Herbert Butterfield, the English School and the civilizing virtues of diplomacy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


This article seeks to establish the elements of a diplomatic theory of international relations and argues that this is implicit in the works of Herbert Butterfield on international relations, historiography, diplomatic history and Christian ethics. As a founding member of the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics. Butterfield shared with his colleagues the conviction that diplomacy and diplomatic systems lie at the heart of what happens, might happen and ought to happen in international relations. Like his colleagues, however, he failed to produce a work on diplomacy that attracted the sort of attention garnered by their work in other areas, for example on international systems and societies. Indeed, his own theoretical work on diplomacy is often regarded as a blind alley exhibiting nostalgia for the 'Old diplomacy' of eighteenth-century Europe or a final attraction towards the more scientistic elements of political realism. It is argued, however, that in the broader corpus of Butterfield's work there is to be found a theory of diplomacy advocating self-restraint and charity towards others based upon recognizing both our common humanity and the impossibility of achieving a full understanding of one another. For Butterfield, this would have been a theory applied to states; but, employing one of Butterfield's own techniques for interrogating dead historians, it is argued that this holds up as a theory of how to conduct relations between groups that regard themselves as distinctive, hold their separation from one another to be a good and, hence, value their independence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)855-878
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2003


Dive into the research topics of 'Herbert Butterfield, the English School and the civilizing virtues of diplomacy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this