chapter  4
48 Pages

The ‘old diplomacy’

Diplomacy never was quite what it used to be. Ambassadorial memoirs almost invariably relate the profound changes that their authors claim to have witnessed in its methods, style and content. Allowance has to be made for altered perspectives. The world perceived by a diplomat at the end of his career is bound to seem a very different place from that which he knew, or thought he knew, when as an attaché or junior clerk he transcribed and translated the correspondence of his elders. Elements of continuity, both in the manner and substance of negotiation, are in consequence sometimes too easily overlooked. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that during the 100 years which followed the Napoleonic Wars there evolved in Europe a system of international intercourse which was unique in the history of diplomacy. Already by the end of the eighteenth century most European states possessed specialized departments and ministries for the management of foreign policy. The Congress of Vienna of 1814-15 provided an opportunity for the revision and regulation of established diplomatic practices. And from then until the outbreak of the First World War five or six great powers dominated the affairs of the continent. The result was an orderliness in the conduct of international politics which was more than superficial, and which in a later age, when so much appeared so new, was designated the ‘old diplomacy’. During the years between the world wars ex-ambassadors were inclined

to look back nostalgically upon what seemed like the golden age of the career diplomat. The nineteenth century did indeed witness the gradual

professionalization of diplomacy. The emergence of the modern state with its centralized and complex bureaucratic structures led to the creation of foreign services with regular career patterns and rules governing such matters as recruitment, education, promotion, retirement, pay and pensions. The distinction between those who determined and those who executed foreign policy was often blurred, and the duties of home-based officials were more usually clerical than advisory. But the standards set by governments for admission to the profession, and its aristocratic ethos, ensured that diplomacy retained at least the aura of a socially exclusive occupation. In the great capitals of Europe, and especially in those with a flourishing court life, the corps diplomatiques formed an important component of society. Impressive buildings were acquired to house embassies and legations, and foreign ministries were provided with new and extended offices to enable them to cope with expanding workloads. The old diplomacy had also to adjust to technological advances and changes in economic, political and social circumstances. Railways, steamships and electric telegraphy revolutionized communications; the commercial and financial problems of industrializing societies helped define policy objectives; and relations among the powers were increasingly affected by developments in Africa and Asia. Diplomacy remained, however, a function of the states system it served, and during the post-Napoleonic era its form and procedures were in part determined by the readiness of statesmen to subscribe to the notion of a concert of Europe.