European diplomatic practices and modern globalizations

European diplomatic practices, which were codified belatedly in 1815 and 1961, can be defined as adherence to shared legal, political, cultural, and professional standards, and were shared by the entire diplomatic world as well as recognized by tradition. They emerged from the confrontation with the alterity represented by Ottoman practices in the early modern period, and were tried and tested during contact with local societies in a context of evangelization and colonial confrontation in the Americas, Africa, and the Far East. They were also marked by two processes, one in gestation and the other new: the constitution of a public sphere in which intensifying debate on international issues took place, and the integration of part of the continent, which was driven by economic dynamics but inherently linked by a political project. We will examine how these practices changed based on the triple challenges of globalizations, democratization, and integration, and will then put the “globalization” of diplomatic practices of the early twenty-first century into perspective.

Signing of the agreement between the Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft and the People’s Republic of China in Beijing (September 10, 1957).
Signing of the agreement between the Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft and the People’s Republic of China in Beijing (September 10, 1957).
Special OSCE conference on economic cooperation in Europe (Bonn, March-April 1990). © Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons.
Signing ceremony for the EU-Japan Partnership Agreement (July 17, 2018). © Wikimedia Commons.

Europe’s diplomatic practices were created during the expansion, stagnation, and retraction phases of globalization, in accordance with the peaceful or conflictual relations among states, or with representatives from other cultural areas. They were dependent on the technological revolutions that changed the material mediums of exchange, and evolved based on the power relations between social actors and states. Finally, they were sustained by the diverse national and infranational experiences that occurred on one’s own soil.

We will define diplomatic practices as the adherence to shared legal, political, cultural, and professional standards by the entire diplomatic world, one that was recognized by tradition. Consolidated over the course of decades, they began to be codified by the Règlement sur le rang entre les agents diplomatiques (1815, Regulation on the ranks between diplomatic agents). The process did not accelerate until the birth of the League of Nations. Its Committee of Experts for the Progressive Codification of International Law, which was created in September 1924, worked on the procedures for international conferences and treaties. This work was continued by the International Law Commission of the UN established in November 1947. Under its auspices, essential conventions were adopted on diplomatic (1961) and consular (1963) relations, on the law of treaties (1969), on the representation of states in their relations with international organizations of a universal character (1975), and on the law of treaties between states and international organizations or between international organizations (1986).       

The research conducted by medieval and early modern historians attuned to the contributions of comparative history suggests that we should not consider the diplomatic culture of Europe as a homogenous whole, and should take national variations into account. It nevertheless emphasizes the emergence of a distinctive diplomatic culture, which covered large parts of Europe at the time, and was gradually unified between the 1670s and 1720s by the adoption of a shared code of conduct and a specific language. It presents a relatively closed world, that of the “society of princes” (Lucien Bély), which became the prerogative of the nobility. Adherence to certain practices was gradually accepted by all: the rules of courtesy, agreement regarding the number of ambassadors and the negotiation site, a culture of secrecy surrounding negotiations, etc. European practices were therefore unquestionably connected to a shared code of conduct, one that was integrated and recognized implicitly by all, and especially expressed through the adoption of protocols and rituals from aristocratic culture, the selection of French as a language, a dress code, and diplomatic protocol. This is still reflected in a specific form of writing and discourse, which responds to the contradictory constraints impacting diplomacy. Finally, this research has taught us that European diplomatic practices were created in the confrontation with alterity, which was represented during the early modern period by Ottoman practices, and they were tried and tested during contact with local societies in a context of evangelization and colonial confrontation in the Americas, Africa, and the Far East.

While their evolution in the modern era remains dependent on the new waves of globalization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they were also marked by two processes, one in gestation and the other new: the constitution of a public sphere in which intensifying debate on international issues took place, and the integration of part of the continent, which was driven by economic dynamics but inherently linked by a political project. We will explore how these practices evolved in the face of the triple challenges of globalizations, democratization, and integration.

