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Last Updated: 08/04/2013Is Diplomacy Gendered? A Feminist Analysis
Diplomacy is an important arena of International Relations, however it is not always well understood. This paper employs a feminist lens to develop a thoughtful response to the question: is diplomacy gendered? Firstly, I develop an understanding of diplomacy, which is then employed to a discussion of the evolution of the discipline of diplomacy from its origins in traditional state-based diplomacy to regional and multilateral diplomacy. Secondly, l draw upon leading feminists in International Law to develop the paper’s feminist framework for analysis. I then build upon this to discuss the qualities necessary to succeed as a diplomat. It will be shown that diplomacy is the product of a historically and structurally male-dominated patriarchal system. Throughout the paper, I demonstrate that diplomacy is in fact gendered, but with an unfair male preference.
Diplomacy: a feminist arena?
There is no overwhelming consensus about what exactly diplomacy is nor a concrete, universally accepted definition of diplomacy. Rather, scholars and practitioners bring a variety of approaches, and ensuing understandings, to the discussion of diplomacy. Some approach diplomacy from a state-centric lens; others view it broadly in terms of human interaction, while others view it as a tool for communication. For the purpose of this paper, the following four understandings reflect this diversity and serve to inform the framework for analysis.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines diplomacy as:
The management of international relations by negotiations; the method by which these relations are adjusted and managed by ambassadors and envoys; the business or art of the diplomatist, skill or address in the conduct of international intercourse and negotiations
Richard Sidy offers a broader, somewhat ambiguous definition of diplomacy, namely: “right relationships established on any level of interaction.” Wilfried Bolewski approaches diplomacy by contrasting it from foreign policy; Bolewski explains “[d]iplomacy as a method deals with the articulation of foreign policy […] diplomacy thus serves as an instrument of implementing foreign policy.” Finally, Christer Jonsson and Martin Hall identify three essential constitutive elements of diplomacy: communication, representation and reproduction of international society.
Diplomacy: past to present
Diplomacy is an ancient discipline tracing as far back as the first millennium BC wherein “China, India and the Greek city-states developed complex patterns of communication and diplomatic practices”. The Roman and Byzantine empires contributed to the development of diplomacy in varying degrees whereas Renaissance Italy contributed greatly to the development of diplomacy, especially through the introduction of permanent embassies and resident ambassadors. This earned Renaissance Italy the accolade of being considered the birthplace of the modern system of diplomacy.
There has been a lack of theoretical interest in diplomacy, however practitioners and historians have written extensively on the subject. Writing on diplomacy can be traced back to the fourth century B.C. with Kautliya’s Arthasastra. This ancient Indian treatise on statesmanship “offers detailed advice concerning the conduct of diplomacy.” Bernard du Rosier’s Short Treatise About Ambassadors is said to be the first European textbook of diplomatic practice. According to Jonsson and Hall, “The development of a diplomatic system based on resident ambassadors in Renaissance Italy saw the production of hundreds of similar works over the next few centuries.”
Just as the writing on diplomacy has evolved over time, so has the actual practice. Modern diplomacy has evolved from the aforementioned innovations of 16th century bilateral diplomacy to regional and multilateral diplomacy in its contemporary and nuanced present day form.
Bilateral diplomacy, also known as classic or traditional diplomacy, sees nation-states as the sole players and their representatives- in the form of ambassadors and envoys- as the actors. More specifically, “Traditional diplomacy is practiced as the art and craft of communicating and interchanging among states acting through their representative (diplomats) in the national interest… by peaceful means”. The ancient rules or customs of diplomacy (regarding the treatment of envoys, the conduct of diplomats, etc.) have evolved over centuries alongside the changing actors and forms of diplomacy. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was the codification of already existing customary law.
Regional and international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations reworked traditional state-to state- diplomacy. According to Wilfried Bolewski, “Traditionally the emphasis of diplomacy lies on bilateral interaction of states. With the emergence of international organizations, international conferences and summitry diplomacy turned its focus on multilateralism”. Within multilateralism, states continue to be the primary actors, however regional as well as international organizations also have a place at the table. Furthermore, negotiations take place in new arenas such as conferences; “Conference diplomacy is an institution for the management of relations between governments or governments and international organizations”.
Today, all three diplomatic forms (bilateral, regional and multilateral) exist as well as new forms of diplomacy including a diversity of actors influencing International Relations. Actors include multinational corporations, their representatives, and celebrity diplomacy. However, the diversity amongst actors does not extend to gender. Diplomacy has always been, and continues to be, a male-dominated institution.
Feminism in International Law: why bring feminism(s) into the discussion?
