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Diplomacy in the Modern World: A Question of Relevance Essay

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Updated: Feb 15th, 2022


In the rapidly changing modern world, the question of the suitability of the traditional social institutions arises. One of the examples of it is the emergence of the discussion about the relevance of diplomacy. In light of new possibilities, introduced by the progress in communication technology, the necessity of maintaining traditional embassies and diplomats as acting subjects in international relations came under reconsideration. The main argument against its preservation is the high cost of maintenance of the institutes and staff; the accompanying factor is the current appearance of security issues. However, a detailed study of the advantages and limitations of the traditional methods in the diplomatic field demonstrates that they still remain effective. In this essay, evidence of this relevance will be provided, followed by a discussion about its possible modification in the modern world.

In the first part of the paper, the historical development of diplomacy will be described, leading to the modern situation with its new demands and challenges. In the second part, the importance of the physical presence of the diplomats in the host countries will be discussed. Several supporting arguments will be provided related to the effects of personal human communication in diplomacy, possible drawbacks in technology, and the convenience of the permanent presence of foreign delegations in the state. In the third part, the analysis of necessary modifications, including modern technologies and improving the theoretical and educational base of the existing institutions, will be presented.

Historical Development of the Institution of Diplomacy

Diplomatic relations in their sophisticated form were first developed in Greece in the fifth century BC. In the Middle Ages, Byzantium was the center of the development of diplomacy. Later, in the early modern era in Europe, this role was taken by Venice, which set the standards for a new level of technical proficiency in the field of interstate relations (Berridge, 2010, p. 2). Renaissance, thus, became a period in the historical development of diplomacy, when the immediate predecessor of the modern system emerged.

At this point, an embassy, as an institution for the resident mission headed by the citizen of the state on behalf of whom it served, was established (Berridge, 2010, p. 2). The main functions of the members of these missions were representation and protecting the interests of the sending state, negotiations, commerce, informational exchange, and attaining mutual socio-cultural understanding between both sides. The system, which was established in the fifteenth-century states on the territory of modern Italy, existed for the centuries until it was challenged by new political, economic, social, and technological realities of the late twentieth century. In light of the changes, particular characteristics of the system were put into question during the last few decades.

Challenges for the Institute of Diplomacy in the Modern World

Financial Constraints

The permanent missions abroad have to be provided with the physical fabric, which requires renting suitable buildings, both official and residential, and ensuring that they have the proper equipment and furnishing. All these entail financial implications; meanwhile, currently, it is combined with the global financial ravages, especially after the international financial crisis that happened a decade ago (Berridge, 2010). Also, maintaining embassies abroad is often quite difficult for the developing countries, due to their limited funds and issues of income inequality and poor quality of public services and life (Bolewski, 2007). Public perception, which is often mistaken about the “luxurious life” of the diplomats, adds to this problem, affecting the decisions regarding diplomatic budget cuts.

Further, it leads to the raise of the question about the necessity of the traditional embassies. They often start to be assessed as “expensive luxuries,” rather than necessary political assets (Berridge, 2010). As Bolewski (2007, p. 4) states, “conventional embassies are ill-suited for today’s challenges.” At present, it is commonly approved that in the modern world, the institution of diplomacy “must change or at least adapt, so that it is more responsive and effective in this modern environment” (Bolewski, 2007, p. 4). Thus, the existence and mode of operation of the embassies and diplomats are under current reconsideration.

Public Insecurity

The second factor influencing the view about traditional embassies and diplomatic missions is the increase in security matters, which embassies face in the host countries. According to law, diplomats are entitled to host country protection as long as they stay there as sending state representatives. However, as Cusumano and Kinsey (2019) state, in the second half of the twentieth century, such protection became very often unable to ensure the safety of the embassy and diplomats. The attacks on the US embassies in Tehran in 1979, in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, and Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 are among the examples of multiple terrorist actions (Silke, 2019). Overall, since the 1960s, the cases of terrorism were the reasons for the health damages and even deaths of foreign service officials worldwide.

These events required prompt response and counter-measures; thus, preventive policies were applied, such as the retreat of the diplomats in the fortress-like premises outside of the megapolis. Public insecurity cases, as Cusumano and Kinsey (2019) argue, cause the separateness of foreign missions from the local society and, therefore, make diplomacy, in the sense of peaceful conversation, impossible. It demonstrates the vulnerability of diplomatic personnel and the necessity for changes in the system of international relations.

