In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Secrecy and Diplomacy

  • Introduction
  • Dimensions of Diplomacy and Secrecy
  • Definitional Issues
  • Some History
  • Diplomatic Law and Secrecy
  • The Protection of “State Secrets”
  • Secret Intelligence and Diplomacy
  • Bugging and Interception
  • Secret-Source Protection and Diplomatic Reporting
  • Secrecy, Track-Two, and the Chatham House Rule
  • Secrecy and Leaders’ Health
  • Secret Negotiations with Terrorists

International Relations Secrecy and Diplomacy
William Maley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0313


Secrecy has been a significant dimension of diplomacy ever since diplomatic practices began to take shape in the ancient world. Its relevance to diplomacy is multifaceted, and not limited to what is sometimes called “secret diplomacy,” which is itself a somewhat elastic expression. In discussing secrecy and diplomacy, it is necessary to recognize that the character of diplomacy has changed very significantly over time in the light of changes in the character of the international system and changes in means of communication. So has the ability of agencies to protect their secrets. The strengths and weaknesses of secret diplomacy remain topics for active discussion, but since successful secret diplomacy may remain secret for a very long time (and possibly forever), it is difficult to offer a rigorous general appraisal, since spectacular failure is more likely to have come to light.

Dimensions of Diplomacy and Secrecy

“Classical” interstate diplomacy, typically bilateral in character, has been carefully discussed in classic works such as Roberts 2017 and Barston 2019, and was an outgrowth of the work of personal envoys dispatched by powers or sovereigns—although with increasing levels of institutionalization on display as bureaucratic states took shape, especially in Europe, with elaborate paraphernalia of foreign ministries, embassies, legations, high commissions, and consulates. From the nineteenth century, multilateral diplomacy involving a multiplicity of states came to augment and in some cases supplant bilateral diplomacy as a tool for dealing with collective action problems; this culminated in the phenomena of conference diplomacy, as explored by Walker 2004, and of diplomatic engagement within the framework of international organizations. These expanded fora made it more difficult to ensure that certain kinds of secrets would be kept, but so did two other notable developments: the expansion of concepts of diplomacy and of diplomatic engagements to include a wider range of actors than simply states, as discussed by Wiseman 2020, and a shift identified by Heine 2008 from “club” to “network” models of diplomacy. Processes of democratization, and demands for governmental accountability, also challenged commitments to secrecy, as documented by Shils 1956, which defined secrecy as “the compulsory withholding of knowledge, reinforced by the prospect of sanctions for disclosure.”

  • Barston, R. P. Modern Diplomacy. 5th ed. London: Routledge, 2019.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781351270090

    The fifth edition of an established classic, written by a scholar with concrete experience as a practicing diplomatist.

  • Heine, Jorge. “On The Manner of Practising the New Diplomacy.” In Global Governance and Diplomacy: Worlds Apart? Edited by Andrew F. Cooper, Brian Hocking, and William Maley, 271–287. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230227422_17

    An examination of how “club” models of diplomacy, premised on the view that diplomats are members of a club with shared backgrounds and norms, are giving way to “network” models emphasizing the importance of more expansive contacts. The author is a political scientist as well as former Chilean cabinet minister and ambassador.

  • Roberts, Ivor, ed. Satow’s Diplomatic Practice. 7th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    The seventh edition of a standard handbook on diplomatic practice, first published in 1917 and authored by the experienced British envoy Sir Ernest Satow (b. 1843–d. 1929).

  • Shils, Edward. The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies. London: William Heinemann, 1956.

    A discussion of the impact of secrecy on social life, written by an eminent professor of sociology.

  • Walker, Ronald A. Multilateral Conferences: Purposeful International Negotiation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230514423

    A comprehensive, hands-on introduction to international conferencing by an experienced ambassador and conference chair.

  • Wiseman, Geoffrey. “Diplomacy.” In The SAGE Handbook of Political Science. Vol. 3. Edited by Dirk Berg-Schlosser, Bertrand Badie, and Leonardo Morlino, 1193–1213. London: SAGE, 2020.

    An overview of schools of thought about diplomacy, comprehensive in its coverage and authored by the originator of the concept of “polylateral diplomacy.”

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.