Purposes and Functions of Diplomacy


The paper of Dr. Tethloach Domach Ruey discusses the purpose and functions of diplomacy. The purpose of diplomacy is to represent the sending state in the host country. The functions of diplomacy include ceremonial events, management, and intelligence gathering in the host country. The objective of this study is to clarify the purpose and functions of diplomacy for students and practitioners of diplomacy. The paper argues that the purpose and functions of diplomacy aim to maximize the interests of the sending state. Hence, a diplomat has to represent the sending state effectively.

Purpose of Diplomacy

The purpose of diplomacy is to foster the interests of state or non-state actors at the expense of other players and to foster order and peace in an anarchic world.

Functions of Diplomacy

Broadly speaking, diplomacy has two functions. First, communication and negotiation, and second, intelligence gathering, image management, and policy implementation (Berridge 1995, p. 41) and (Griffiths & O'Callaghan 2002, p. 80).

The collection of information helps diplomats to foresee domestic predicaments and subsequent foreign policy shifts. Moreover, the functions of diplomacy are not merely limited to representing the political and strategic interests of the sending state. They also include 'ceremonial, management, duty of protection, preservation of international order, international negotiation, and information and communication functions' (Bull 1995, pp. 164-165). 

Communication is the most important function of diplomacy. Without diplomacy, international relations would present a dilemma. Thus, a diplomat must be an expert generalist in order to represent the sending state effectively and win the support of interlocutors (Siddiqui & Alam 2009, pp. 6-7).

Effectiveness of a diplomat

Effective diplomacy involves carrying out tasks in accordance with the will of the sending state. Some diplomats may not convey the sending state's position appropriately, especially in a time of crisis. A diplomat is not representing the sending state effectively when he contradicts the positions of the sending state. Such unprofessionalism may well cost a diplomat his job. If a diplomat observes that his country's position needs adjustment in negotiations, or is unsure of what the position of the sending state would be, the best approach is to consult his country.

For example, during the 1991 Iraq-Kuwait war, many people blamed the United States (US) Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, for failing to warn Iraq's President Saddam Hussein that the US would not tolerate an invasion of Kuwait. Below is an excerpt from the message Ambassador Glaspie conveyed to President Hussein in 1991:

I have direct instructions from President Bush to improve our relations with Iraq. We have considerable sympathy for your quest for higher oil prices, the immediate cause of your confrontation with Kuwait. (pause) As you know, I have lived here for years and admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country (after the Iran-Iraq war). We know you need funds. We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. (pause) We can see that you have deployed massive numbers of troops in the south. Normally that would be none of our business, but when this happens in the context of your other threats against Kuwait, then it would be reasonable for us to be concerned. For this reason, I have received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship - not confrontation - regarding your intentions. Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait's borders? (Omar 2005).

Numerous commentators blamed Ambassador Glaspie for the ambiguity of her message, which President Hussein interpreted as a green light to invade Kuwait. First, this message is not ambiguous; it is a clear green light for Iraq to invade Kuwait. Commentators blamed the Ambassador without considering the possibility of a conspiracy that may have implicated the US government. Does it appear rational that the Ambassador sent this message without the consent of the US government? If Ambassador Glaspie had distorted the original message from President Bush, she would have been in serious trouble with her government.

However, if the US government's position was against the invasion of Kuwait, the Ambassador is to blame for conveying such a message. In this case, it can be seen that the diplomat either did not represent her country adequately or did not deal with the receiving state effectively. As an implementer of foreign policy, a diplomat should not alter a government's position for any reason whatsoever because foreign policy is a matter of national security. Ineffective representation of a state might be considered treason, especially if a diplomat's insincerity endangers the national security of the sending state.

Diplomatic Protocol

Ceremonial functions include protocol, representation, and participation in diplomatic circles. Protocol is necessary for diplomacy because it provides a guide to diplomatic procedure (the treatment in international fora of diplomats of varying ranks), for example, appropriate greetings, dress codes, introductions, titles, invitees and seating arrangements (eDiplomat 2017).

Protocol is observable even during wining and dining. For example, you cannot serve pork to a Jew or beef to a Hindu. To the Jew, pork is unclean, while Hindus consider cows to be sacred. Diplomatic protocol is a sensitive and unavoidable function that requires experienced officers. Nothing works by chance in relation to protocol. Thus, understanding etiquette is crucial in diplomatic circles because a minor error may cause a diplomatic rift between otherwise friendly countries.

In the case of a state visit, the level of protocol accorded a visitor manifests the level of friendship between the countries. A state receives a close friend cordially. Conversely, it is likely to extend a relatively cool reception to a less important friend. However, excessive protocol is occasionally uncomfortable, as can be seen in developing countries, where leaders are treated like deities. In South Sudan, for example, when the president delivers a speech to the parliament, a protocol officer must stand behind him. Moreover, the guard of honor is required to play the national anthem every five minutes or thereabouts in praise of the president. A protocol which interrupts the president's speech is not encouraged as it causes inconvenience even to the President.

How did such excessive protocol originate in developing countries? Colonial and feudal legacy played a role in the protocol culture of developing nations. Colonial or feudal 'masters' treated commoners as their possessions and people revered them. During decolonization, such protocols remained in the developing world. Thus, leaders who struggled against colonialism or feudalism with all its form found themselves enmeshed into the same net of colonial character they struggled to destroy.

Management Functions

Management functions refer to the management of daily activities, promoting and maintaining the country's interests, defending national policies, and strengthening bilateral (both conventional and unconventional) and multilateral relations. Conventional bilateral relations involve the conduct of diplomacy through officially accredited resident missions, whereas unconventional bilateral relations involve unofficial means of contacts (Berridge 2002, p. 105).

In conclusion, the purpose of diplomacy is to execute the foreign policy of the sending state in the host country, and to foster order and peace in an anarchic world. And functions of diplomacy are communication, negotiation, intelligence gathering, image management, and policy implementation.

Dr. Tethloach Domach Ruey

Author & Biography

Dr.Tethloach Domach Ruey was born in 1975 and completed his secondary education at Jiren Secondary School in Jimma, Ethiopia. He obtained Bachelor of Arts (International Community Development) at Victoria University in Melbourne, Graduate Certificate (Project Management) at University of South Australia, Master of Arts (International Relations) at Deakin University in Melbourne and Doctor of Science (International Relations) at Atlantic International University in Hawaii.

He served as: 

  • Member of Parliament and Member of Foreign Affairs Standing Committee in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1995-1998); 
  • Vice-President of the Ethiopian Basketball Federation Executive Committee (1997-1998); 
  • Member of the Board of Directors of the Ethiopian News Agency (1997-1998), and a Politburo Member of Gambella People's United Democratic Party in Ethiopia (1996-1998). 
  • He also served in the South Sudanese Army as a Major.

He published the following academic publications: 

  • The South Sudanese Conflict Analysis: Conflict Profile, Causes, Actors and Dynamics (Doctoral Thesis). 
  • Understanding diplomacy. Definition and differences to foreign policy and international relations.
  • Purposes and Functions of Diplomacy. 
  • The history of diplomacy and ancient Greek, Italian, Roman and French diplomatic traditions. 
  • Chinese Diplomatic Tradition. An Overview from 280 BC Until Today.