Diplomacy and its Practice

by Dr. Luis Ritto* 

The new academic year at ISPD was launched on 11 October 2013 with a lecture on diplomacy and protocol. And rightly so because not only the two subjects are connected— as diplomacy progressed so also protocol has developed to become today a major tool of diplomacy— but also because they are nuclear subjects in our academic programmes and as such deserve our full attention and interest.

This being so, I thought it useful to write a number of articles on the subject of diplomacy for the benefit of our readers and students.  In fact diplomacy is one of those subjects that has greatly developed since the beginning of the 20th Century to become now the main instrument used by nations to carry their foreign policies objectives and business. Today diplomacy does not only comprise the direct official relations between countries, as we come to know them for several centuries, but also consists of new mechanisms and forms of diplomacy such as multilateral diplomacy, public diplomacy, economic diplomacy, development diplomacy, science diplomacy, water diplomacy, sports diplomacy and e-diplomacy. We will write about some of them in our future articles.

We cannot talk about diplomacy without defining it and showing what is diplomacy in the 21st Century.

Diplomacy has been used since ancient times and predates recorded history. Its main goals are to further the interests of nations by safeguarding their security, economic interests and integrity without using force, intimidation or any means of coercion. Some call it an art, the art of conducting relations between countries with tact and courtesy and also without conflict, resentment and hostility (1).

At the border where States meet the outside world, we find diplomacy. It includes a wide variety of activities, including (i) negotiations by accredited envoys, (ii) international agreements and regulations and (iii) the explanation of the actions of countries to an international audience.

The continuity of diplomacy throughout thousands of years and in all know civilisations shows that it is an institution inherent to international life itself, one that has undergone transformations over time, it is true, but one that survived the test of time and therefore cannot be dispensed with. Besides, it has contributed greatly in dealing with and preventing conflicts and in promoting a world of peace and prosperity, which wars cannot do.

Diplomacy uses protocol as one of its chief tools. Protocol, is rooted in the sound knowledge of human relations. Those relations, particularly official ones between nations, have come to be governed by accepted practices. These practices are based on the observance of mutual respect and consideration among sovereign countries. Which in turn are based on rules of attention, courtesy, respect and civility. They have proved over time to be a favourite tool to achieve international understanding and cooperation.

We hope therefore that it is clear to all our readers why protocol is so important for diplomacy and why diplomacy is decisive for protocol as both are used jointly as tools to further friendly relations between nations. In fact, the two go together and have been working hand in hand for a very long time, for centuries to be more precise.

Diplomacy saw a boost in its activities after the end of the 13th Century when the Renaissance period started and the countries of Europe, starting with the City-States of Italy, decided to establish diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors between themselves, a system that is still in use today. Modern diplomacy was born in this period and was mainly based at the beginning on bilateral relations, a system that continued to exist until the end of the Second World War in 1945.

The end of the Second World War marks therefore the beginning of a new era in diplomacy: with the establishment of the United Nations Organisation (UN), the European Union (EU) and many other regional and international organisations, diplomacy became also multilateral in its character and form. As international affairs became increasingly interconnected after 1945, it was thought that the creation of these international organisations would help in a more open way to foster peace and security in the world as well as to assist in finding solutions to problems of a global nature, like trade, pollution, the weather, health, human rights, cross-border crime and so on. Another advantage of multilateralism is that it helped oppose bilateral discriminatory agreements between certain (large) countries and has enhanced the negotiating power of small and medium sized nations, enabling them to gain influence and avoid certain decisions against them. The United Nations in particular has played an instrumental role in preserving peace in the world, although it has also failed in this field on several occasions, but without it many conflicts would have been much worst.

But, it is not only in the multilateral domain that diplomacy developed after 1945. Other areas of diplomacy saw the day in the last sixty years: economic diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, regional diplomacy, public diplomacy, cooperation and development diplomacy, preventive diplomacy…

In the 21st Century it can be said that diplomacy is therefore more complex than in the past, as it can be seen by the number of matters it deals with at present and with their ever increasing complexity, as demonstrated by the domestic impact of external issues and the fact that new subjects continue to crowd the international agenda (climate change and the environment, human rights and the role of civil society, conflict prevention, humanitarian aid, democracy promotion, cross-border finance, good governance and sustainable development). Managing external affairs today requires thus technical skills in a multitude of fields of expertise, involving focus on performance and reaching out to wider publics. For this reason, some experts say that current time diplomacy is more multidirectional, proactive and innovative than in the past. Besides, the States, through their foreign ministries, have no more the monopoly of the external relations of nations, those relations are shared with private (mainly NGOs) and public bodies (trade departments, culture ministries, parliaments, tourism boards, the military, research institutions and universities…), which makes coordination with them complex, burdensome and time consuming. Especially when we live in a time that requires that reaction to international treats be short and timely.

Worth being mentioned here is the impact that globalisation and new communication technologies had in diplomacy, especially in the last 20 to 30 years. Globalisation made the world smaller and countries are today closer to each other than in the past. Transport reduced the distance between nations. And the new communication technologies have made it possible for information to spread rapidly requiring that diplomatic reporting be efficient, prompt and precise, otherwise it serves no useful purpose. These new technologies have given rise to what is commonly known today as e-diplomacy (or digital diplomacy as some also call it), a subject that we intend to discuss in one of our future articles.

Before that, we will discuss in the next article the abilities and skills that are required today of diplomats and protocol professionals.

(1). Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2012 Edition.

*About the author:

Dr. Luis Ritto is the former EU Ambassador to the Holy See, Order of Malta and 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., “Diplomacy”, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939.

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

Perry, M. Chase, M., Jacob, J.R., Jacob, M.C. and Von Laue, T.H., “Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society, Volume 1, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1989.

Rana, K.S., “21st Century Diplomacy: A Practitioner’s Guide”, The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.


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