A feminist perspective recognizes the constructed nature of society and institutions. At the heart of this recognition is the social construction of gender and gender roles. For the purpose of this paper, gender is understood as a structural power relation that “rests upon a central set of distinctions between different categories of people, valorizes some over others, and organizes access to resources, rights, responsibilities, authority and life options along the lines demarcating those groups”.
According to Hilary Charlesworth, “Feminist methods seek to expose and question the limited basis of International Law's claim to objectivity and impartiality and insist on the importance of gender relations as a category of analysis.” This paper applies ta feminist lens to diplomacy within International Law. ‘Patriarchy’ literally means ‘rule of the father’ however patriarchy is understood to have a broader meaning, encompassing not only the dominance of men within a family but within society in general. Within a patriarchal system, “men exercise power and dominate women through control of society’s governmental, social, economic, religious, and cultural institutions”. According to Carol Pateman, modern patriarchy is described as fraternal, contractual and structured in capitalist society”. Within diplomacy, we can understand that the aforementioned notions of control, power, and fraternity are integral to Jonsson and Hall’s third constitutive element of diplomacy, namely, the reproduction of society.
A diplomat’s arsenal: how to succeed as a diplomat today
One must first understand the core responsibilities and obligations of a diplomat in order to understand the skills and competencies required of effective diplomats. According to Wilfried Bolewski, “Diplomacy uses a certain set of skills, tools, procedures, methods, norms and rules as social practices…” These include a shared system of codes, symbols, diplomatic protocol, reciprocity, and modes of communication (amongst others).  In order to succeed within this institutionalized system, a diplomat uses her or his particular set of skills to further their home government’s foreign policy interests.
A diplomat must be adaptable, resilient, tactful, polite, and yet intentionally ambiguous. Most importantly however, a diplomat is first and foremost a civil servant and must possess common sense. It is debatable whether one person can possess all the qualities of a successful diplomat. According to C. Chatterjee, “some might say that an “ideal diplomat” is a misconception” however to be successful, one must utilize their skills “…to their utmost in the light of the circumstances of each situation”.
A diplomat is first and foremost a civil servant representing the foreign policy interests of her or his home government. A diplomat must represent her or his State and their interests at all times. There is no space for personal feelings, personal interests, or personal friendships. Serious diplomacy upholds principles- whether national principles of the diplomat’s sending state or universal/ global principles as identified within international law. The ability to cultivate, distinguish, and learn to live with diplomatic friendships versus personal friendships is one of the most important abilities of a diplomat. Diplomats must be very good at developing professional, diplomatic friendships and must come to terms, and more appropriately, embrace, not having normal ‘personal friendships’.
Diplomacy: A traditionally male realm
According to Talyn Rahman-Figueroa, “Women are innately equipped with diplomatic skills such as negotiating, intelligence seeking and maintaining peace…” Nevertheless, we can begin to see the patriarchal nature of diplomacy wherein “…characteristics associated with “manliness” have been valued in the conduct of international politics and only been occupied by men… empirically, states are run and defended by men, and therefore advance only the interests of men…” Therefore, it is clear that historically, diplomacy has been a male-centric realm within a patriarchal structure. For centuries, noted diplomats from Niccolo Machiavelli to Sir Harold Nicholson have emphasized the importance of masculine characteristics in state-to-state relations. Allowing women in positions of power has traditionally been seen as threatening to male-domination and as a sign of self-weakness as all women were believed to employ ‘honey-trap methods’ to “…lure male diplomats to sexual seduction”. Nicholson feared women in diplomacy so greatly that he said “…“women are prone to qualities of zeal, sympathy and intuition which, unless kept under the firmest control, are dangerous qualities in international affairs.” This exemplifies the hierarchies within diplomacy where ‘masculinities’ are placed above ‘femininities’.
While female political leaders such as Queen Elizabeth were considered great diplomats, women were not formally included in the diplomatic profession until the middle of the 20th century. In Britain for example, the Diplomatic and Consular Services remained reserved to men until 1946. The reasoning put forward by the Foreign Service was “…on the grounds that they would not be taken seriously by foreign governments and would create insurmountable administrative difficulties, particularly in relation to their marital status”. After sustained pressure on the Foreign Service to modernize their practices, women became eligible, although a marriage ban was enforced as well as a 10 percent cap on female recruitment. Therefore, it is clear that gender-based discrimination persisted even when ‘equality’ was achieved.
The story of women in diplomacy in the United States is not much more encouraging. While the U.S. State Department theoretically opened up the Foreign Service in 1926 with the transition to a merit-based exam, the oral exams weeded out the majority of women and minority candidates. It took the American diplomatic service 25 years to have the first female Ambassador “…when Eugenie Anderson went to Denmark in 1949…” Gender-based discrimination remained rampant throughout the US State Department. For example, “Until the 1970s, the State Department expected women to give up their jobs if they married and did not remove this unfair requirement until 1974” In 2004, women accounted for eighteen percent of American Ambassadors or 30 out of one 167.
