As soon as people organized themselves into separate social groups, the necessity of regularizing contacts with representatives of other groups became apparent. Even the earliest civilizations had rules for interaction.
The first civilization to develop an orderly system of diplomacy was ancient Greece. Ambassadors and special missions were sent from city to city to deliver messages and warnings, to transfer gifts, and to plead the cases of their own people before the rulers of other city-states. These diplomatic missions, however, were occasional and sporadic.
With the decline of Greece and the rise of the Roman Empire, the Greek system of diplomacy disappeared. As Rome expanded, its diplomacy served the purposes of conquest and annexation. The Romans were not inclined to coexist with other states on the basis of mutual interests. Rome issued commands; it did not negotiate.
For almost a thousand years after the fall of Rome, Europeans thought of themselves not as members of separate nations but rather as members of smaller groups vaguely bound to some feudal overlord. Although localities had relations from time to time, no record exists of any formal diplomatic practices during the middle Ages.
Renaissance (New start of) Diplomacy
Modern diplomacy had its origins during the Italian Renaissance. Early in the 15th century, a group of city-states developed in Italy, but none could dominate the rest, and all feared conquest by the others. The rulers of most of the city-states gained their positions through force and cunning. Because they could not count on the loyalty of their subjects, these rulers hoped to maintain allegiance by seeking foreign conquest and treasure. They sought opportunities to increase their power and expand their domain and were always concerned about the balance of power on the Italian Peninsula.
Although Renaissance diplomacy was especially vicious and amoral, the Italian city-states developed a number of institutions and practices that still exist: (1) They introduced a system of permanent ambassadors who represented the interests of their states by observing, reporting, and negotiating. (2) Each state created a foreign office that evaluated the written reports of the ambassadors, sent instructions, helped to formulate policies, and kept vast records. (3) Together they developed an elaborate system of protocol, privileges, and immunities for diplomats. Ambassadors and their staffs were granted freedom of access, transit, and exit at all times. Local laws could not be used to impede an ambassador in carrying out duties, but ambassadors could be held accountable if they actually committed crimes, such as theft or murder. (4) The concept of extraterritoriality was established. Under this principle, an embassy in any state stood on the soil of its own homeland, and anyone or anything within the embassy compound was subject only to the laws of its own country.
Diplomacy in the European State System
The rise of nation-states in 17th-century Europe led to the development of the concepts of national interest and the balance of power. The former concept meant that the diplomatic objectives of nations should be based on state interests and not on personal ambition, rivalries, sentiment, religious doctrine, or prejudice. For example, gaining access to raw materials was in the national interest. The balance of power theory was based on a general interest in maintaining the state system by seeking equilibrium of power among the most powerful nations. That diplomacy could be used to pursue both sets of interests was soon apparent. Increasingly, the presence of the major powers became a staple in international politics. Although small countries might disappear, as Poland did when it was partitioned in the 18th century, the great powers sought to manage their relations without threatening one another’s survival. At the same time, European diplomats were becoming increasingly professional and learned. The seamier side of diplomacy—the bribing, lying, and deceiving—was gradually replaced by a code of expected and acceptable conduct.
The European system of diplomacy suffered its first shock when Napoleon attempted to conquer Europe in the early 19th century. After Napoleon’s defeat, the European system was “restored,” and no major wars occurred for the next hundred years.
The New Diplomacy
In 1914 the countries of Europe were thrust into another violent confrontation. The carnage of World War I brought the European system of diplomacy into disrepute. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was the chief critic of the European diplomatic system and the proponent of a new type of open diplomacy and collective security. Wilson’s primary targets were the theory and practice of the balance of power, the distinction between great and small powers, the pursuit of national interests, secret agreements and treaties, and professional diplomats.
In place of the old system Wilson offered a “new diplomacy” in his Fourteen Points. Open covenants would be drafted in international conferences with great and small countries participating on an equal basis. Peace would be maintained by making national boundaries coincide with ethnic boundaries. All members of the international community would pledge to fight for these boundaries against any nation that used force to change them. Countries would pursue community interests instead of national interests and submit their disputes with each other to international arbitration for peaceful resolution.
Many of Wilson’s ideas were incorporated into the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (see Versailles, Treaty of) and the League of Nations. After the United States rejected the league and returned to a policy of isolationism, however, the European states reverted to the balance of power system and the pursuit of national interests through professional diplomats.
During World War II, the U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt again sought to establish a new type of diplomacy, but he and the British prime minister Winston Churchill built the postwar international order on the basis of agreements with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that conformed more to the old European system than to the new ideas embodied in the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations. Although the United Nations remains a symbol of what a new diplomatic system might be, international politics since the end of World War II has adhered closely to the European model and has, in part, returned to some of the worst aspects of Renaissance diplomacy.