terms it is usually used in a variety of ways to suit the foreign policy means of nations. And when we deal in particular with international relations, we see that countries are sometimes forced to use military force to protect their people and interests; and to use diplomacy and development tools to promote economic growth, democracy and shared prosperity in foreign countries. This seems to be the accepted current trend of countries (and especially those of the Western world) as they face the challenges of our times: regional conflicts, poverty, economic crisis, terrorism, religious disputes and pandemic diseases. Scientists say that democratic countries are less prone to war. In this context, the nations of the so-called free world have decided to develop policies— diplomatic, economic and military— to promote a world of peace and prosperity, a world that is based on the rule of law, human rights, economic development and free trade. If they succeed, a better world will certainly see the day.

(1). Nye, Joseph, “Bound lo Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” (New York: Basic Books, 1990).

(2). www. phrases.org.uk/meanings.

(3). Nye, Joseph, “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics” (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

(4). Crocker, Chester; Hampson, Fen Osler; Aall, Pamela, “Taming Intractable Conflicts: Mediation in the Hardest Cases” (Washington, US Institute of Peace, 2000).

(5). Fact Sheet dated 4 May 2009 of the Bureau of Public Affairs of the US Department of State.

*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.