Should diplomacy be left to diplomats?


The debate on diplomacy as a profession has in the past attracted a heated debate with serious disagreements relating to different issues taking center stage. To begin with doubts have been cast over the state of diplomacy as a profession (Lee, 2004). According to Lee (2004) diplomacy today is a “profession in peril”. As an area of academic inquiry, diplomacy is often associated with incoherent theoretical frameworks and models. The centrality of the sovereign state on which the diplomacy profession was traditionally founded is being challenged by the growing influence, assertiveness, relevance, and soft power of non-state actors. This has led to the emergence of the concept of “citizen diplomacy” that is made possible by the emergence of social media, mass communication, and social networking.

As the disagreements rage on, the face of diplomacy has in recent times been undergoing numerous changes. Non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations have started playing an increasingly critical role in diplomatic activities. Therefore, a crucial question for diplomatic scholars and actors in international politics is on whether diplomacy should be left to diplomats. The thesis of this paper is that diplomacy should not be left to diplomats; non-diplomats should also be allowed to play a crucial role in shaping international policies through non-state avenues such as social media. To explore this subject analytically, this paper examines the traditional conceptions of diplomacy and contrasts them with the emerging revolution of “new diplomacy” that is characterized by the entry of non-state actors and the growing relevance of social media. In this analysis, examples from current affairs are provided.

Traditional conceptions of diplomacy

Traditionally, diplomacy was based on the concept of the state as defined by the treaty of Westphalia (Kelly, 2010). In statist diplomacy, a lot of emphasis has been on the relationship between the state and the government (Hoffman, 2003). Diplomats have traditionally been appointed through political processes. All along, it has been extremely difficult to divorce diplomacy from the idea of the sovereign states. It has become extremely difficult for one to conceptualize the role of diplomats in international relations without think about the respective sovereign states whose national interests they represent.

In the traditional sense, diplomats are expected to represent the interests of sovereign states simply because states are the only primary legitimate carriers of force and authority. However, in the 21st century, new global challenges such as poverty, international terrorism, organized crime, and climate change have emerged. These challenges call for more than the traditional practice where countries come together to discuss possible solutions. They call for the participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as international NGOs (INGOs).

In terms of the theory of diplomacy, several claims of incoherence have been made (Gilboa, 2008; Hoffman, 2003). This creates the impression that diplomacy as a discipline is still in its formative years. The alternative argument in this case would be that diplomacy does not qualify to be viewed as a profession. This view is likely to become entrenched if non-state actors continue taking over assignments that were traditionally the reserve of career diplomats.

In the post-Cold War era, many efforts have been made to examine the subject of diplomacy from an analytical perspective. In most cases, attention is on the place of statist diplomacy in contemporary international politics. Nevertheless, new conceptions of diplomacy have emerged, leading to the introduction of terms such as coercive diplomacy, pipeline diplomacy, citizen diplomacy, and diplomacy by sanction. At the same time, practices that are a representation of a more traditional view of this discipline have persisted. For example, there is a widely held view that diplomacy should be left to diplomats. Moreover, diplomacy is widely viewed as a “state-to-state” activity. This has led to the establishment of a traditional practice where each sovereign appoints and designates official diplomats whose primary responsibility is to safeguard their national interests in various countries of the world.

This demonstrates the wide range of views that dominate the scholarly world. Therefore, it is not surprising that many scholars become confused and are unable to provide a universally acceptable meaning of modern diplomacy. This may have greatly contributed to the emergence of incoherent theoretical models. According to Murray (2008), it is imperative for scholars to classify and consolidate the disparity of views inherent in the field of diplomacy in order for the role of diplomacy in the present era to be better understood and enhanced. On the basis of these suggestions, Murray (2008) proposes three schools or classifications of diplomatic thought: traditional school, innovative school, and nascent school.

The changing face of diplomacy

Despite the raging controversy in academic circles, the face of diplomacy continues to change. Today, non-state actors have started wielding soft power arising from their growing relevance in international politics. At the same time, regional political blocs such as the European Union pose a serious threat to statist democracy (Bátora, 2005). Moreover, the social media has revolutionized diplomacy by leading to the rise of citizen diplomacy. Through citizen diplomacy, citizens exert a greater influence on crucial issues that affect their lives and destinies. For example, the Arab Spring is sometimes referred to as the “Facebook Revolution”. This is because Facebook played a critical role in raising consciousness among entire national populations. The wave of political mobilization that started in Tunisia eventually spread into many other Arab countries, leading to regime changes. In the post-revolution era, social media continued playing a critical role in the rise of citizen diplomacy. All these changes are excellently captured in the use of the term “new diplomacy” (Kelly, 2010).

In this era of changes in the practice of diplomacy, it is not clear whether this discipline is undergoing the normal process of evolution or it is being revolutionized. In Kelly’s (2010) view, diplomacy is being revolutionized. Bátora (2005) shares the same views and even gives the example of the ongoing process of political, economic, and social integration across Europe. According to Bátora (2005), this revolution will ultimately render the traditional tenets of statist diplomacy obsolete, thereby leading to the embracement of non-statist diplomacy. In this new diplomacy, NGOs, prominent personalities, media personalities, and business leaders will be expected to play a greater role in influencing decisions and policies on the international arena.

Lee (2004) gives an example of this emerging trend by outlining the influence in diplomacy in the UK. The idea of commercial diplomacy has been centralized in the UK since the labor government came to power in 1997 (Lee, 2004). In this practice, the UK government has made efforts to extend the scope of commercial activities undertaken by diplomats. It also involves efforts to formally integrate business interests within the country’s diplomatic systems. This has created a blend of commercial and political aspects of diplomacy, with the resulting changes swinging in favor of commercial aspects (Lee, 2004). Some people see this as a blatant attack on the practice of diplomacy while others view it as part of the inevitable process of diplomatic revolution. In most cases, reservations tend to be in the form of professional concerns on the part of career diplomats, some of which appear legitimate.

Following the success of commercial diplomacy in the UK, this model is increasingly being adopted in other countries. They reflect the ongoing changes in government-business relations not just in the UK but also in other countries of the world. The idea is for governments to want to forge closer ties with business. These government-business relations are inevitable because of the growing popularity of public-private sector partnerships. Some of the public policy areas where such partnerships have become very common include education, health, the prison service, and transport.

Sub-state diplomacy has also been normalized in the context of new diplomacy. This trend is often compared with the concurrent rise of supranational socio-political unions such as the European Union. In reference to the latter phenomenon, the term “late sovereign phase of public diplomacy” is normally used. On the other hand, the role of the individual in diplomacy also continues to trigger a lot of interest in new diplomacy. The current internet revolution has created a phenomenon where citizens need participate in elections and party politics to have their way in terms of adoption of policies. They are able to use the social media to engage with critical issues that are close to their immediate needs, communities, as well as identities. In this case, it is right to say that diplomacy should no longer be the reserve of career diplomats. On the contrary, citizens have been empowered by technology to play a critical role in identifying policies and influencing the way they are implemented.


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