The challenge of globalizations

The diplomatic practices of Europe have been dependent on changes to the material conditions of their exercise. Revolutions in communications have considerably changed the profession of diplomat. The use of the telegraph, radiotelegraphy, the telephone, and fax machine —and later email, mobile telephones, instantaneous messaging, video-conferences, and social media— have had major consequences on a diplomat’s essential function, namely taking the time to produce, analyze, and transmit quality information to help in decision-making. Telecommunications generate a mass of competing information, and weaken the security of exchanges and negotiations, as well as the conservation of their memory.

Second, the development of numerous administrative unions from the 1860s onward, which did not have the oligarchic character of the Concert of Europe, signaled the institutionalization of multilateral negotiation practices, and promoted the integration of new non-European state actors (the United States, Japan, Morocco, Egypt, etc.) in the international community. However, the resulting socialization has partially occurred through the adoption of customs and rituals connected to European protocol. Adherence to the protocol for dress and customary practices marked the return of Bolshevik Russia within the international community during the Genoa Conference in April 1922, which was described by Édouard Benès (1884-1948) as “the first international manifestation of Europe’s political and economic community.” Its delegation was headed by Georgy Chicherin, the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, who presented himself in a frock coat, yellow gloves, and striped pants, played the piano during the conference’s opening night, attended a reception held by the King of Italy, and gave a toast to an archbishop.

The intensification of interregional and transcontinental migration, commercial exchange, and investment has had consequences on the participation of private actors in state representation and negotiations: the nineteenth century was marked by the accelerating process of the nationalization of these agents. After the end of the era of “mercantile consuls” (Sir Godfrey Fisher) in 1649, the British Crown regained control in 1825 of the consular establishments that had been under the Levant Company since 1592, and did the same in 1833 for consular representation in Persia, in lieu of the East India Company (1600). Between 1880 and 1914, European embassies began to include commercial attachés. European states increasingly coordinated their expansion into foreign markets, and like France developed their strategies around the “trio of finance, industry, and diplomacy” (Jacques Thobie). Economic actors nevertheless continued to assume the diplomatic functions of information gathering, unofficial negotiation, promotion of economic and cultural interests, and even the representation of states in times where diplomatic relations were broken or nonexistent. Before the opening of a French embassy in 1974, the Compagnie française des pétroles, the ancestor of the Total group, fulfilled this role of diplomatic actor in Qatar, and more broadly in the Persian Gulf. In West Germany, the Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft (German Eastern Business Association), which was founded in 1952, developed contacts with the communist states of Eastern Europe and Asia with which the FRG maintained no official political relation. It was thanks to this association and the activity of its director beginning in 1955, Otto Wolff von Amerongen, that the first commercial treaty was signed with the People’s Republic of China in 1957, fifteen years before the establishment of official diplomatic relations. Other economic actors have expressed the originality of European practice resulting from the rise of parliamentarism and associations during the nineteenth century. Chambers of commerce and industry, in addition to parliamentary friendship groups, were so many spaces fostering international rapprochement and supporting, sometimes in pioneering fashion, the economic and financial expansion of companies. The question that has emerged since the 1980s is the emancipation of multinational companies and financial actors in relation to the state.

The challenge of democratized international relations

The evolution of diplomatic practices is sometimes imposed by violence, as shown by the American, French, and Bolshevik revolutions, which sought to make a radical break with the practices of the Ancien Régime. The promotion of simpler protocol, transparency in negotiation, judiciousness in conflict resolution, and the integration of private actors in the diplomatic sphere all bear the stamp of the political culture of the United States. In France, revolutionary diplomacy sought, beginning in 1792, to represent the nation rather than the monarch, and advocated simplicity and candor. In Russia, the October Revolution in 1917 sparked a radical challenge to the traditional concept of state sovereignty. The decree of June 3, 1918 abolished all class distinctions as being contrary to the principle of equality between states, and through the decree of May 2, 1921 ambassadors gave way to “plenipotentiary representatives.” The Narkomindel (People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs) made public the secret treaties from the Tsarist period, in turn showing its intention to break with secret diplomacy and to inform public opinion regarding its actions.  A subtle dialectic took hold at the end of the First World War between the priority of effectiveness and this new concern of legitimacy. While the relative normalization following any revolution is present in these three textbook cases, the ideology of transparency left its stamp on the LoN Covenant, whose article 8 required international treaties be recorded and published in order to be mandatory.

