Simon Szykman



Most of us probably realize that Diplomacy didn't just come into existence in 1976 with the introduction by The Avalon Hill Game Company of a game by that name. However, for many of us, that is probably the extent of what we know about diplomacy outside of the game. I say "us" and "we" because until I wrote this column, that was the extent of my own knowledge on the subject. It was this realization that prompted me to take what was going to be just a very brief etymological definition of diplomacy (i.e. where the word "diplomacy" came from), and expand it into an article on the history of diplomacy.

Surely the concept of diplomacy goes farther back than does recorded history. However, trying to think that far back I can't help conjuring up an image of a Far Side cartoon illustrating an aborted attempt at diplomacy between two Neanderthals named Ugh and Urk involving a rock, a club and maybe a stone wheel. I will therefore stick to what I was able to find out doing a little research, which necessarily limits this article to the written record.

On "Diplomacy"

According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, two definitions for "diplomacy" are:

  1. The art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations for the attainment of mutually satisfactory terms.
  2. Adroitness or artfulness in securing advantages without arousing hostility: address or tact in conduct of affairs.

To begin, I will return to my original intention for this piece and describe the origin of the word "diplomacy". The word stems from the Greek word , or diploma, which literally means two fold (not "twofold", but as in folded in two). In ancient Greece, a diploma was a certificate certifying completion of a course of study, typically folded in two. In the days of the Roman Empire, the word diploma was used to describe official travel documents, such as passports and passes for imperial roads, that were stamped on double metal plates. Later, the meaning was extended to cover other official documents such as treaties with foreign tribes. In the 1700's the French called their body of officials attached to foreign legations the corps diplomatique. The word diplomacy was first introduced into English by Edmund Burke in 1796, based on the French word diplomatie (the -tie in French is pronounced like the -cy in English and therefore diplomatie sounds very much like diplomacy only with a French accent).

Diplomacy in Primitive Societies

The concept of diplomacy may seem like one that would follow naturally once any society reaches a certain level of sophistication. As it turns out, this hypothesis is supported by the fact that ideas relating to diplomacy have arisen in many primitive societies, seemingly without external intervention.

As an example, the idea of diplomatic immunity is known among the Australian aborigines. A study of the diplomacy of primitive peoples encompassing societies in Australia, Asia, Africa and the Americas showed familiarity with ideas such as messengers and envoys to maintain intertribal relations. Some had beliefs that messengers are in possession of a protecting taboo that should not be violated. Others received envoys and their messages according to a given ceremonial. Messengers were often selected not from among the expendable members of the society, but from the leading men and women of the tribe.

Diplomacy in Ancient History

Due to a lack of a preserved written record, very little is known about diplomacy in ancient history. While few in number, there are references to diplomatic concepts across many societies, such as the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Hebrews, the Chinese and the Hindus.

Documents dating back to ancient Egypt have been discovered that describe the exchange of envoys between the Egyptian pharaohs and neighboring monarchs. In addition to these descriptions, a treaty dating to 1278 BCE between the pharaoh Ramses II and Hatursi II, the king of the Hittites, was found.

Thanks to a cuneiform library founded by Sargon II in the 700's BCE, there is a plentiful record of envoys between Assyria, Babylon and Elam during the reign of Assurbanipal of Assyria, which lasted until 626 BCE.

The ancient Chinese were isolationists and did not encourage contacts or relations with outsiders. However, records have been found that describe protocol and rules to be used in such dealings when they occurred.

The Hindus also recognized the importance of diplomacy as is shown by the following quote from the Laws of Manu (an important Hindu text): "Peace and its opposite (that is war) depend on the ambassadors, since it is they who create and undo alliances." A political treatise by Kautylia written circa 300 BCE includes a chapter about envoys that outlines their responsibilities, including transmitting points of view of their rulers, preserving treaties, defending their countries' positions and gathering information.

The most abundant source of information is the books of the Old Testament which document many points in the history of the Hebrews. The book of Judges describes the dispatching of messengers by Jepta to negotiate with the Amnonites, and the book of Samuel describes the sending of messengers from the house of Saul to the house of David to bring peace to the two houses.

The Greeks

One of the first diplomatic figures appears in Greek mythology. Hermes, the brother of Apollo, was known for his charm, cunning and trickery. What better qualities for a diplomat? Zeus having a similar opinion, employed Hermes for the most sensitive diplomatic missions and he came to be regarded by the other gods as the intermediary between the upper and lower worlds. The Greeks regarded him as the patron of travelers, merchants and thieves.

Moving from mythology to history, among the earliest diplomats were the heralds of the Homeric period (the eighth century BCE) The heralds were, among other things, official agents of negotiation and were chosen for such qualifications as a good memory and a loud voice. As relations between the Greek city-states became more sophisticated, so did the qualifications for diplomatic representatives. By the sixth century BCE, only the best orators were chosen to be ambassadors.

