Review of Sasson Sofer, The Courtiers of Civilization: A Study of Diplomacy

Mar 17, 2014

by Kenneth Weisbrode

Sasson Sofer has written a superb primer on the history and mission of modern diplomacy. It is a short book that can be read in a single sitting, its subject’s vast scope notwithstanding.

Sofer has traced diplomacy from its antecedents in the Near East (with the briefest of nods to practices elsewhere—China & India, for example) before a discussion of modern Western diplomacy as it evolved from the Byzantines to the Venetians and then to the rest of Europe. The story is a familiar one to specialists, though probably not to most present-day professional diplomats or to the general public. All three groups of readers would benefit from the succinct description and categorization which go beyond the two branches of diplomacy named by Harold Nicolson: the mercantile and the heroic. Sofer has identified four traditions: the realist, the integrative, the institutional and the inclusive. He describes them through the words of their best known chroniclers, from Machiavelli, Commynes and Richelieu to Callières and Satow as well as Nicolson (17-18).

As useful as this primer is for students of international relations, its main value, I think, comes from the musings about the roles and identities of diplomats that are scattered throughout the book, especially in its latter half.  Members of NDH will appreciate Sofer’s emphasis on diplomacy as “a way of life” whose study requires a “pluralistic approach” to the relevance of “the concepts of social distance and estrangement” (xi.) His own choice of “courtier” uses the term in its active sense: diplomats are handmaidens, attendants, servants to their sovereigns and courts, but are also bulwarks of civilization itself, “messenger[s] of an ethically redeeming mission” (xiii). That is, “the good diplomat is the courtier of civilization by being a symbol of peace, a custodian of public virtues, and the flag bearer of the practices of a functional and civilized international society” (55).

Sofer’s short study provides a nice antidote to the widespread mischaracterization of civilization as Kultur, thanks to the self-fulfilling acts of conceptual vandalism by the late Samuel Huntington and others after the end of the Cold War. To Sofer there are not multiple civilizations in conflict with one another (and, by implication, with few intermediaries or common interests) but a single civilization that is greater than the sum of parts whose movements are managed by diplomatic professionals. Just as it is common to misconstrue the meaning of civilization, it is the curse of diplomacy to be reduced to caricature. “Diplomats’ political weakness, but also the fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of diplomacy, impede and hamper their ability to be efficient moral agents of international society” (ix).

This small book goes far in ameliorating that condition. It deserves a wide audience.