The European Union (EU) sought to embody a departure within a twentieth century marked by a new balance between relative publicity surrounding results and, for the most part, continued secrecy surrounding the negotiation process Declaration No. 17 annexed to the Maastricht Treaty states: “The Conference considers that transparency of the decision-making process strengthens the democratic nature of the institutions and the public’s confidence in the administration.” Pressure from an ever more present European Parliament and civil society have maintained the requirement of transparency in an effort to foster democratic support for EU decisions. For example, faced with the growing concern expressed during preparations for the negotiations surrounding the trade agreement between the EU and the United States (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP), which began in July 2013, the Council of the European Union made public, on October 9, 2014, the negotiation mandate given to the European Commission.

Since the late eighteenth century, political struggles in Europe have led to the democratization of international relations, owing to the gradual constitutionalization of political regimes. At the same time, the rise of parliamentarism and the adoption of universal suffrage for men in France (1848), Spain (1890), Belgium (1894), and Italy (1912)—and for women before the First World War in some Scandinavian countries (Finland, 1906; Norway, 1913)—had a major impact on the development of and the discussion surrounding foreign policy. In this new political space, national parliaments, political parties, associations, and the press became spaces where people expressed themselves regarding the state’s foreign policy. Public opinion was organized into so many transnational pressure groups, which imposed new topics at the negotiating table. The origin of many international conventions adopted since the mid-nineteenth century—and even of the administrative unions and international organizations that appeared at the time—can be ascribed to private initiatives, such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (1886) and the International Chamber of Commerce (1919). In 1945, Article 71 of the United Nations Charter institutionalized the limited participation of NGOs in the organization’s multilateral functioning. The UN entrusted its Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) with the responsibility of holding regular meetings throughout the year with NGOs, whose advisory status was recognized. Europe pushed this approach the farthest, as the Council of Europe is the only international organization that directly associates NGOs in the decision-making process. The Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) became a fully-fledged institution of the Council of Europe in 2003, and can take part in shaping policies, programs, and actions. The EU has made sure to maintain transparent dialogue with civil society, and in 2011 established a transparency register that can be joined by representatives from civil society (divided into six categories) who want to access the buildings of the European Commission and the European Parliament.

The emotions that are felt in public opinion seem to be diametrically opposed to the rationality attributed to diplomatic processes. This is losing sight of the fact that Europe made the act of negotiation an art of knowing the Other. Among eighteenth-century authors, the one who has remained in almost continuous favor in Europe is François de Callières, who held high this anthropological vision of the profession of negotiator. In his book The Art of Negotiating with Sovereign Princes (1716), he drew particular attention to the role of the irrational in diplomatic relations, the role of “passions,” soul-stirring emotions, and interest.  While self-control and affective neutrality were, as a last resort, the advice given to the negotiator by Callières, his predecessors, and his emulators, the European diplomat thought quite early on about how to consider, channel, and utilize transnational affective shifts.

The challenge of European integration

Finally, European diplomatic practices have been transformed since the 1950s by the transition of the traditional European nation state into an integrated state: it has become a member state of the European Union, and exercises reserved national powers with other states.  Negotiating among peers has assumed a new and distinct meaning compared to the Concert of the nineteenth century. After the rejection of the Fouchet plans (1961, 1962), the EU invented and bolstered itself in the 1960s during the first negotiations for the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), in an effort to affirm the commercial identity of the EEC. Creating a European diplomacy involved substantive consensus regarding the objectives of the foreign policy pursued, as well as the tools that would be used to carry it out. This also involved, from the beginning, renouncing the practices of the Concert of Europe; accepting equality between states, in other words abolishing the hierarchy between major and minor powers, which had often been demanded since the late nineteenth century but never achieved; accepting the principle of multilateral negotiation based on building consensus rather than using a position of strength; changing national practices beforehand by introducing preliminary inter-ministerial negotiation, in order to homogenize the national position; and especially accepting a kind of denationalization of the diplomat, now supposed to represent the EU rather than a given state.

