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The History of Diplomacy

By Yann, published on 28/12/2018 Blog > Academia > History > What is Diplomatic History?

Of the many aspects of political history, diplomatic history focuses on the relations between political entities that don’t involve pointy objects or guns. Generally, the role of diplomacy is the avoidance of conflict and the safeguarding of boundaries by securing allies.

We tend to think of diplomacy in terms of men in grey suits discussing foreign policy, but often forget that international relations are not merely a thing of the twentieth century. Here are a few of the many ways diplomatic relations have influenced global history.

Of Marriages and Mergers

One of the sad truths of diplomatic history is that important women were frequently bartered as commodities. In monarchies, a royal woman was an important asset if you used her correctly.

Royal hostages

In the early Middle East and Ancient Egypt, alliances were cemented by marriages. With polygamy a common factor among ruling families, it was common to send a daughter to the court of your new ally as a bride. The family would get regular reports through their embassy – usually a single official envoy with an entourage – and she could be held as a hostage against the opposite number’s good behaviour.

In China, the occupied territories would, for much of its history, provide daughters from influential families for the Emperor’s household as either wives or concubines in order to curry favour.

In Christian Europe, polygamy was officially condemned, meaning that while the mistresses of European kings definitely had influence, they came from the local aristocracy and were pawns in internal affairs more than international ones. The fact that they only had one official consort made the choice of partner all the more important. All the European royal families vied for each other’s sons and daughters as means of forging alliances.

Though the women had very little say in these matters, many of them used their charisma and sexuality to pursue their own goals and influence politics both internal and external. Among the many influential queens of European history, some of the most famous is Eleonore of Aquitaine, a French princess who married an English king and became the mother of Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland in the Medieval Period for England or Catherine de Medici  – an Italian noblewoman who became queen of France in the sixteenth century.

Eleanore of Aquitaine was an influential queen. Eleanore of Aquitaine came from a French kingdom and married an English king. She was the mother of Richard Lionheart and John Lackland. Photo credit: tnchanse on Foter.com

Marrying into the family

As an early chief seeking to expand your territory, you had several options for expanding your territory. You could take it by force of arms, of course. But if you were lucky, your neighbour lacked a male heir – in which case you could offer him one by marrying his daughter. The resulting children would rule over both kingdoms, thus

Early ivory labels from Ancient Egypt show diplomatic marriages between chiefdoms that helped expand a small territory in order to encompass a large part of the Nile valley – changing North African history forever.

Diplomacy Through Gift Exchanges

Of course, not only women were exchanged. Many societies practised elaborate gift exchanges to cement relationships with other groups. Ancient Egyptian diplomatic correspondence mention the elaborate gifts exchanged between Egypt and Mitanni, including horses, golden chalices, weapons and statues.

Throughout social history, some societies present gifts to other chieftains or kings during elaborate feasts in the expectation that there would be a return ceremony in the future with gifts of equal or increasingly higher value. From the point of view of economic history, gift-giving could represent the main form of economic exchange between one nation and another.

An elephant could be a diplomatic gift. Most people in the Middle Ages never saw an elephant – except maybe in Charlemagne’s menagerie. Photo credit: peacay on Foter.com

Even in societies where gift-giving was not the main form of international relation, it remained usual for a long time for diplomatic envoys to bring gifts from their respective nations. This is how, for example, Charlemagne received an elephant from the Caliph of Baghdad. The gifts were meant to show appreciation for the high status of the receiver while flouting the wealth of the giver and presenting them as economies to be reckoned with.

Read more about Ancient civilisation history.

Treaties: the Bureaucracy of Peace

Of course, the rise of literacy means that there was eventually a desire arose to write down the exact conditions of treaties and other points of foreign affairs. The earliest surviving recorded peace treaty of modern civilization dates to about 1276 BC and gives a point-by-point list of all the articles of the bilateral agreement between the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and Hittite ruler Hattusili III.

The Treaty of Kadesh in Hittite cuneiform. The Hittite version of the Treaty of Kadesh. Photo credit: Steven Tan (maethlin) on Foter.com

The text has survived in both Hittite and Egyptian versions and includes articles devoted to mutual financial/humanitarian aid (put into effect about a generation later when Ramses’ son Merenptah sent grain to help stem a famine in the Hittite Empire) and extradition of political criminals fleeing to one or the other country. The continuing relations between the two kingdoms are also interesting for the history of medicine, as the Hittite king asked for help from Ramses’ court physicians.

