The intimate dance of diplomacy: in praise of practice


  • I am grateful to Anand Menon for his helpful comments on an earlier draft.


Those who study international relations pay little attention to those who practise them. But the terms of scholarly explanation—the great abstractions of state, interest, power and so on—are always embodied in human representatives, and their interactions mediated through human relationships. The daily experience, lived and felt, of diplomats thus offers a valuable perspective on how international relations work. Two recent studies by Iver Neumann capture this world through an anthropology of the diplomatic tribe. They illuminate the highly distinctive conventions, rituals and symbols of this world, showing how diplomats are recruited and socialized, where and how they perform their roles and how they communicate —and how these practices evolve in the face of social and technological change. Diplomats emerge as indispensable specialists in creating, asserting and agreeing meaning, and diplomatic conduct as a critical variable in explaining international outcomes. Taking the perspective of practice seriously can build a better political science of international relations, balancing first-person understanding with third-person explanation, impersonal forces with human stories, and contextual facts with their rhetorical construction. It can also help bridge the gap between theory and practice. This points to an exciting agenda for future research.