The diversity of national administrative and diplomatic cultures in Europe—and of national diplomatic horizons—proved to be a challenge during the first debates regarding European political cooperation in the 1970s. As it was being constructed, the European Union both partly deconstructed and restructured age-old working practices within national administrations. It fostered the emergence of new practices (institutionalized interministeriality). The central issue involved the coordination of joint national negotiations in advance (networking of political directors, Comité politique, and “European collaborators”—COREU—ministries of Foreign Affairs, and then defending one’s interests through representation and negotiation in Brussels—Committee of Permanent Representatives, COREPER), before proceeding in unified fashion in multilateral trade negotiations at the UN or during major international conferences. Since 1994, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) located in Vienna has served as the major pan-European international organization for mechanisms of intra-European coordination, which were tested between 1973 and 1975 during the first Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki. The increase and interconnection of scales of negotiation represented a challenge in the early 2000s for European national diplomacies, which the creation of a European External Action Service in 2010 sought to address.

For over a century, Europe has conserved the privilege of being the continent of diplomatic capitals. Despite the establishment of UN institutions in the United States, Africa (Nairobi, location of the fourth United Nations office in the world since 1996), and Asia (Abu Dhabi, headquarters for the International Renewable Energy Agency since 2009, New Delhi, headquarters of the International Solar Alliance since 2017), Europe has an important concentration of cities (Vienna, Paris, The Hague, Geneva, Rome, Brussels, Helsinki, Oslo, Bonn) that host negotiations and are home to international organizations.

Finally, it has been the site of continual experimentation in decentralized and networked diplomatic practices, especially because it has been home to a number of federal states. Cities in the Hanseatic League (Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen) had foreign representation for centuries. In Europe, the international activity of local governments flourished with the practice of twinnings, which was initiated in the aftermath of the war between France and Germany to foster reconciliation between the two countries, although this territorial diplomacy goes beyond the framework of decentralized cooperation and local diplomacy. Belgian regions and communities, autonomous Spanish communities, German and Austrian Länder, and Swiss cantons have developed a kind of paradiplomacy since 1945, one that has taken a different form in each country.  Some have the right to negotiate and ratify actual treaties with sovereign states. Economic motives have often shaped their international strategy. European integration has fostered the affirmation of regions on the international stage, insomuch as it involves sectors that often fell under the competence of federal or decentralized states, such as town and country planning, culture, transportation, environment, etc. Their role alongside states was recognized by the EU in matters of interregional, cross-border, transnational, and macro-regional cooperation. They intervene in representation channels for regional interests, such as the European Committee of the Regions (which in 1994 succeeded the Consultative Council of Regional and Local Authorities, created six years earlier), the Council of Ministers, the Commission, and the regional representations established in Brussels beginning in the 1980s, the first of which was that of Hamburg (Saarland) in 1985.

In the early twenty-first century, European diplomats are part of vast global networks sharing experiences and reflections on changes to diplomatic practices. The Diplomatic Academy of Vienna supported the creation in 1973 of the International Forum on Diplomatic Training (IFDT), in an effort to promote exchange of all kinds between the diplomatic academies and institutes that have been created across the globe. The Clingendael Institute (Netherlands Institute of International Relations) was established in 1983, following the merger of five smaller institutes. An Institute for Cultural Diplomacy was also created in 1999. In November 2002, the DiPLOFoundation was created at the initiative of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies in Malta. Finally, the OSCE’s geographic extension to the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, in addition to the relations developed with eleven Asian and Mediterranean partners “for cooperation” as well as the interregional dialogue maintained by the European Union for twenty years, have promoted the reciprocal transmission of experiences and practices across continents and cultures. Whether it is referred to as Europeanization, westernization, or the globalization of diplomatic practices, international customs clearly remain marked by European practices.

To quote from this article

Laurence Badel , « European diplomatic practices and modern globalizations », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 28/02/23 , consulted on 12/07/2024. Permalink :


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