Character and effectiveness of diplomacy today compared to 30 years ago

Dimitra Protopsalti


Diplomacy has always been the official means of communication among states designating their interests and performing foreign policy, in order either to resolve disputes with another party, or to achieve common goals. The character and effectiveness of diplomacy has shifted the last 3 decades. Some features have remained almost unchanged throughout the years, such as the hierarchy, the protocol and the formalities. In fact, hierarchy might be a potential cause of inflexibility within the field of diplomacy, as certain rules and procedures need to be followed, giving limited freedom of movement to the diplomatic agents. Over the years, however, the situation does seem to have been improved since some new characteristics have managed to creep into diplomacy. First of all, the advancement of technology has contributed in the forming and expansion of new types of diplomacy. With the creation of social media and their abrupt soar in popularity, we are currently witnessing new fields emerging, such as digital diplomacy, ‘twee-plomacy’, cyber diplomacy, etc. Moreover, diplomacy seems to have adopted a more extroverted character compared to 30 years ago. Diplomats seem willing to break the veil of mystery around their role (previously known for being distant and detached both from the wide public and from the traditional concept of politics, with their actual role being quite vague). As the field of public diplomacy arose and gained popularity, diplomats saw it necessary to reach a wider public and reveal a part of their diplomatic world and activities. Nevertheless, diplomacy still preserves its introverted character, due to the protocols and hierarchy which permit only parts of information and procedures to be disclosed.


Because global developments influence and shape diplomacy, it has become both a dynamic and constantly evolving field. The shifting of powers, from the Cold War to the rising of China, has not only created new paths for diplomacy but also new challenges. The dawn of the 21st century was marked by the 9/11 incident which affected the international foreign policy field and set the fight against terrorism at the top of the international agenda. The beginning of the second decade found humankind combating the Covid-19 pandemic. Through this great challenge, one might be able to say that a new form of diplomacy is emerging, that of medical diplomacy, as we witnessed countries who managed to mitigate the curve of the pandemic, offering supplies, know-how and human resources to areas in which the pandemic was still raging. For instance, China (which constituted the point from where the expansion of Covid-19 started and which received a lot of criticism – mainly from the USA – for not disclosing important information about the virus and belated actions) tried to rebrand itself by sending medical staff to regions highly impacted by the pandemic. Cuba, a country accused of isolating behaviour due to the long-lasting embargo, followed a similar policy by both managing to effectively restrain the expansion of Covid-19 but also send doctors to various parts of the globe. The aforementioned trials have infused a different dynamic into diplomacy and endorsed new features that will possibly remain permanently attached to it. For example, our shift into a digital world in almost all aspects of life will possibly mean a greater development of digital diplomacy, going further than the steps that have already been taken so far in this direction.


Despite the emergence of new powers in the international arena (e.g. China), diplomacy is still perceived as a ‘Western’ practice, mainly due to its origins and the traditional ‘great powers’ of the globe (e.g., USA). However, non-Western actors are attempting to gain a share in the global stage by forming and participating both in international and regional fora such as ASEAN, AIIB, Mercosur, etc. The effectiveness of diplomacy is also a part of the debate around this field. It is usually correlated with the outcome for the involved parties. If, for instance, the states manage to overcome their differences and reach a mutually beneficial solution to a potential dispute, then diplomacy is considered effective. However, it is still a highly centralised process, especially at the state-level, since the guidance, protocol and practices derive from each Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, at an international level (through the various organisations that have been established) states can also engage in multilateral interactions and promote their interests. In this way, the effectiveness of diplomacy has been advanced compared to 30 years ago, mainly because the international fora do not have such centralised processes as the national Ministries do. From a general perspective, the effectiveness of diplomacy has to be examined in relations to the goals it aims to achieve, whether that be for an international organisation or for a national entity. For the purpose of this text, the effectiveness of diplomacy is assessed based on communication, since diplomacy constitutes the principal means for an entity to convey a message with a further aim to promote its interests and achieve certain goals. The fact that the means of communication have expanded rapidly, mainly due to the advancements of technology, means that messages can be conveyed more easily and via different channels. Hence, one can safely presume that the effectiveness of diplomacy has been improved nowadays compared to 30 years ago.

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