Since then peace treaties have encompassed a number of different postulations, have been signed between equal partners and peoples that had no idea what they were signing, were signed between two consenting parties and under duress. Peace treaties have actually promoted peace and cooperation between two countries, while others have resulted in more war.

When peace treaties go wrong

Many “peace treaties” between European nations and indigenous people in the seventeenth century stole their self-governance from native populations leading to their disenfranchising and the spread of poverty and infectious disease. In some cases, the treaties of European imperialism condemned the natives to little more than slavery.

And at least one peace treaty in modern history led to a world war. After the submission of Germany at the end of the Great War, the various diplomatic corps that sent a delegation to the summit to draft the Treaty of Versailles imposed extremely heavy sanctions as well as arms control on Germany, feeling threatened by its influence on world affairs during the war. Economic history shows that the sanctions led to rampant inflation, paving the way for the strategic rise of nationalism and a power play by an intellectual elite bent on the subjugation of Europe through questionable ethics and the rise of the imperial German regime.

Feudal Diplomacy: the Game of Obligation

One of the most fascinating and complicated means of keeping an equilibrium of power is the complicated web of feudal obligation that characterised much of the Middle Ages. In some cases, the borders of countries changed depending on the allegiance of feudal underlords.

The idea was that a smaller lord would put himself under obligation to a feudal overlord. He would provide men and resources, and the overlord would use his greater resources – expanded by the men and taxes of his other underlords – to defend his underlords from threats and help them in times of need. Everything from economics to agricultural labour was somehow embroiled in the feudal system.

Feudalism existed in Japan, too. Though we tend to think of Europe in relation to feudalism, but other cultures had similar systems. Photo credit: Okinawa Soba (Rob) on Foter.com

Over the centuries, feudal obligations were passed on from father to son and the feudal hierarchies became more rigid.

Absolute monarchies arose that put most of the aristocracy on the same level underneath the king, and the complex give-and-take of international affairs under the feudal system gave rise to single powers who dealt directly with each other through means of embassies and variations on the foreign service – until the wave of revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth century introduced democracy onto the diplomatic stage.

Alliances and Consequences

From another perspective, some wars started from diplomacy in an indirect way. Any historian will tell you what an odd cascade of circumstances started the Great War. It has occasionally been compared to a bar fight between pub buddies. The actual crisis seemed at first to be a matter between two nations – or at least, between the emerging Serbio-Yougoslav nationalists and Austria – Hungary.

But after the wars of the nineteenth century, countries began forming alliances to promote peace and trade. Unfortunately, by the twentieth century, this system of alliances formed two main blocks in Europe. When the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was killed, their allies were drawn into the war, each of them bringing their own baggage and enemies, setting off a chain reaction of conflicts that would lead to one of the most gruesome wars in history – one in which even the Holy See took an interest. The Vatican tried in vain to initiate an attempt at negotiation between the international community.

Ending the Great War. Delegates leaving after signing the treaty of Versailles. Photo credit: Archives New Zealand on Foter.com

But it wasn’t until the Vienna Convention in 1969 that an attempt was made to regulate the international law on treaties and provide rules as to how foreign relations should handle the breaking of them.

Mutually Assured Destruction

Any undergraduate of cultural history will tell you that possibly the most important war of the twentieth century was the one that never happened. The interesting thing about the Cold War was that a balance was achieved entirely without diplomacy, but instead with the constant threat of war between Russia / the communist nations and the US / the Western world. The threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction prevented all-out conflict for decades while making a contribution towards advancing technology at an astounding pace.

However, true peace wasn’t achieved until the Cuban Missile Crisis forced the two factions to ignore criticism by their more strident members and re-establish lines of communication. Though the Cuban government under Cuban president Castro remained shut off and it only became possible to visit Cuba recently, the events of that day convinced both sides to actually sit down and talk. This is what gave the world a real hope for peace, proving the importance of negotiating versus simply having bigger guns.

Read more about what studying History really is about.

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