International Relations Face-to-Face Diplomacy
Marcus Holmes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0241


Despite its ubiquity in international politics since at least the 17th century, and the prevalence of leaders and policymakers touting its usefulness, the conduct of diplomacy in a face-to-face setting has not been a focus of inquiry in international relations scholarship until recently. The dominance of structural and state-centric approaches, particularly in the American international relations context, largely marginalized diplomacy’s importance as a causal variable in world politics generally, and rationalist models of bargaining have tended to view face-to-face diplomacy specifically as a form of cheap talk. The latter argument is that since diplomats and leaders are unable to access the minds of others, those who engage in face-to-face diplomacy can never be sure if the other is being sincere. And, even if they are, they cannot be certain whether their positions and interests will change in the future. Recent discoveries in psychology, sociology, and social neuroscience, however, problematize this perspective and suggest that, under certain conditions, face-to-face diplomacy not only can create durable impressions among leaders, but leaders have good reasons to trust the impressions that obtain in those interactions. Further, face-to-face diplomacy can lead to interpersonal bonding, allowing leaders to not only clarifying their intentions to one another, but to build trust as well. Face-to-face diplomacy thereby provides a mechanism whereby states can transcend the most pernicious aspects of the security dilemma by clarifying intentions and building trust. One of the most intriguing aspects of face-to-face diplomacy is that it is often central to theories of cooperation and negotiations, yet rarely examined or theorized explicitly. This section provides sources and citations for work that explicitly theorizes the role of face-to-face interactions in world politics, as well as those that leave the role implicit.

General Overviews

There have been few systematic theoretical treatments of face-to-face diplomacy as a distinct activity in international politics, though there are several excellent works of a more general nature, that place face-to-face interactions into a broader diplomatic context. For general overviews specific to face-to-face diplomacy, Holmes 2018 and Holmes 2013 both provide a broad introduction to the concept of face-to-face diplomacy as well as a theoretical argument, grounded in political psychology and social neuroscience, on the link between face-to-face diplomacy and intention understanding. Yarhi-Milo 2014 provides an overview of how states derive the intentions of one another and face-to-face personal diplomacy plays a particularly prominent role in the theory in the crafting of durable and salient personal impressions of the intentions of others. Hall and Yarhi‐Milo 2012 compares the utility of such impressions to other indicators of state intentions, such as costly signals in rationalist models of bargaining. Some general textbooks of diplomacy, such as Constantinou, et al. 2016; Cooper, et al. 2013; and Holmes and Rofe 2018, provide an overview of face-to-face diplomacy both in terms of a historical context as well as in comparison to other types of diplomacy, such as a mediated communication through cable wire or digital technologies.

  • Constantinou, Costas M, Pauline Kerr, and Paul Sharp. The SAGE Handbook of Diplomacy. London, UK: SAGE, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781473957930

    An excellent, comprehensive overview of the major themes in diplomacy. The book is divided into four sections, including concepts and theories, diplomatic institutions, diplomatic relations, and types of diplomatic engagement. The first and fourth sections will be of particular interest to students of face-to-face diplomacy.

  • Cooper, Andrew F., Jorge Heine, and Ramesh Thakur, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199588862.001.0001

    This is a useful textbook for students who wish to focus on modern diplomacy, particularly the role of specific individuals, such as celebrities or terrorists, in diplomacy. Face-to-face diplomacy is implicated heavily in chapters on bilateral diplomacy, multilateral diplomacy, conference diplomacy, institutionalized summitry, negotiation, and mediation.

  • Hall, Todd, and Keren Yarhi‐Milo. “The Personal Touch: Leaders’ Impressions, Costly Signaling, and Assessments of Sincerity in International Affairs.” International Studies Quarterly 56.3 (2012): 560–573.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468‐2478.2012.00731.x

    In response to the rationalist costly signaling literature, which argues that received sincerity is determined by the size of the cost undertaken in sending the signal, this article argues that interpersonal interactions, particularly face-to-face interactions, serve as an important source of evidence for the intentions and motivations of other states. The 1961 Vienna Summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev is a particularly insightful illustration of negative impressions of sincerity.

  • Holmes, Marcus. “The Force of Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Mirror Neurons and the Problem of Intentions.” International Organization 67.4 (2013): 829–861.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818313000234

    This article provides a theory of face-to-face diplomacy rooted in neuroscience. It argues that face-to-face interaction can overcome the political problem of intentions by allowing individuals to better understand the intentions of their counterparts through neural simulation and synchronization, thus providing an escape from the security dilemma in world politics. Empirically the article investigates the end of the Cold War, including the German unification process.

  • Holmes, Marcus. Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108264761

    This book provides a generalizable theory of face-to-face interactions in diplomacy. It is the first book-length treatment of face-to-face diplomacy as a discrete activity in international politics. The book includes a literature review on the sociology, psychology, and neuroscience of face-to-face interaction and derives a theory of face-to-face diplomacy from new research in the field of social neuroscience. Cases investigated include the Yalta Summit and Camp David Accords.

  • Holmes, Alison R., and J. Simon Rofe. Global Diplomacy: Theories, Types, and Models. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    This is a textbook that serves as an introductory look at diplomacy, both theoretically and historically. While face-to-face diplomacy is not explicitly developed theoretically, it plays a major implicit role in many of the chapters, including Shaun Riordan’s chapter, “The European Tradition of Diplomacy.”

  • Yarhi-Milo, Keren. Knowing the Adversary: Leaders, Intelligence, and Assessment of Intentions in International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400850419

    This book argues that leaders often utilize personal impressions of other leaders in deriving state-level intentions. These impressions often form in face-to-face interactions and therefore personal face-to-face diplomacy is a crucial mechanism for creating durable intention understanding. The empirical cases are particularly well done. They include extremely detailed analysis of Britain’s assessments of Nazi Germany’s intentions, as well as the Reagan administration’s assessments of Soviet intentions during the Cold War.

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