Euro-centric diplomacy: Challenging but manageable1

Publication Date01 June 2012
AuthorIver B. Neumann
Date01 June 2012
European Journal of
International Relations
18(2) 299–321
© The Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permissions: sagepub.
DOI: 10.1177/1354066110389831
Corresponding author:
Iver B. Neumann, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, P.O. Box 8159, DEP NO-0033 Oslo, Norway.
Euro-centric diplomacy:
Challenging but manageable1
Iver B. Neumann
Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Norway
Drawing on the work of cultural anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Marshall Sahlins,
I suggest a layered conceptualization of diplomacy as consisting of myths, sociabilities
and practices which allows us to open the question of diplomacy’s Euro-centrism to
empirical scrutiny. As do all known diplomatic systems, European diplomacy has its roots
in the social systems of kinship and religion. It is rooted in Christian mythology, and this
mythology informs its sociabilities and practices. Three mini-case studies (of diplomatic
immunity, permanent representation and the institution of dean of the corps diplomatique)
demonstrate that this mythology shines through in present-day diplomacy as well. Since
diplomatic practices bear the mark of a European cultural context, it privileges the
life chances of those native to that context. In this sense, diplomacy is Euro-centric. I
then go on to argue that, empirically, this does not seem to be a particularly pressing
problem. The real problem may be external to diplomacy itself, and concern the idea
that European diplomacy was uniquely peaceful. As I demonstrate by means of a mini-
study of Iroquois diplomacy, this is simply not the case. If the erroneous idea of uniquely
peaceful European diplomacy is paired up with a framing of relations between European
and non-European polities in terms of peaceful diplomacy, the result may easily be that
we occlude other aspects of those relations, such as conquest and colonialization. The
Euro-centrism of diplomacy that matters is thus less to do with diplomatic practices
than with mnemonic practices about diplomacy.
diplomacy, discourse, global institutions, post-colonial theory, self–other
There are at least two key reasons to ask whether or not diplomacy is Euro-centric.2 First,
the question is posed in political global debates every day. It is the scholar’s
300 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)
task to scrutinize such questions and ask if, and in what senses, it holds true. Second, if
diplomacy is Euro-centric, it raises the new question of what effects that has. I begin
by discussing how present-day diplomacy rests on a specific myth and is constituted
by specific narrative sociabilities and practices. I go on to argue that diplomacy is
Euro-centric in the sense that its predominantly European origins still mark a number
of its practices. We should not ascribe too much importance to diplomacy’s Christian
origins for present-day conditions, however, since the origins of a given practice do
not compromise that practice ipso facto. What should worry us is the, often tacit, con-
flation of two other representations. The first representation is that grounding diplo-
macy in a myth of peace is uniquely European. As I demonstrate by means of a
mini-study of Iroquois diplomacy, this is simply not the case. The second representa-
tion is that there is no glitch between myth and practice, so that really existing
European diplomacy has indeed been as peaceful as its myths would have it. This is
not the case either. All this matters, for when the representation of diplomacy as the
peaceful aspect of relations between polities conflates with the representation of
European practices as uniquely peaceful, the result is easily that sequences marked
primarily by conquest and colonialism come instead to be remembered as sequences
marked primarily by diplomacy (Barkawi, 2005; Muppidi, 2004). In sum, the question
of diplomacy’s Euro-centrism is not first and foremost pertinent to ongoing practices
of diplomacy itself, but rather to mnemonic practices pertaining to the global history of
which diplomacy is part.
The question is far from new. In the 1960s, when rapid decolonization increased the
number of states, the European bias of diplomacy was the issue of some political and
scholarly debate, with scholars like Ali Mazrui (1977) calling for more cultural plural-
ism, and scholars like Martin Wight (1966) insisting on the moral superiority of ‘Western
values’ as a basis for international relations generally and diplomacy specifically. This
debate died away as new states proved sticklers for diplomatic etiquette (as newcomers
so often do), and the extant practices of diplomacy seemed to prevail. With globalization,
and particularly with the growing interest in post-colonial theory, this debate is back on
the political and academic agenda.
Drawing on cultural anthropologists Clifford Geertz’s and Marshall Sahlins’s work on
myth and narrative sociabilities, respectively, the first part of the article attempts to theo-
rize diplomacy in terms of its historical preconditions for action and the way it operates
as a social practice. Part two discusses diplomatic immunity, permanent representation
and the institution of dean of the corps diplomatique in the present-day system and dem-
onstrates that Christian myths do indeed colour these sociabilities. I take this to demon-
strate that contemporary diplomacy is Euro-centric. I go on to argue that the Euro-centrism
of present diplomatic practices is of less consequence than the tendency to argue that
European diplomacy is historically uniquely peaceful. The problem of Euro-centrism to
diplomacy may be less to do with diplomatic practices as such than for the effects
wrought by invoking the idea that European diplomacy was not only uniquely peaceful,
but also the main frame for encounters between European and non-European polities.
Such a move has the effect of occluding other discourses and practices that were also
afoot, including those of conquest and colonialism.

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