Female diplomats are not only under-represented in bilateral relations between states but also in multilateral relations between states and international organizations. In 2012, only 15 percent of permanent representatives at the United Nations were women. In an Embassy Magazine poll that same year, current female diplomats in London were asked the following question; Is diplomacy a man’s world? Eighty-seven percent of respondents answered yes while “most felt pressure to work harder to prove themselves [and] three out of four (75 percent) said they had experienced both subtle and overt forms of prejudice.”
Greater Challenges for Female Diplomats
It is clear that men and women are unequally positioned in terms of ability to succeed within the institution of diplomacy. This overt male bias is the product of a historically and structurally male-dominated patriarchal system within which diplomacy operates. As a result, “…existing power structures within the diplomatic infrastructure remain to reinforce gender inequalities and overt discriminatory practices, making it difficult for women to enter diplomacy at the highest position”. The above discussion of the marriage ban in the British Foreign Service articulates this notion of overt discriminatory practices. Today, women face a similar issue regarding marital status related to what is called ‘the trailing spouse’. As articulated by Caitlin Kelly, “One of the many challenges, especially for women serving in these essential roles, is that of finding a partner both willing and able to table or shelve his own career ambitions to follow the demands of your new employer”.
The Media is a second challenge faced by female diplomats “when the press […] repeatedly asks questions like 'how old are you?' 'Are you married?' 'When will you have time to have children?' 'Do you find it difficult to cope with this?'” Therefore, it is clear that even though women have begun to achieve inclusion within the institution of diplomacy, female diplomats continue to experience prejudice and discrimination based on their gender.
This paper has employed a feminist lens to develop a thoughtful response to the question: is diplomacy gendered? Throughout the paper I have demonstrated that yes, Diplomacy is in fact gendered, but with an unfair masculine preference. There must be greater space created for women within the institution of diplomacy. This is not only a reflection of a moral and ethical obligation we all have to our fellow human beings but it is an articulation of the idea that “Women’s equal participation in diplomacy plays a crucial role in the general process of the advancement of women in any field”. In order to create this space, women, and our male allies must work within the patriarchal structure to help men get over their old-fashioned, discriminatory male-bias. Only when women are recognized as valuable and worthy in themselves will those within the Patriarchal power structure realize that “Diplomacy is not symbolic of men’s status and views of world affairs, but rather it is reflective of a whole society. In respect to this, diplomacy of the 21st Century must be represented equally by men and women of equivalent merit and standing.” Let me me clear, women do not deserve to be placed in positions they are unequipped for just as men do not deserve to be overlooked for positions they are qualified for on account of their gender. I am not arguing for an equal number of women and men in the institution of diplomacy. Rather, I am advocating for a representative balance of qualified diplomats. This is only possible when both women and men are given a fair and just evaluation based on their merits and qualifications.
Bolewski, Wilfred. Diplomacy and International Law in Globalized Relations. Part I: Essentials of Modern Diplomacy.
Cohn, C. (2012). “Women and Wars: Towards a Conceptual Framework.” In Women and Wars edited by Carol Cohn (1st.ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Council of American Ambassadors. The Ambassadors Review/ Fall-2004 Council of American Ambassadors. The Ambassadors Review/ Fall-2004
Charlesworth, Hilary (1999). “Feminist Methods in International Law”. The American Journal of International Law. 93 (2). Available at
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Kelly, Caitlin. Female Diplomat’s Challenfe- The ‘Trailing Spouse’: One, Who Left The NYT, Speaks Out From Mozambique. True/ Slant. Available at http://trueslant.com/caitlinkelly/2010/01/24/female-diplomats-challenge-the-trailing-spouse-one-who-left-the-nyt-speaks-out-from-mozambique/ (Accessed on 28 March 2013).
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 Jonsson and Hall, Pp8.
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 Bolewski, Pp. 35.
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 Sanghera, Jyoti, Bandana Pattanaik & Kamala Kempadoo (editor) (2005). Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights. Pp. 84.
 DIL 6252 Class Notes, Session 4, February 25th.
 DIL 6252 Class Notes, Session 3, February 25th.
 Chatterjee, Dr. C, International Law and Diplomacy, Chapter 5: Diplomacy and Diplomats, Pp. 80-89.
 Rahman-Figueroa, Talyn. Celebrating the rise of women in diplomacy. Pp3.
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 Rahman, Talyn, Women in Diplomacy: An Assessment of British Female Ambassadors in Overcoming Gender Hierarchy, 1990-2010. American Diplomacy. Pp1.
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 Rahman, Talyn, Pp1.
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Saskia Knight is an MA candidate in the Department of International Law and the Settlement of Disputes at the University for Peace.