Should diplomacy be left to diplomats?

| July 21, 2019


Should diplomacy be left to diplomats?



Introduction. 2

Traditional conceptions of diplomacy. 3

The changing face of diplomacy. 4

The soft power of diplomacy by NGOs and INGOs. 7

The rise of social media and its influence on public diplomacy. 10

Conclusion. 12

References. 14


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 (Langhorne, 2005). 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 (Eastwood, 2007).

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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; Gilboa, 2008). 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 (Gilboa, 2006). 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 (Berna, 2013). This trend is often compared with the concurrent rise of supranational socio-political unions such as the European Union (Berna, 2013). In reference to the latter phenomenon, the term “late sovereign phase of public diplomacy” is normally used (Berna, 2013). 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.

The soft power of diplomacy by NGOs and INGOs

Today, NGOs and INGOs continue to rush in to take the void being created by the waning influence of the nation-state (Hoffman, 2003). In the face of numerous challenges that transcend national boundaries such as economic recession, climate, international terrorism, famine, catastrophes, and epidemics, the relevance of the nation-state as the primary legitimate custodian of power and force is being challenged (Hoffman, 2003). Instead, the world has started embracing the crucial role being played by INGOs and NGOs in dealing with these challenges, For example, Aid for Africa is an INGO that has become famous for its role in addressing the complex, inter-related problems being encountered in Africa. This INGO was founded as a partnership of 85 charity organizations, all with an interest in solving Africa’s socio-economic and political problems.

A current event that demonstrates the growing soft power of NGOs is the racist remark made on social website by Justine Sacco, a public relations director at InterActiveCorp, a US-based company (Rose, 2013). This is what Justine wrote: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. I am just kidding. I am white!” For many of those who expressed outrage over this message, this was the most racist remark they have ever heard. This incident is related to the rising power of INGOs because soon after online uproar over these remarks erupted, one commentator created a new website and named it with the sole purpose of directing online traffic to the website of Aid for Africa (Rose, 2013). This way, the INGO has arguably given a problematic situation a new, positive twist by creating a platform where awareness about problem-solving efforts can reach millions of Africans. Since the controversy over those racist remarks, no sovereign state has made an official statement. This is simply because the issue transcends national boundaries and that no single state feels obliged to express an opinion.

If Aid for Africa manages to establish a new fund to enable it fight the HIV/AIDS scourge in Africa as a result of sympathies triggered by the racist remarks, it will have demonstrated its ability to use soft power constructively for problem-solving. According to Nye (2008), soft power is simply the ability to obtain the desired outcomes through attraction as opposed to payment or coercion. The use of soft power has become very fashionable in the post-Cold War era because the traditional obsession with the power of the sovereign state has started waning. For example, those who conduct most of their businesses online are less interested about jurisdictional issues that arise because of the existence of geographical state boundaries. In fact, they view these jurisdictional issues as a barrier to effectiveness in international trade.

Today, more and more people have access to information about current affairs in the world of politics, economics, and even socio-cultural issues. This awareness puts NGOs where they are in a position to create mass appeal through advocacy. They use the same technological tools of mass communication and interaction being used by citizens to create this appeal, thereby influencing the public to adopt a certain point of view regarding pertinent political, economic, and socio-cultural issues. This phenomenon has enabled advocacy NGOs to rise in prominence and influence in international politics.

New media and social networking platforms have created the potential for political issues to be amplified. More importantly, these platforms now form an integral component of the so-called “postmodern transnational relations” (Howard & Parks, 2012). Advances in media technologies have brought the world to the dawn of an era where the ordinary person has a realistic change of playing a crucial role in international relations. NGOs and INGOs are moving in with renewed vigor to tap into this potential using soft power. These non-state actors are also keen to take advantage of today’s growing democratic deficit in most countries. Democratic deficit is a phenomenon where the gap between citizens and those who hold power continues to widen.

Most INGOs create soft power by empowering citizens to enable them claim their rightful place in today’s global society (Gregory, 2008). Leaders of these NGOs are aware that many problems and challenges exist that have created a pressing need for disenfranchised and disempowered citizens to create networks and structures as part of the problem-solving process. These problem-solving efforts have gradually led to a shift away from elected representatives particularly in liberal democracies. This has created a situation where the power of democratic persuasion shifts to non-state actors, in most cases NGOs and INGOs.

Following the rise of citizen diplomacy and the soft power being used by NGOs in diplomacy, a new way of thinking has emerged (Zaharna, 2007). This new way of thinking emphasizes on the need to establish an “emancipated society” by reconstructing diplomacy in such a way that it becomes an integral component of citizenship (Zaharna, 2007). In this context, it is not possible for the world to remain tied up by the constraints of the traditional approach where diplomacy is strictly the responsibility of state-appointed, career diplomats.

