Academics, practitioners, and diplomacy: An ISP symposium on the theory and practice of diplomacy

Paul Sharp, John Hemery, Pamela Aall, Erika Svedberg

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At the recent British International Studies Conference in Edinburgh, a roundtable on terrorism and the events of September 11 was put together at short notice by a number of critical theorists. At the end of the discussion a member of the audience, an American from a provincial university, congratulated the panel on an interesting discussion but added that nothing he had heard gave him any help in answering the question he was most frequently asked in his capacity as the local international expert back home by journalists and citizens alike, "… ok, so what should we do tomorrow?" This is a stark question which we as scholars cannot always answer. Indeed, there are times when we should studiously avoid trying to answer it in the terms in which it is asked, but it is a question we can never ignore. It was the same question, in a less stark form, perhaps, that prompted ISP and the Diplomatic Studies Section of the ISA to co sponsor a panel at the 2001 Convention in Chicago on what academics had to tell the practitioners about diplomacy and negotiations and what practitioners wanted to learn from academics. The result is the three superb, but very different, articles that follow. The Hemery paper is a short essay by a professional trainer from Britain on the time-honored subject of the qualities needed by diplomats and the extent to which these qualities can be taught and learned, especially under the constraints imposed by short courses and distance learning. The Aall article is an evaluation undertaken by an American expert in managing international education and training of a set of case studies in which scholar-practitioners attempted to apply their knowledge and hunches to conflict management and resolution in the field. And the Svedberg article is an academic study employing feminist perspectives undertaken by a Scandinavian scholar of Western/Russian collaboration in economic reform at the plant and company level. One is immediately struck by how the articles suggest the vast range of activity that falls under the rubric of even this rather narrow subfield of international studies. People who maintain that the first step in resolving conflicts is to problematize identities that, in their view, are wrongly presented as natural and inescapable rub shoulders with people who take the same identities as reasonably self-evident and concentrate on advocating the application of psychological and behavioral techniques for avoiding what they judge to be unwanted conflict. What do they possibly have to say to one another? And, more important, what do they possibly have to say to those young people who may be forgiven for thinking they are embarking on a career in which their principal professional duty is to advance the interests of the state or organization they hope to represent and which they regard as being real? This wide range of views and approaches is often a source of unease in the international studies community. One of the authors expresses concern about the emergence of separate tracks in the field of conflict management rather than their coalescence into a coherent approach. At a subjective level, this concern appears to me to be perfectly acceptable. We each develop positions on what we take to be important questions and we all aspire to persuade others that we are right, but most of us do so knowing that the implied end point, universal and complete agreement around our particular position, is neither attainable nor desirable. Nor should this be a source of embarrassment when the practitioner asks "… ok, what else can you show me?" As far as the education and training of our would-be diplomats (be they professionals, citizens, or field workers) is concerned, an encounter with the sort of intellectual diversity suggested by the following articles is probably a better preparation for the world in which they will work than exclusive instruction in any particular approach-orthodox, critical, or applied-to what to study and how to study it. Finally, the replies of the Edinburgh panelists to the request for responses to the question "… so what should we do tomorrow?" ranged from silence through Tonto's old reply "who's we?" to a claim about ever-sharpening contradictions which are becoming ever-more costly to sustain and which we have been telling you about for ages. We cannot always bring good news, and we may sometimes have to say that in our judgement, you cannot get there from here. In so doing, however, it is worth noting that academics may have something to learn from diplomacy, the process of communication on behalf of those who see themselves as sovereigns, about how to conduct our own discussions of essentially contested matters. For, if we fail to do so, then like Bob Dylan's wicked messenger we may be told that "… if you cannot bring good news, then don't bring any".

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)139-175
Number of pages37
JournalInternational Studies Perspectives
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002


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