Week Four – Why Bother with Theory?

The fourth week of Diplomacy in the 21st Century focused on theories and models of diplomacy and international relations (IR).  The week was led by Dr J Simon Rofe, Reader in Diplomatic and International Studies at SOAS University of London, who received much praise from participants for his ability to introduce complex subjects in an accessible manner.

With many participants (56% of poll respondents) having either formal qualifications in diplomacy/IR or “significant exposure” to the subjects, the week was also rich in recommendations for further study, some of which are incorporated below.

There was general agreement that diplomacy can and should be traced back to the interactions of early tribes and civilisations – including the external relations of eg the Roman and Mongolian Empires, and attempts at treaty-based relationships which date (at least) from the Treaty of Kadesh between the Egyptians and Hittites in 1259 BCE.  The Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 were seen as an important milestone with respect to the rise of nation state diplomacy within national borders, especially for Europe.  The concept of polylateralism was seen as a good fit for the complexity of modern diplomacy – including the questions raised in Week One re “who is a diplomat?” – but more as an explanatory model than a practical operational blueprint.

Participants suggested that constructivism should be added to liberalism/pluralism and realism as a key concept or theoretical lens for examination.  This infographic in Foreign Policy offers an interesting summary of the field – although NB the gender (im)balance of those cited – which is a wider issue in IR which was also raised in the comments.  Other concepts mentioned included economic determinism, Marxism, realpolitik and post-colonialism.  Writers and thinkers were cited from Talleyrand to Morgenthau.  This Quora link was recommended on systems thinking and a link made to Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift – eg will the digital evolution or revolution (Week Two) mark a permanent shift in how we think about diplomacy?

Some participants felt that the historical background and key concepts could have come nearer the beginning of the course.  In one sense this reveals a tension between two different types of course: an internal course for experienced practitioners, and an introductory course for those less familiar with the basics of diplomacy/IR.  This course, both internally (FCO/government) and externally, is aimed at both audiences.  There is also a pedagogical choice to make between a logical curriculum-style approach (“Chapter One: An Introduction to Basic Concepts and Terminology”) and an approach which draws the learner into personal stories and case studies, and current debates, before stepping back and looking at how these fit into a bigger picture and theoretical framework.

This course is an experiment in all respects, so the debate will help us to think harder about our approach to future versions.  Whatever the answer it sounds like more signposting would help.

The case studies around the Washington Naval Conferences and the Cuban Missile Crisis illustrated some of the complexity in practice.  A number of participants have put Essence of Decision on their reading lists and one noted that Professor Philip Zelikow is the instructor for two MOOCs on Coursera:

I would add that Professor Margaret MacMillan’s Peacemakers is another superb dissection of a complex diplomatic moment, in this case the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and its aftermath.

Many examples were given of thematic diplomacies – such as education, cultural, city and culinary diplomacy – and even porcelain diplomacy.  Sports diplomacy attracted the most attention – including the overlap with politics with mentions for Didier Drogba, President George Weah, Senator Manny Pacquiao and Prime Minister Imran Khan. An alternative viewpoint can be found by reading Shaun Riordan on new diplomacies (and why we should stop inventing them).

Here is a selection of further suggestions and resources which were offered by course participants:

  • pointers to other free online courses on diplomacy or diplomacies – Global Diplomacy (SOAS University of London), Cultural Diplomacy (European University Institute) and Global Health Diplomacy (State University of New York)
  • book recommendations: Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sir Jeremy Greenstock’s list of five top books on diplomacy
  • “Decolonizing Diplomacy: Reflections on African Estrangement and Exclusion” By Sam Okoth Opondo in the volume “Sustainable Diplomacies,” published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Plus a further selection with many thanks to Phoebe:

Would the real diplomacy please stand up! by Dr. Katharina Hone: 

What is a Diplomat? by Shaun Riordan: 

An online Web debate hosted by the DiploFoundation between Mr Shaun Riordan and Dr Jovan Kurbalija, moderated by Dr. Katharina Hone:https://www.diplomacy.edu/blog/webdebate-summary-should-we-take-new-diplomacies-seriously

Enough of ‘new’ diplomacies: reclaiming the diplomatic pluriverse by Philip Conway: 

New Diplomacy: Where do we want to go? By Dr. Katharina Hone: 

Enormous thanks again to Dr J Simon Rofe and to all participants who brought their knowledge and recommendations to Week Four.

Jonathan Marshall






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