In 2011, WikiLeaks, an international non-profit organization, released thousands of classified diplomatic cables, sparking outrage by various sovereign states including the United States (Cull, 2011). According to Cull (2011), this constitutes a legitimate effort to reconstruct diplomacy by turning it into an integral component of citizenship. In this case, WikiLeaks, whose operations are conducted solely online, embarked on a normative quest for more inclusivity and democracy within the global community. Moreover, the event by this online NGO demonstrated that individuals and unconventional organizations have a potential role to play in utilizing new media to empower citizens and to play a greater role in international affairs (Cull, 2011).

The rise of social media and its influence on public diplomacy

The social media touches on how citizens engage in civic discussions through online platforms. In essence, it addresses the issue of the rise of citizen diplomacy. The social media provides an excellent platform for civic mobilization. Public diplomacy has never been the same again since the advent of the era of social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter Zhong & Lu, 2013). Many career diplomats have been compelled to provide important clarifications and follow-ups via social media. This gives citizens a unique opportunity to express their views regarding these clarifications. This creates a chain reaction of responses that ultimately metamorphoses into a lively global discussion conducted in the public sphere. Such discussions ultimately affect, either directly or indirectly, the diplomatic agendas values, priorities, and decisions that would otherwise would have been synthesized without any due regard to citizens’ views.

This new practice has raised the profile of ordinary citizens because they are increasingly being recognized as stakeholders in many diplomatic processes. It demonstrates that citizens have a legitimate contribution to make in international affairs through cooperation with traditional actors such as diplomats, states, and NGOs. However, opponents of citizen diplomacy argue that it is a dangerous venture because anyone may gain access to social media and push for potentially hazardous policies. They also argue that organizations with vested interests may push for the implementation of policies that may not be in the best interest of the public. Such organizations may avail resources to NGOs, which in turn may endeavor to influence disempowered and disenfranchised citizens into adopting a certain point of view.

Gilboa (2001) proposes three models of media influence on diplomacy; they include public diplomacy, media diplomacy, and media broker diplomacy. In public diplomacy, state and non-state actors rely on media to communicate and influence policies. Media diplomacy is characterized by the use of media for communication with actors and for conflict resolution. Media broker diplomacy occurs when journalists and the public temporarily act as diplomats and mediate in international negotiations.

According to Zaharna & Rugh (2012), the US has led the way in relying on social media in public diplomacy. In contrast, many other countries are struggling to adjust to this new practice (Zaharna & Rugh, 2012). Although this practice does not demonstrate how non-diplomats are getting involved in diplomacy, it creates a lasting impressing about the potential by new media to influence the way diplomatic systems operate. It also reveals the various ways in which diplomacy is being revolutionized. In this revolution, it is highly unlikely that diplomacy will continue to be the reserve of career diplomats per se.

In a world where upheavals have become a recurring phenomenon, many people cannot help but perceive a strong connection between the power of social media and the changing face of public diplomacy (Zhong & Lu, 2013). It is one thing for a practitioner to recognize the importance of social media in public diplomacy; it is an entirely different thing for the practitioner to acquire the ability to use social media effectively for purposes of government public diplomacy. This is ability poses a serious challenge to countries that are used to strict adherence to the traditional conceptions of statist democracy.

According to Burns & Eltham (2009), engagement through social media can achieve the best outcomes when employed as one of the components of public diplomacy in real-world situations. Diplomats must make use of metrics to measure both audience and influence (Burns & Eltham, 2009). It may also be helpful for traditional “broadcast” media to be used interactively alongside social media (Burns & Eltham, 2009). Nevertheless, credit should be given for the new possibilities that social media has opened up; it enables the ordinary person to not only gain instant access to customized information but also engage in omni-directional communication on equal footing as the rest of the global community (Mor, 2007).


The debate on the state of diplomacy as a discipline creates the impression of a field of study that is still finding its rightful place in the world of academia. However, there is consensus among scholars regarding the nature of the dominant, distinct traditional conception of statist diplomacy. Until recently, statist diplomacy was the only legitimate source of influence in international politics. Nevertheless, a new conception of diplomacy driven by the soft power of non-state actors such as NGOs is emerging. This has triggered disagreement on whether diplomacy should be left to diplomats or the global community should embrace the idea of citizen diplomacy.

This paper concludes that the rise of the social media age has created a phenomenon where a revolution in the practice of diplomacy is inevitable. In this revolution, ordinary citizens will continue participating in policy discussions on equal footing as everyone else via social media. Therefore, in the modern age, diplomacy should not be left to diplomats; non-diplomats must also exploit all available opportunities to play a crucial role in shaping international policies through non-state avenues such as social media.



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