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Diplomacy in Scrabble Tiles

Stop Inventing "New Diplomacies"

Jun 21, 2017


We must end the obsession with creating new “types” of diplomacy. It was probably a mistake “inventing” public diplomacy and digital diplomacy. It undoubtedly led both scholars and practitioners into unhelpful, and potentially harmful, cul-de-sacs like nation-branding or the obsession with social media presence. But now a plethora of new kinds of diplomacy are being offered up, ranging from education diplomacy, via sports and science diplomacy, to gastronomic diplomacy. No doubt such concepts are useful for securing academic funding and publication in academic journals. But they are frequently conceptually confused, risk these new kinds of diplomacy being seen as an end in themselves, rather than as part of broader diplomatic strategies, and, more seriously, risk emptying the concept “Diplomacy” of any meaning.

The conceptual confusion arises from the failure to distinguish between tools that can be used as part of a broader diplomatic strategy and the subject matter of diplomacy. Thus education diplomacy confuses educational networks as tools that can be used in the pursuit of broader diplomatic strategies with the application of diplomacy to resolve or manage issues arising in international education (e.g. the impact of Brexit on European educational exchange programs). Likewise, science diplomacy confuses the use of networks of scientists to advance broader diplomatic agendas (e.g. during the Cold War) with applying diplomacy to international scientific issues (e.g. Climate Change). I have previously pointed out the same confusion in digital diplomacy, suggesting the term “digital diplomacy” be confined to the use of digital tools in support of broader diplomatic strategies, while the term “cyberdiplomacy” be used to describe the application of diplomacy to problems arising in cyberspace. Failure to make this distinction between tools and subject matter does not create new kinds of diplomacy. It merely causes confusion.

If everything is diplomacy, then diplomacy no longer means anything useful, and we can give up using the term.

Equally, these new “kinds” of diplomacy frequently lack any context. Diplomacy does not exist in a vacuum. Nor is diplomacy an end in itself, divorced from all other activities. Diplomacy is a way of achieving broader objectives, set from outside diplomacy. Diplomacy does not itself have content. It is not the pursuit of peace and international understanding. It can be, if that is what their political masters instruct the diplomats to pursue. But equally diplomacy can be used to provoke war, or secure better conditions for fighting one (think Bismarck in 1869 or Blair in 2003). In governmental diplomacy, which remains the most common kind, diplomacy, together with Warfare and geoeconomics, comprises one of the ways in which governments can pursue their policy objectives. Public diplomacy is a subset of diplomacy, which seeks to help pursue those policy objectives through influencing foreign (and domestic) public opinion. By and large the new “kinds” of diplomacy are no more than subsets of public diplomacy, offering thematic areas and tools to help influencing foreign public opinions. Like diplomacy itself, they can be coercive. For example, sporting boycotts can be used to pressure just as sporting links can be used to attract. But it only makes sense to talk about sporting (or educational, or scientific, or gastronomic) activities if they form part of a broader diplomatic strategy in pursuit of policy objectives. Otherwise it is just sport, education, science or lunch.

There is understandable enthusiasm for extending the concept of “diplomacy” beyond government diplomats, reflecting the plethora of new state and non-state actors participating in international relations. But the lack of intellectual rigor with which this is often done risks emptying “diplomacy” of all meaning. When courses on diplomacy seriously discuss diplomacy in the family context, then diplomacy ends up meaning little more than getting what you want through negotiation or manipulation, rather than just thumping someone. If everything is diplomacy, then diplomacy no longer means anything useful, and we can give up using the term (and presumably close down the diplomatic studies courses).

Similarly, it is not clear if all those new state and non-state actors participating in international affairs do so as diplomats. They may be doing similar things to diplomats, or participating in the same activities, but are they doing so in the same way as diplomats, or with the same world-view? Is there a diplomatic way of doing things, or thinking about the world, which allows us to distinguish between diplomats and non-diplomats doing diplomat-like things? The question is crucial. If, as some have suggested, it is the pragmatic and almost amoral world view of the diplomat (seeing the world in shades of grey) that allows them to mitigate international conflict, what happens when international actors with less morally flexible world views (e.g. NGOs, seeing the world in black and white) multiply? These are questions for another blog, but which show up the lack of intellectual rigor behind the invention of new “kinds” of diplomacy. Meanwhile, let’s be done with these “new diplomacies”.

Note from the CPD Blog Manager: This piece originally appeared on BideDao, Shaun Riordan's website.