Development of Communication Technology

The possibilities of required changes, caused by cost ineffectiveness and security matters, were provided, in the last decades, by the development of communication technology. Phones, email, and video-conferencing became the tools for communication for government officials without face-to-face meetings. Even if personal contact is urgently required, air travel enables quick transportation, when even distant countries may be reached within one day.

There are several ways for remote communication in international relations. One of the options is a phone call, which has already become a part of the traditional system. It enables real-time voice message exchange of the parties without their physical presence in one place. Another option is video-conferencing, which adds to the same advantage of audio communication visual aspect, where multiple members can see each other “without having to go to the trouble and expense” of traveling (Berridge, 2010, p. 199). These options reduce not only the expenses of the communication but also help in time management, removing outlays that made Stanzel call international relations a “time-consuming art” (Stanzel, 2018, p. 7). Therefore, telephone, video-conferencing, as well as electronic mail are convenient, quick, and, thus, widely used ways of information exchange that set challenges to the traditional diplomacy system.

The Emergence of New Actors in International Relations

It is obvious that modern international relations are carried not only by the traditional resident mission but also by a growing number of other participants. Among them, in addition to NGOs, are transnational companies, foundations, the media, political parties, to mention a few (Bolewski, 2007, p. 17). Thus, as noticed by many scholars, the roles of state and statehood are changing; some of them even make a conclusion about the “decline of the role of the state” (Bolewski, 2007, p. 5). The state representatives now, in many cases, are associated with the position of the moderators rather than facilitators. Not only their monopoly on information is being eroded, as has been stated earlier, but the active position of governors in international relations is losing its cogency.


The process of globalization is one of the factors that currently affect the institute of diplomacy. Bolewski (2007, p. 17) defines globalization as a “process of economic, political, and cultural convergence or homogenization.” In these circumstances, the interdependency of global, national, and local spaces requires the change of the governance, aiming to sustain its legitimacy. Foreign missions need to be extremely flexible and perceptive to ensure their effectiveness in creating a mutual understanding of the states.

Change of Role and Responsibilities of Diplomats

The type of activity, which foreign representatives are obliged to perform in the host countries, is permanently changing and widening in its range. While previously negotiation was the main function of diplomats, now it remains only one of their duties. As Spies (2018) argues, in foreign policy implementation, diplomats have become managers rather than “gate-keepers.” The position of manager, in turn, requires a multiplicity of competencies. One of those is the “capacity to interrupt commercial intercourse” (Lohmann, 2018, p. 12). Another option lay in the cultural field, with the requirement of monitoring social tendencies and cultural trends. As a result, modern diplomats should be prepared and capable of the multidimensional work at their posts.

Relevance of the Institute of Diplomacy

Importance of the Human Factor in Technology

All the challenges for the diplomacy discussed above, bring to question the relevance of the traditional ways of international relations and traditional institutions of embassy and diplomats. While the arguments against them are quite strong, yet there are equally strong counter-arguments in support of maintaining diplomatic missions abroad. First, and the most considerable of such supporting factors, is the evidence of higher efficiency of the physical presence of the actors in the process of communication. The reason for that is, as often observed, the considerable influence of informal communication, as well as the non-verbal aspect of it. In the words of Stanzel (2018, p. 8), “charm, persuasion, or restraint may seem like clichés; however, they constitute essential features of communicative behavior.” They correlate with a person’s character more than trained expressions and body language.

This aspect has particular importance in the countries with cultures based on personal relationships more than on official affairs. There, while doing business, “a lot more is usually achieved over a round of golf, karaoke sessions or coffee at a cafe compared to constant exchanges of emails or phone calls” (Berridge, 2010, p. 44). Thus, it may be an essential part of the communication, uncovering the real intentions of the parties, which are often attempted to be covered up.

Furthermore, the presence of diplomats is necessary for monitoring and analyzing the information about the host country. Although it could be done with the help of communication technologies, human actors are more culturally sensitive, being capable not only for machine-like analysis but for the recognition of the “pulse” of the culture and society. It could be applied to diverse areas of public life, including politics, economics, and socio-cultural processes.

Drawbacks of Technology

The advantages of progress in communication technology cannot be overestimated. However, along with that, it has significant drawbacks that create another argument in support of the maintenance of traditional ways of communication. The most important channels of connection are telephone, video-conferencing, and text messaging, including email and SMS services. Despite its convenience, the use of each of them is accompanied by certain dangers and disadvantages.

