Technology and the Evolution of Diplomacy

How has diplomacy[1] evolved through the eons? We postulate that humans have changed, but do you think that a Roman senator would feel that out of place in the U.S. Senate? That the job of an ambassador has really changed in the last three thousand years?

It feels like the largest difference has been in the speed of communication. It used to be that the phrase ‘I have to go consult with my government. This may take some days.’ meant travel time. Now it means ‘We need to get used to this idea’ exclusively.

Advances in dentistry and water fluoridation probably mean that people are less cranky because their teeth hurt, advances in chemistry mean that we no longer sprinkle lead on our food. Advances in travel and communications mean that larger empires are more governable and longer-range diplomacy and trade are more viable.

But have any of these really fundamentally changed diplomacy? It remains, as they say ‘the art of letting someone else have your way‘[2]. Even the techniques of ‘Getting to Yes‘ must have been known in some form to the ancients.

Perhaps the spread of democracy[3] has had the greatest effect. If you look at human history (especially the relatively recent colonialism), those nations or organizations which were the most stable and had the greatest longevity tended to become the most powerful (provided they had the desire and resources/room to expand). But once you control for that, once countries reach that higher stability plateau, they end up competing with each other in very familiar ways.

But most probably, the spread of nuclear weapons has actually had the greatest effect. Great powers have warred with each other since time immemorial. The relative power of offensive and defensive technology has waxed and waned throughout history, but Mutually Assured Destruction was never present absent a larger third party.

Maybe we’ll use this opportunity to talk a little bit more, and understand each other a little bit better.

[1]Diplomacy has remained largely unchanged, except for the use of plastic game pieces in some editions.

[2]Attributed to Daniel Varè an Italian diplomat and author from the early 20th century.

[3]Many would argue for ‘Representative Democracy‘, ‘Constitutional Monarchy‘, or ‘Republic‘. These are all valid positions, and this discussion is out of scope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *