Public perception of diplomacy and diplomats…. why diplomats write…..

Posted on November 21, 2007 by



Since we started “DeepDip” I was thinking about my first input. I even started drafting my “first blog” (it will come later on). But as usual events take direction of itsown. Last few days I have been writing the preface for Stefano Baldi’s and Pasquale Baldocci’s book “Through the Diplomatic Looking Glass”. The book will be presented on 30th of November 2007 in Geneva ( Their book triggered a few reflections on the position of diplomacy and diplomats in modern society. It is a bit longer than usual blog. Waiting for your comments!


“Through the Diplomatic Looking Glass” by Stefano Baldi and Pasquale Baldocci

A book, like a human being, has its destiny. This new volume by Stefano Baldi and Pasquale Baldocci is no exception. Even before this English translation appeared, the original Italian version was in its second edition, with high visibility. The authors’ immediate aim was to preserve the memory of Italian diplomacy, expressed in some 750 books written by Italian diplomats. The book has already achieved much more. It has initiated discussion and has started the development of a “knowledge community,” as it is called in modern business parlance. Some have suggested books to add to the list, others have reflected on existing ones, while others have proposed ideas for future publications. With such impressive achievements, the book’s success continues.

It may have another important mission. The book may contribute to addressing one of the paradoxes of our time: on the one hand, the increasingly high relevance of diplomacy for modern society and, on the other hand, the “image deficit” of diplomacy and diplomats in modern society. For some time, diplomacy has been perceived only as a peaceful and ethical option to the use of force in international relations, presenting an alternative to war. Today, however, diplomacy is not a matter of ethical choice. Diplomacy is a necessity. Complex global problems such as climate change, global trade, and migration, to name only a few, can be managed only by diplomatic methods. The difficulty of the recent Iraq war is an example of the limit of the use of force and of the necessity for diplomacy as a tool in solving international conflicts.

At the same time, the perception of diplomacy is mixed and sometimes confusing. As Ivo Andric, a Yugoslav diplomat who won the Nobel Prize for literature, observed, diplomacy has “external, brilliant facets which both attract and deceive people.” In many circles, diplomacy is perceived with a mixture of envy – for the so-called diplomatic style of life – and with criticism of its failures and appreciation of its importance. Historically, diplomacy and diplomats were often used by statesmen and generals as “official” scapegoats for national failures. This has not helped the image of diplomacy in many countries.

Even everyday language, usually one of the best indicators of the collective subconscious, associates diplomacy with evasiveness, non-commitment and, in some cases, lying. Sir Watson’s misunderstood statement that “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” can be found on plastic plates in souvenir shops worldwide. Anyone who has spent one day in diplomacy knows that lying is not allowed, even though sometimes the whole truth is not always stated for tactical reasons. As a matter of fact, in modern diplomatic meetings, exchange is rarely “diplomatic;” they are increasingly open, business-like, and to the point.

On a deeper level of analysis, the public suspicion of diplomacy could be related to diplomacy’s core tool – compromise. Compromise is not considered an ethically superior practice in many societies, especially when contrasted with national pride and stubborn heroism. An illustration of the low public acceptance of diplomacy and compromise is the fact that one cannot find museums dedicated to diplomacy, while thousands of museums celebrate war victories and military history.

Nonetheless, some trends towards better public perception of diplomacy are noticeable. The number of books, PhD theses, and conferences dedicated to diplomacy grows. As well, courses on diplomacy can be found in the curricula of universities worldwide. More than ever before, arguments for diplomacy appear in articles of the leading global press agencies.

Yet, much more needs to be done to improve the image of diplomacy. This book is an important attempt in this direction. It underscores the contributions of diplomats to our global cultural heritage. The book also shows that diplomacy is more than a profession. It is very often a life, one dedicated to building understanding among cultures, and which does not end at the end of the working day. For these diplomats, the dividing line between professional life and private life hardly exists. The book addresses the issue of why diplomats write and what is specific about diplomats as writers.

The authors claim that “diplomats are born with pen in hand.” Diplomacy is probably the best proof of the Latin saying verba volant scripta manent. Yes, diplomacy happens in corridors and at dinners, but ultimately diplomatic deals have to be materialized into paper, even if it is non-paper. Diplomats are those who have to formulate such deals in writing. Their primary tool is written language.

Simplified criticism may suggest that diplomats focus too much on texts. Even if the huge volume of diplomatic documents could be reduced, the relevance of the text has to remain. Every day, at hundreds of diplomatic meetings and negotiations, diplomats try to overcome differences and conflicts by working on acceptable textual agreements. Sometimes, the texts of those agreements are vague and even evasive when they represent the least common denominator. In other cases, diplomats have to use constructive ambiguities to bridge differences that are irreconcilable. Creating a bridge between complex reality and its representation in one text makes diplomats masters of language and text – and well prepared for writing.

Another reason why diplomats are destined for writing is their position as “stranger.” Clearly, each diplomat is a stranger in the country where he or she serves. With the passage of time, the diplomat also becomes a stranger to his or her home country. As well, as Andric observes, many diplomats become strangers to themselves by “living constantly on two levels, the personal, human one and the official, inhuman one, but never in any way showing or betraying to anyone on which level you are at any given moment, or better still: not yourself being completely aware of it, which is the surest way of not betraying yourself.”

Their estrangement makes diplomats good observers. As the sociologist, George Simmel, puts it in his essay, “The Stranger,” what highlights the position of a stranger is the degree of nearness and remoteness to others. A diplomat is near enough to understand the society in which he or she lives, but is remote enough to think “out of the box.” Diplomats can see through the layers of social convention and understand the implicit assumptions on which a society is based. They can see both the country where they are posted and their home countries with little prejudice. Sometimes they become challengers of accepted truths and initiators of new interpretations of social reality.

Born “with pen in hand” and living as strangers make diplomats pre-destined for writing. It is not surprising that among diplomats we find at least five Nobel Prize winners for literature. And it is not surprising that Stefano Baldi and Pasquale Baldocci have managed to gather such a wide collection of books. This book is the first in a series “Diplomats as Writers”. The next to appear will focus on Swiss diplomacy. The series should contribute to better public understanding of diplomacy, both with a small “d” – as a method for solving conflicts through the use of compromise and conciliation – and with a capital “D” – as a system for managing modern international relations.

Jovan Kurbalija

Geneva, 20th November 2007