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Diplomacy: Theory and Practice

Date: 2005

No suggestion, without illustration

Why is it so? Firstly because, as the title suggests, the author achieved a harmonious combination of theory and practice. Virtually, there is no idea without its supporting example; there is almost no suggestion, without a convincing illustration. Secondly, the book excels in providing the essentials of all aspects of diplomacy as practiced today. Berridge’s Diplomacy is a mini encyclopaedia covering institutions, methods, modes, instruments, and forms of the noble profession. Thirdly, at all junctions, the narration about the ‘hardware’ of diplomacy keeps being pleasant despite the rigorous stocktaking of many gracious details that might be otherwise taken as technicalities. This feature lends the book a subtle taste of classicism, and makes the reader believe that the reward, at the end of the reading, is becoming a club member. Fourthly, the one thousand and one stories unfolded throughout the whole book, assemble a precious collection of political moments of diplomatic relevance that make the respective actors and their times look more fascinating than in fact they were.

One of the best-served intentions of the book is the illustration of the complexity of the management of the diplomatic service and in particular of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs. As a diplomat, I do not see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an ‘addition’ to the diplomatic service, but rather as the hard core of the latter. But this change of perspective does not deprive of persuasion the attempt by the author to find out the general features of the institutional structures and substantial functions of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs. Many of intricacies and avatars of those institutions are perspicaciously identified. Among them, noticeable are the policy coordination at national level – a real hard nut to crack, or the unsolicited exposure to direct public scrutiny – which is, according to the standards of traditional diplomacy, a feature long-time seen as counterproductive – ending up in the advent of the so-called ‘public diplomacy‘.

Flavours and bouquets

A particularly useful chapter of the book is the one regarding pre-negotiations. As a matter of fact, in the era of public diplomacy and of the pressing need for top politicians in democratic societies to play for the gallery, the stage of prenegotiations is often more important than the actual phase of negotiations. Despite the growing influence of pragmatism in the diplomatic interaction, the importance of seemingly detailed aspects, such as the order of items on the agenda, the venue of meetings, and the procedures, does not seem to fade away. If we multiply the problems related to procedures in bilateral diplomacy by the number of participants in multilateral conferences, we cannot but agree with the author when he says: ‘this being so, it may be thought surprising that states ever get round to substantive negotiations at all’.

Very convincing and, indeed, useful for the understanding of diplomacy is the depiction of the ‘diplomatic momentum’. How to seize the moment and not miss the opportunity that may lead to the best diplomatic accomplishments is both a matter of careful study and of professional instinct. Berridge describes with the meticulousness of a surgeon how diplomats ought to operate with the timing of their actions in order to get the best deal. The small masterpiece of the chapter on the diplomatic momentum is the taxonomy of deadlines. Even when a practitioner tends to smile – aware that, most frequently, deadlines stem from terrible time pressures or from really lack of better options – the case made is a sensible and useful demonstration on the importance of deadlines as a diplomatic device.

This brings me to the privilege to help the reader of Berridge’s Diplomacy to find here and there ingredients that make the book a delectable reading and leave the reader with particular appealing flavours afterwards. One of the special spices is the tale about the ‘small print’ as a way to suggest the significance not only of words, but also of their place in the diplomatic discourse or text. Disguising concessions and possible sources of embarrassment may undoubtedly take many forms. In view of the growing constraints in finding compromise, I would add to the author’s analysis my belief that the small print expedients do not represent at all a wicked technique, but rather a praiseworthy resource of creativity in the effort to reach agreements.