By the fifth century BCE, the Greeks had implemented a system of continuous diplomatic relations. A good deal of what is known about diplomacy in ancient Greece comes from histories recorded by Thucydides, which include an account of a diplomatic conference that took place in Sparta in 432 BCE. This conference included such "modern" concepts as making speeches, debates, proposing motions and carrying out votes. Also interesting is the fact that the idea of diplomatic immunity had already taken root, allowing representatives from city-states with antagonistic relationships to take part in these conferences. Demosthenes, another important historical figure, acted as an ambassador for Greece for a time.

The Romans and the Italians

The Greek system of diplomacy acted as a foundation for that of the Roman Republic, which grew over the next several centuries and became the Roman Empire in 27 BCE. The contribution of the Romans to diplomacy was not to its practice, but to its theory. The Romans stressed the importance of adhering to agreements and treaties. Rather than producing skilled negotiators, the Romans produced a skilled archivists who specialized in diplomatic procedures. Thus, the Roman diplomat was more an administrator than a negotiator.

Whether it was due to a lack of skilled negotiators or those darned leaded goblets, the Roman Empire eventually started to decline and gave way to the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century AD. The Byzantine emperors recognized the importance of diplomatic skill and revived the art. Under Emperor Justinian's rule, the Byzantine Empire grew partly through the use of three diplomatic strategies: (1) weakening the barbarians by inciting rivalry between them, (2) securing the friendship of frontier tribes with money and flattery, and (3) conversion of heathens to Christianity.

As the Byzantine Empire, too, eventually declined, the playing of one despot against another became a common diplomatic strategy. In this period, the skills desirable in diplomats changed from simple orators to trained observers who could also provide reports about internal politics in the courts of the despots as well as in foreign countries.

In the dark ages in feudal Europe, there was little in the way of an established system of dialogues between countries. The Italian city-states more than any other nation at the time remained outside the feudal system. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the diplomatist-statesman began to appear as a consequence of both common interests and rivalries between city-states.

The Venetians were reputed to be among the best in this capacity. Their archives include diplomatic documents spanning from the ninth to the eighteenth centuries and include written instructions given to their ambassadors, replies brought back from foreign countries, and reports written upon completion of missions.

The French

Diplomacy did not become a true profession until the fifteenth century, at which time the Italian States began to appoint permanent ambassadors. Among the more well known ambassadors were Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Machiavelli. Although the profession of diplomat started with the Italians, it was the French who began to create the very early framework for modern diplomacy.

In the 1600's, Cardinal Richelieu made significant advances in diplomatic theory and practice. He stated in his Political Testament that diplomacy should be a continuous process aimed at creating durable relationships rather than attempting to make opportunistic advances. At the time, this was an important shift of the emphasis and purpose of diplomacy.

Up until the eighteenth century, the language of diplomacy was Latin. Diplomats both wrote and conversed in Latin; documents such as the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the Anglo-Danish Treaty of 1670 and the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1674 were all drafted in Latin. During the eighteenth century, the French repeatedly tried to have French adopted as the language of diplomacy. The idea was so disliked by other powers that four major treaties that were signed in French had special articles inserted into the treaty specifying that these should not be considered precedents.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, French had become the de facto language of diplomacy and at the Congress of Vienna and the Congress of Paris all proceedings were conducted in French. It was only at the Paris Conference of 1918-19 that an English text - the Treaty of Versailles - was recognized as official.

Diplomacy was conducted by statesmen and politicians until the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was not until after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that diplomatic service was recognized as a profession unto itself in various countries. It was then that rules and protocols of modern diplomacy began to take form, based on the precepts set forth by the French during the preceding two centuries.

Modern Diplomacy

The next major revolution in diplomacy came with the end of the World War I. The most famous of all peace proposals following World War I was the program of Fourteen Points, delivered by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Two of the fourteen points were: open covenants openly arrived at (which implied an end to "secret" diplomacy) and the establishment of a League of Nations.

Before the establishment of the League of Nations, diplomacy was conducted between individual representatives of nations or for larger treaties at congresses such as those described above. The new idea accompanying the League of Nations and carried later to the United Nations, was diplomacy through a somewhat permanent state of conference between representatives of many nations.

This system of "multilateral diplomacy" is still in place today, for better or worse; diplomatic relations are presently regulated according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a document that was written in 1961 and was adopted in 1964. A great deal of the world's diplomacy that has been conducted since the creation of the United Nations in 1945 has been done in the same building at the United Nations Plaza in New York City.

The continuity of the diplomatic institution throughout thousands of years and in all known civilizations shows that diplomacy is an institution inherent to international life itself, one that may undergo transformations or may be used with more or less intensity, but cannot be dispensed with.

- José Calvet De Magalhães


Simon Szykman
Carnegie Mellon University

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