Diplomacy and How America Does It

Diplomatic passport on map of Israel
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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.

Today’s principles and practices of international diplomacy first evolved in Europe during the 17th century. Professional diplomats appeared in the early 20th century. In 1961, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations provided the current framework for diplomatic procedures and conduct. The terms of the Vienna Convention detail the various privileges, such as diplomatic immunity, that allow diplomats to do their jobs without fear of coercion or persecution at the hands of the host nation. Now considered the foundation of modern international relations, it has currently been ratified by 192 of the world’s 195 sovereign states, with Palau, the Solomon Islands, and South Sudan the three exceptions.

International diplomacy is typically carried out by professionally accredited officials, such as ambassadors and envoys, operating in dedicated foreign affairs offices called embassies that while remaining under the jurisdiction of the host state are afforded special privileges, including immunity from most local laws.  

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 particularly 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 gases. 

Who Are the Diplomats?

Along with an administrative support staff, each of the nearly 300 U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions worldwide is overseen by one presidentially appointed “ambassador” and group of “Foreign Service Officers” who assist the ambassador. The ambassador also coordinates the work of representatives of other U.S. federal government agencies in the country. At some large overseas embassies, personnel from as many as 27 federal agencies work in concert with the embassy staff.

The ambassador is the president’s top-ranking diplomatic representative to foreign nations or international organizations, like the United Nations. Ambassadors are appointed by the president and must be confirmed by a simple majority vote of the Senate. At larger embassies, the ambassador is often assisted by a “deputy chief of mission (DCM). In their role as “chargé d'affaires,” the DCMs serve as the acting ambassador when the main ambassador is outside the host country or when the post is vacant. The DCM also oversees the day-to-day administrative management of the embassy, as well as the work if the Foreign Service Officers.

Foreign Service Officers are professional, trained diplomats who represent U.S. interests abroad under the direction of the ambassador. The Foreign Service Officers observe and analyze current events and public opinion in the host nation and report their findings to the ambassador and Washington. The idea is to ensure that U.S. foreign policy is responsive to the needs of the host nation and its people. An embassy generally houses five types of Foreign Service Officers:

  • Economic Officers: work with the host nation’s government to negotiate new trade laws, ensure internet freedom, protect the environment, or fund scientific and medical advances.
  • Management Officers: are the “go-to” diplomats with responsibility for all embassy operations from real estate to staffing to budgeting.
  • Political Officers: advise the ambassador on political events, public opinion, and cultural changes in the host nation.
  • Public Diplomacy Officers: have the sensitive job of building support for U.S. policies within the host nation through public participation; social media; educational, cultural and sports programs; and all manner of daily “people-to-people” relations.
  • Consular Officers: assist and protect American citizens in the host nation. If you lose your passport, get in trouble with the law, or want to get married to a foreigner overseas, the Consular Officers can help.

So, what qualities or traits do diplomats need to be effective? As Benjamin Franklin said, “The qualities of a diplomat are sleepless tact, unmovable calmness, and a patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunders may shake.”

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Longley, Robert. "Diplomacy and How America Does It." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/diplomacy-and-how-america-does-it-4125260. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). Diplomacy and How America Does It. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/diplomacy-and-how-america-does-it-4125260 Longley, Robert. "Diplomacy and How America Does It." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/diplomacy-and-how-america-does-it-4125260 (accessed February 6, 2023).