The most serious drawback of telephone communication is the absence of the non-verbal form of informational exchange. The nuances or emphasis to a particular point of the conversation are, in many cases, expressed by body language, visual appearance, and setting, rather than by words, and, therefore, could not be transmitted through telephone. Another disadvantage is the necessity for immediate reaction to the words, while in a live meeting, some pauses appear as a natural part of the discussion, allowing contemplation. The lack of time may force quick and immature decisions, especially in the absence of non-verbal signs.

Video-conferencing has obvious advantages compared to a telephone connection, as it allows the parties to see each other during the conversation. Nevertheless, it also has drawbacks, such as poor quality of “multicasting,” i.e., linking multiple participants at different locations. Besides, it makes impossible the layer of the conversation, which is beyond the officially pronounces words. As Berridge (2010, p. 199) notices, “gestures and comments exchange” is a crucial part of the communication, and that part could not be enabled by video cable.

As for SMS and email exchange, although it is widely used, it cannot gain a monopoly in international communication due to its insecurity. For example, the Indian foreign ministry banned this type of information exchange on the official level in February 2009, realizing “the risk of importing viruses and spyware” (Berridge, 2010, p. 203). Other multiple examples may be added, proving the drawbacks of technology while applied in the field of international relations.

The Convenience of Physical Presence

Another point that may prove the relevance of traditional embassies is the convenience of the physical presence of foreign missions in the host countries. The main reason for that is the obligation of the embassy to serve as a protector for the citizens of the country it represents. With the increase in levels of migration, as well as weakening public security, it becomes a crucial point. Without embassies, those affected citizens would lose the necessary level of protection.

Required Changes in Modern Diplomacy

Preparedness for Multidimensional Activities

As has been demonstrated, the arguments in support of maintaining the embassy and diplomats as active actors in international relations are considerable. However, it is also obvious that certain changes should be applied. First, recognizing the changing role of the diplomats, the system has to adopt a modified strategy of setting their duties. Lohmann (2018, p. 16) mentions diplomats’ “vast body of specialized and general knowledge,” emphasizing that the latter has to be deepened and broadened. At present, a professionally trained diplomat is also required to have multiple competencies beyond his specialization, and to be prepared for multi-task activity. The knowledge of politics, economics, but not in a smaller degree of culture, philosophy, and art, are the necessary characteristics of a modern diplomat.

Creating Scientific Foundation and Combining Theory and Practice

Along with the aforementioned educational basis for diplomats, both scientists and practicing diplomats hold the opinion that changes should be made at the theoretical level of diplomacy as a branch of social science. Bolewski (2007, p. 3) states an existing “gap between experience and theory” in this field, which may be overcome by undertaking academic studies in diplomacy. Another option in this field is creating a connection with educational institutes and conducting mutual projects to increase the involvement of the academic staff and students in the process of international relations. All these measures and supposed to imbed innovations in traditional diplomacy, ensuring its efficiency.


As has been demonstrated, the changes in the modern world provide obvious challenges to the traditional institute of diplomacy. Such negative factors as the high cost of maintenance, increasing level of public insecurity, globalization, and, as a result, change of the role of the diplomats cause the question of the relevance of the traditional way of international relations. Furthermore, the development of technology provides an alternative perspective for communication, eliminating the requirement for personal contact and the permanent presence of foreign missions abroad.

However, the arguments proving the relevance of preserving embassies and diplomats are considerable. Among them are the evidence of the efficiency of personal communication, drawbacks of technology, and the convenience of permanent foreign missions, especially in crisis situations. Along with it, it is obvious the diplomacy system has to be modified, especially in the field of the diplomats’ education and collaboration with academics for the elaboration of the theoretical base of the discipline. These measures, if applied in an appropriate way, will ensure the maintenance of the diplomacy, causing its evolution that leads to higher efficiency.

Reference List

Berridge, G. R. (2010) Diplomacy: theory and practice. 4th edn. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bjola, C. (2018) ‘Trends and counter-trends in digital diplomacy’, in Stanzel, V. (ed.) New realities in foreign affairs: diplomacy in the 21st century. Web.

Bolewski, W. (2007) Diplomacy and international law in globalized relations. Berlin: Springer.

Cusumano, E. and Kinsey, C. (2019) Diplomatic security: a comparative analysis. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Lohmann, S. (2018) ‘Diplomats and the use of economic sanctions’, in Stanzel, V. (ed.) New realities in foreign affairs: diplomacy in the 21st century. Web.

Silke, A. (2019) Routledge Handbook of Terrorism and Counterterrorism. Abingdon: Routledge.

Spies, Y. K. (2018) Global diplomacy and international society. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stanzel, V. (ed.) (2018) Web.

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