Diplomacy and How America Does It

The signing of the Vietnam War peace treaty in 1973
Diplomats Sign 1973 Vietnam Peace Treaty. Keystone / Getty Images

In its basic social sense, “diplomacy” is defined as the art of getting along with other people in a sensitive, tactful, and effective manner. In its political sense, diplomacy is the art of conducting polite, non-confrontational negotiations between representatives, knows as “diplomats,” of various nations.

Typical issues dealt with through international diplomacy include war and peace, trade relations, economics, culture, human rights, and the environment.

As part of their jobs, diplomats often negotiate treaties – formal, binding agreements between nations – which must then be approved or “ratified” by the governments of the individual nations involved.

In short, the goal of international diplomacy is to reach mutually acceptable solutions to common challenges facing nations in a peaceful, civil manner.

How the US Uses Diplomacy

Supplemented by military strength along with economic and political influence, the United States depends on diplomacy as the primary means of achieving its foreign policy goals.

Within the U.S. federal government, the presidential Cabinet-level Department of State has primary responsibility for conducting international diplomatic negotiations.

Using the best practices of diplomacy, the ambassadors and other representatives of the Department of State work to achieve the agency’s mission to “shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”

State Department diplomats represent the interests of the United States in a diverse and rapidly-evolving field of multi-national discussions and negotiations involving issues such as cyber warfare, climate change, sharing outer space, human trafficking, refugees, trade, and unfortunately, war and peace.

While some areas of negotiation, such as trade agreements, offer changes for both sides to benefit, more complex issues involving the interests of multiple nations or those that are particular sensitive to one side or the other can make reaching an agreement more difficult. For U.S. diplomats, the requirement for Senate approval of agreements further complicates negotiations by limiting their room to maneuver.

According to the Department of State, the two most important skills diplomats need are a complete understanding of the U.S. view on the issue and an appreciation of the culture and interests of the foreign diplomats involved. “On multilateral issues, diplomats need to understand how their counterparts think and express their unique and differing beliefs, needs, fears, and intentions,” notes the Department of State.

Rewards and Threats are Tools of Diplomacy

During their negotiations, diplomats may use two very different tools to reach agreements: rewards and threats.

Rewards, such as the sale of arms, economic aid, shipments of food or medical assistance, and promises of new trade are often used to encourage agreement.

Threats, usually in the form of sanctions restricting trade, travel or immigration, or cutting off financial aid are sometimes used when negotiations become deadlocked.

Forms of Diplomatic Agreements: Treaties and More

Assuming they end successfully, diplomatic negotiations will result in an official, written agreement detailing the responsibilities and expected actions of all nations involved. While the best-known form of diplomatic agreements is the treaty, there are others.


A treaty is a formal, written agreement between or among countries and international organizations or sovereign states. In the United States, treaties are negotiated through the executive branch by the Department of State.

After diplomats from all countries involved have agreed to and signed the treaty, the President of the United States sends it to the U.S. Senate for its “advice and consent” on ratification. If the Senate approves the treaty by a two-thirds majority vote, it is returned to the White House for the president’s signature.

Since most other countries have similar procedures for ratifying treaties, it can take sometimes take years for them to be fully approved and implemented. For example, while Japan surrendered to allied forces in World War II on September 2, 1945, the U.S. did not ratify a Treaty of Peace with Japan until September 8, 1951. Interestingly, the U.S. has never agreed to a peace treaty with Germany, largely because of the political division of Germany in the years after the war.

In the United States, a treaty may be nullified or canceled only by the enactment of a bill approved by Congress and signed by the president. 

Treaties are created to deal with a wide array of multinational issues including peace, trade, human rights, geographic borders, immigration, national independence, and more. As times change, the scope of subjects covered by treaties widens to keep pace with current events. In 1796, for example, the U.S. and Tripoli agreed to a treaty to protect American citizens from kidnapping and ransom by pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2001, the United States and 29 other countries agreed to an international agreement to combat cybercrime.


A diplomatic convention is a type of treaty that defines an agreed-upon framework for further diplomatic relations between independent countries on a wide variety of issues. In most cases, countries create diplomatic conventions to help deal with shared concerns. In 1973, for example, representatives of 80 countries, including the United States, formed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to protect rare plants and animals around the world.


Nations typically create diplomatic alliances to deal with mutual security, economic or political issues or threats. For example, in 1955, the Soviet Union and several Eastern European communist countries formed a political and military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union proposed the Warsaw Pact as a response to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formed by the United States, Canada and Western European nations in 1949.

The Warsaw Pact was dissolved shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Since then, several Eastern European nations have joined NATO.


While diplomats work to agree on the terms of a binding treaty, they will sometimes agree to voluntary agreements called “accords.” Accords are often created while negotiating particularly complicated or controversial treaties involving many countries. For example, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is an accord among nations to limit the emissions of greenhouse gasses.