Who can be a diplomat?

May 21, 2012

by Kenneth Weisbrode

This Sunday’s New York Times contains an interesting portrait of the musician called Diplo. The critical line is this one:  “He is less an artist or a producer than a negotiator, a collaborator, a generator of interesting coincidences.”

This will sound familiar to historians of diplomacy. Means in diplomacy matter as much as ends; or, as George Kennan put it, “It is axiomatic in the world of diplomacy that methodology and tactics assume an importance by no means inferior to concept and strategy.” Diplomatic historians therefore should be as interested in studies of diplomatic behavior—from whatever source—as in the so-called traditional topics of statecraft: war, peace and relations between and among states.

Another way to imagine this reconceptualization of diplomatic history is to consider two axes. The “x” axis includes “actors” and broadens the number of subjects to include anyone who performs a diplomatic role, whether or not they are employed by a government, or who work on behalf of a government. The “y” axis includes types of diplomatic activity from representation to negotiation to espionage. Doing so may raise useful questions relating both to ends and to means. Do some acts of diplomacy work better or worse with particular ends, or in particular fields? Why? Does crossing over fields (one thinks here of so-called celebrity diplomats—Bono and the like) have a kind of multiplier effect, enhancing the power and benefits of particular methods, or, perhaps, raising the risks involved?

We could ask therefore whether or not drawing up such a typology of diplomacy allows for greater or lesser understanding of particular cases. A more immediate question is whether our approach is a simply a recipe for including everything under the sun? Not necessarily. Not all politicians or even statesmen are diplomats; nor are all international actors. Olympic athletes, for example, cross borders, interact with one another and even, at some level, voice an ideology of internationalism.  Yet their primary aim is to win athletic competitions, which is not an inherently diplomatic act. The same may be said for the musician Diplo, for in spite of his name, his principal goals seems to be to make music and to make a living thereby. But if the means for doing this are inherently diplomatic, then the verdict is not so clear.