A History of Diplomacy

Christopher Storrs looks at a wide-ranging historical survey of relations between nations

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Reviewed by: Christopher Storrs
Author: Jeremy Black
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Price (RRP): £19.99

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The study of the conduct of relations between one or more sovereign states by official representatives of one sovereign state resident in another – otherwise known as diplomacy – once stood at the pinnacle of academic history. But that sort of narrowly conceived historical investigation fell from grace long ago, and must re-invent itself, as here in what we might call a global form. The history of diplomacy as just defined is usually presented as beginning in Renaissance Italy, from where it spread to the rest of Europe, and later to the extra-European world – another triumph of the west. Jeremy Black, himself no mean historian of the diplomacy of 18th-century Europe, takes a very different approach in this history of the conduct of international relations from its origins to the present.

For one thing, Black prefers to locate the origins of diplomacy well before the Renaissance, in the medieval era (and even ancient Greece). Another distinctive feature of Black’s book is the way the extra-European world is shown to have played a more independent, less passive role in this process than is generally understood. Significantly, the dust jacket carries a Gillray caricature depicting the Chinese court’s underwhelmed response to George III’s envoy, Lord Macartney, in 1793.

In a postscript, Black considers whether diplomacy as he has shown it developing in the preceding pages still has a place in an era of globalisation, 24-hour news and NGOs. His conclusion is upbeat. In that preceding survey, Black demonstrates a remarkable, encyclopaedic knowledge, and brims with thought-provoking insights and observations. He is particularly critical of Whiggish, teleological obsessions with the modernity of past institutions and practices, and – taking for example the Westphalian peace settlement of 1648 – with the preoccupation with identifying turning-points in history. Black prefers to emphasise continuities.

If the book has any weaknesses, these in large part follow from its strengths. Sometimes the deluge of examples, information, and ideas amounts to overload. For the same reason, the book often reads like a breakneck history of international relations rather than a history of diplomacy, and the distinctive, developing culture of the latter. Since the book is organised chronologically – each chapter covering a distinctive period – there is also some repetition of themes, but, paradoxically, Black doesn’t provide a full and satisfactory discussion of those themes. An alternative approach might have been to adopt a more analytical approach, one which focused instead on the various aspects – including diplomatic privilege, diplomacy, communications and espionage – so as to allow for a more complete discussion of long-term developments. 


But, for all its faults, this is an ambitious, innovative and remarkably wide-ranging survey by a historian of formidable breadth.

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Dr Christopher Storrs is lecturer in history at the University of Dundee