Photo via Nick Youngson I CC BY-SA 3.0


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Water Diplomacy

You've missed the mark. Water Diplomacy encompasses a unique set of issues and methods involved in working out transboundary water disputes. The idea has not be developed for "academic purposes." We are trying to help improve practice. Governments (at multiple scales), non-governmental stakeholders and scientific/technical experts who understand water networks and systems MUST all be engaged in a process of joint problem-solving. Millions of peoples' lives depend on it. Overarching political differences notwithstanding, countries that share common water resources (such as rivers and lakes) MUST engage in water diplomacy. Upstream and downstream riparians are dependent on each other for their water security. This is NOT like other forms of public diplomacy and NOT like state diplomacy by traditional diplomats. Those involved in water diplomacy must get the science right (or their interactions are pointless), and they must work together (their conflicting interests notwithstanding) to experiment, adapt and learn from practice even if they are otherwise engaged or disengaged in other diplomatic interactions on unrelated matters. Water Diplomacy is, indeed, a separate kind of diplomacy. And, yes, all the participants are diplomats in that they are representing stakeholder interests beyond their own personal interests, taking account of the concerns of their back tables, working to communicate in the face of substantial disagreement and negotiating continuously in multiple forums. I encourage you to read my book with Shafiqul Islam, Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks (Resources for the Future, 2012) to learn more about the theory and practice of water diplomacy -- a unique kind of diplomacy. (;,

Larry Susskind
Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, MIT
Vice-Chair, Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

A response

I'm sorry, I do not see the point you are making. Nor can I agree that it makes sense to talk about something separate called "water diplomacy". To my mind, you are applying diplomatic mindsets and techniques to resolving water issues. That this involves both state and non-state actors does not distinguish it from Diplomacy applied to other issues. Nor does the requirement for expert knowledge (equally true of climate change or more traditional diplomatic themes like disarmament). The danger of calling this "water diplomacy" is that it appears to suggest it is somehow different to other diplomacy and cut off from broader diplomatic strategies. The latter in particular is not true (and dangerous if you think it is). All the state actors (and many non-state actors) engaged with the water issue have a range of other policy objectives and a broader diplomatic strategy to achieve them. If their diplomacy on water issues is not integrated in it, they are unlikely to deliver on any agreements their "water diplomats" reach. So I return to my initial point: why not just talk about diplomacy?

Compound Diplomacies

There seem to be two major kinds of compound terms involving 'diplomacy'. One denotes the diplomats' alleged teleology - such as 'resource diplomacy' or 'energy diplomacy' - and the other describes their means - such as 'education diplomacy', 'ping pong diplomacy' or 'panda diplomacy'. I agree that such compound terms are misleading.

I just conducted a little research on whether a particular govenrmental tool can be called one of 'energy diplomacy', because that focal country's foreign policy actions were often described with this appellation. A closer scrutiny with a certain degree of scientific rigor shows that 'energy diplomacy' is quite a misleading term. It unduly degrades other foreign policy aspects (e.g. defence matters or trade interests) by conceptually subordinating them under the alleged overarching goal of 'energy security'. This, however, turns out to be wrong. [The paper I wrote on that was submitted to a journal, but it is certainly too early to cite it here as it is still in the peer review process.]

Your thoughts perfectly fit to these findings. I believe that thinking simply in terms of "diplomacy" can often be much more fruitful than reducing it to a 'pars pro toto'.

A response

Absolutely. The points you make can be applied to Lawrence Susskind’s points above.

Stop Inventing New Diplomacies/Shaun Riordan

While I have great respect for Shaun Riordan's writings, indeed cite him in my lectures and agree that calling everything something diplomacy could be a slippery slope and conceptually incoherent, he does not mention perhaps the most important, at least in terms of serious study undertaken, that of BUSINESS OR CORPORATE DIPLOMACY. He is right that we need to distinguish between strategy and tactics, but my own doctorate added value to the Public Relations discipline by comparing and contrasting the new discipline of public diplomacy. My own teaching of business diplomacy from a public diplomacy base in London and Singapore is attempting not only to add to the body of knowledge but help the practice of public relations , public affairs and corporate responsibility.

A response

I must confess that I also do work on Corporate or Business Diplomacy, but I find the literature weak and lacking intellectual rigour. When looking at various Business or Corporate Diplomacy Courses, I am always left asking where the "Diplomacy" is. Just because companies have to engage with political or geopolitical issues, whether managing risk, engaging with governments or engaging with multilevel and heterogenous networks of state and non-state actors, does not make them diplomats. The key question, which most of the literature ignores, is whether they are engaging with these issues in the same way diplomats do, rather than adopting more traditional business-type approaches like lobbying, CSR or public affairs. My experience suggests generally they do the latter, which may be why they are not particularly good at it, but which cannot be described as business or corporate DIPLOMACY


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