One other spicy piece is the result of the search for ‘metaphors of movement’. Well, I like the idea and I recognize the growth of such jargon in reporting on diplomatic environment or in the exercise of diplomacy itself. My only concern is that many of these metaphors are in fact media clichés of little value other than being eye catching. On one hand, one should not overuse them to the point that they become empty concepts that in fact distract and mislead the public over the real course of the diplomatic endeavours. On the other hand, many such metaphors do reflect a genuine need to describe more accurately new forms of diplomacy. Notions like ‘multi-track’ or ‘multistakeholders’ diplomacy have come ostensibly out of the blue, but in the end they really manage to express new concepts and build their own character. In other words, caution is needed to avoid filling in empty words, while understanding when words must fill in empty places.

For those of us who like memorable and informative phrases as a lure for a good reading, here are some that we may keep in the notebook. Take for instance, one on free training: ‘the diplomatic family may be inegalitarian but at least it provides an excellent education in the practical – as distinct from the technical – knowledge of diplomacy at no cost to the stat’ (p. 7). I wish this remark did not capture the attention of those who cultivate for that matter nepotism and employ offspring of ‘families that retained a strong position in recruitment’, thus activating diplomats whose only merit is to be closer to decision makers.

Summitry unconventional

An interesting spot is the one related to the diplomatic abilities of very influential heads of States: ‘Final term American presidents in their third and fourth years have notorious difficulty in being taken seriously as negotiators’ (p. 57). I am not sure I can share this conclusion. I have always believed that the American presidents, elected on domestic issues, begin their mandate by following the electoral promises on those very issues. They are not at all to blame if, soon enough, they find domestic agenda too tight for their potential projection of power. And there it comes: the foreign policy with its broad room for manoeuvring and issues much easier to sell to a public not so perceptive of geopolitics.

On summitry, Berridge surprises us with his observation that ‘heads of governments may conclude agreements that are inconsistent with, or irrelevant to, their national interests’. (p.176). Whether this is true or not in theory, I could not possibly comment. I would be delighted to keep an eye on the issue, though. It is a pity that this assertion is not sustained with some instructive examples, as the author brilliantly did on other occasions.

In the same vein, I retain for my portfolio of fact finding suppositions, the point developed around the idea that ‘diplomacy conducted at the summit is not only likely to lead to more mistakes but to irrevocable ones’ (p.177). For the time being, I wish I could strongly disagree.

After all, these observations are plainly flattering for average professional diplomats. Luckily for the Heads of state and government, some explanatory comments come subsequently when the author outlines ‘the case for defence’. He hits the nail on the head by stating that ‘in democracies, summits are of special value to political leaders because they demonstrate to their voters that they are personally ‘doing something’ about a current problem and are important actors on the world stage’ (p.179). This cannot be said better!

Sustainable multilateralism

Being able to have a better look on chapter 9, ‘Multilateral diplomacy‘, I was impressed by the successful attempt of Professor Berridge to encapsulate in twenty pages the nuts and bolts of a mode of diplomacy whose complexity and comprehension are growing. Globalisation makes multilateral diplomacy the predominant shape of the international dialogue. The space of pure bilateral diplomacy narrows as the scope of interdependence broadens. The trade relations between the United States and Canada are related to the NAFTA framework. The policy of the United States in Iran depends, among others, on the IAEA inspections. The relations between Bulgaria and Romania are almost entirely defined in the context of their status of acceding countries to the European Union. Examples can go on.

Multilateralism is the hard core of the needed collective reaction to globalisation. I bring this thought as a slight amendment to Professor Berridge’s conclusion that ‘the fashion for creating intergovernmental organizations has passed’ (p.170). I tend to believe that multilateralism is not just fashionable. It is a rational and necessary response to the challenge of globalisation. The temptation of unilateralism and voluntarism may have been irresistible for some time after the end of the Cold War. Now, if there is a crisis, the solution is not less, but more multilateralism.

Berridge’s Diplomacy: Theory and Practice is a very honest and competent guide to the multiple dimensions and forms of expression of diplomacy. Its findings are comprehensive and rich, in both concepts and incursions in practice. Even if the reader is not left on a deserted island, the horizons opened by the book are wide and invite exploration by both practitioners and diplomats.

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