International Relations The Ideal Diplomat
Christian Lequesne, Simon Derieux-Billaud
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0317


For a long time, the literature on the diplomat has remained very normative. From Callières to Satow and Nicolson, it was often the product of former diplomats who shared their experience as an art, offering a guide to good practice for future diplomats. For their part, theories of international relations have neglected diplomacy as an activity of its own, considering it to be equivalent to interstate relations. Until the writings of the English School of International Relations, diplomacy was not seen as a set of practices carried out by professional actors, namely diplomats. By focusing on the diplomat with a micro-sociological or anthropological approach, researchers from the English School opened the way to new research starting in the 1990s. The Norwegian scholar Iver B. Neumann played a fundamental role in the renewal of work on the diplomat. His ethnographic study of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, focusing on the study of actors’ practices (including discursive practices), opened up a new field of research on the diplomat. Approaching the ideal diplomat with the tools of social sciences has now become possible. We have now a literature to understand how a professional of mediation and rapprochement, as a sort of stranger to his own country and to the country of accreditation, develops particular practices that shape the foreign policy of a state. The diplomat is obviously in competition with others who claim, inside and outside the state, to practice diplomacy as well. Diplomats form a transnational epistemic community sharing common codes and know-how. As this article shows, the literature provides a body of references on the recruitment, career, professional practices, and crisis management methods of the diplomat. Nevertheless, the literature on the diplomat still suffers from some limitations that social science research will have to fill. First, the literature (as for diplomatic studies in general) is often Western-centric. Secondly, it says relatively little about the distinction between the diplomat and the politician. Finally, it neglects the interactions between the diplomat and other actors, such as intelligence services but also nongovernmental organizations. There is still work to be done to understand who the ideal diplomat is, especially from a comparative view point. Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs) are also struggling on the question: What defines a diplomat? Access to the field is, of course, not easy for the researcher because it depends on the collaboration that diplomats intend to undertake. As the practice of diplomacy becomes a public rather than a secret exercise, it is more useful than ever that diplomats accept to be objectified by social science research.

General Overview

There is a real collection of reference books focusing on diplomacy as a specific activity different from foreign policy and international relations. One limit of these works is that they often develop their analysis from the example of Western liberal democracies. On the other hand, journals specifically devoted to diplomacy exist, but are less numerous. Many works on the ideal diplomat continue to be published in more generalist international relations journals.

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