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date: 18 January 2018

Diplomacy and Revolution

Summary and Keywords

The relationship between diplomacy and revolution is often intertwined with the broader issue of the international dimensions of revolution. Diplomacy can offer important insights into both the historical evolution of world order and its evolving functional and normative needs. In other words, the most important dimension of diplomacy, beyond its concrete symbolic and pragmatic operational value, is its very existence as raison de système. A number of scholarly works that explore the link between revolution and the international arena have given rise to a minority subfield of scholarly research and debate which is particularly vibrant and plural. Three basic lines of research can be identified: case studies undertaken by historians and area studies scholars that focus on the international dimensions surrounding particular revolutions; comparative political studies that address the international implications of revolutions by departing from a more comprehensive theoretical framework but still based in comprehensive case studies; and more theoretically comprehensive literature which, in addition to careful case studies, aims to provide a general and far-reaching explanatory theoretical framework on the relationship between revolution and long-term historical change from different perspectives: English school international theory, neorealism, world systems analysis, postmarxism, or constructivism. In a context of growing inequality and global exploitation, the international dimension of revolutions is receiving renewed attention from scholars using innovative critical theoretical approaches.

Keywords: diplomacy, revolution, world order, case studies, comparative political studies, historical change, English school international theory, neorealism, world systems analysis, constructivism


The relationship between diplomacy and revolution is frequently conflated with the broader issue of the international dimensions of revolution, both in terms of explanatory causes and, more often, in terms of the wide-ranging implications of the revolutionary foreign policies of specific states in the international realm. In so doing, some authors seem to suggest that diplomacy lacks any substantial content, as if it were little more than an extremely formalized and rigid element of the wider machineries of foreign policy and world politics. But diplomacy is much more than this. It is a set of practices, institutions, and discourses crucial for the basic understanding of both the historical evolution of world order and its evolving functional and normative needs. That means that the most important dimension of diplomacy, beyond its concrete symbolic and pragmatic operational value, is surely, as Watson eloquently observes, its very existence as raison de système (1984:201). For this reason, any reflective consideration of the mutual impact of diplomacy and revolution has to take into account the importance of the diplomatic system as a differentiated domain, which only reveals its deeper significance when considered in the long term and in a wider context.

But in order to approach this relationship properly a brief comment is also required regarding revolution and its significance. Although mainstream literature in political science (e.g. Goldstone 1986), and sociology (e.g. Tilly 1993) tends to understand revolutions as discrete events, able to produce relevant social and political changes, susceptible of comparative analysis by scholars, but always contained within the contours of specific states, the importance of revolutions is surely better grasped when they are understood in broader terms.

International relations scholars are of course well aware of it. After examining carefully the international consequences of the French, Russian, Iranian, American, Mexican, Turkish, and Chinese revolutions, Walt (1996), for instance, asserts that revolutions intensify the security competition between states, exacerbate mutual perceptions of threats, and sharply increase the risk of international war. But rather than being considered as isolated events, or potentially enduring interruptions of already existing world orders, revolutions are perhaps better understood – as suggested by Boswell (1989), Kowalewski (1991), Katz (1997), Halliday (1999), Philpott (2001), Bukovansky (2002), Foran (2003) or Stopinska, Bartels and Kollmorgen (2007), with diverse arguments – as multiple and changing expressions of a broader social conflict that exceeds the contours of specific states, and whose influence in the formation of the modern world needs to be considered seriously.

This essay provides an introduction to the complex relationship between diplomacy and revolution, as well as to the scholarly treatment that this issue has received in the past decades and is receiving presently. To accomplish this objective, it begins with a thematic delineation about what an exploration of such a relationship entails and why it could lead to a better understanding of world historical change. The essay subsequently provides a basic but critical overview of the scholarly debate in the field, with the goal of identifying the most significant contributions, and trying to assess its most remarkable achievements but also its possible shortcomings or blind spots. Finally, several possible directions for future research are discussed with the aim of promoting further explorations on a topic which for a long time was widely neglected within the mainstream international studies literature but which now, in a new era of global social turmoil, seems to generate renewed interest.

Significance of the Relationship

In his exploration of the genealogy of diplomacy, Der Derian (1987) asserts that diplomacy only acquired its modern meaning at a critical juncture in world history when the prevailing proto-diplomatic system was under serious attack. As he aptly observes: “Diplomacy comes of age, both ontologically and etymologically when it confronts the first major threat to its fledgling existence, the French Revolution” (1987:107). In other words, it was solely under the radical challenge of modern revolution that old diplomacy realized its ultimate and crucial rationale, being forced to define both its institutional recognizability and its formal content. In support of this vision it can be argued that it was only after the revision and regulation of existing diplomatic practices and institutions during the Congress of Vienna, in the light of the decisive impact of the French Revolution throughout the world, that modern and secularized diplomacy was born in 1815 (see Albrecht-Carrie 1958; Kissinger 1967; Klaits and Haltzel 1994; Belissa and Ferragu 2007). A similar reflection can be made regarding the way in which the containment of the international influence of the Russian Revolution was surely one of the most decisive forces behind the important diplomatic innovations included in the Treaty of Versailles (Mayer 1967). Even the process of codification of diplomatic law in 1961, in the framework of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, was largely the result of Western fears about the way in which a new era of African, Asian, or American revolutionary states could affect the diplomatic world. In sum, in this field, as in many others, the French Revolution was surely the fundamental catalyst of modernity (Fehér 1990). However, in spite of these historical realities, the most influential scholarly literature on diplomacy has tended to minimize, and even ignore, the role of the French and other revolutions in the development of the modern diplomatic system (e.g. Nicolson 1963; Watson 1984; Anderson 1993; Hamilton and Langhorne 1995).

Fortunately some prominent exceptions exist. In a work that is particularly valuable for the purposes of this essay due to its careful attention to the specific implications of revolution for the diplomatic system, Armstrong introduces the theme in very precise words: “It is the function of diplomacy as symbol and sustainer of international society that gives rise to the most fundamental revolutionary objection to it” (1993:251). This revolutionary objection to diplomacy gave rise to what Der Derian (1987:136) called antidiplomacy. While the purpose of diplomacy is to mediate relations among estranged states, antidiplomacy’s original revolutionary aim would be to transcend all estranged relations among peoples. In Der Derian’s words: “as diplomacy became increasingly identified with the mediation of the particular alienation of states, antidiplomatic theory developed in opposition as the ‘mediation for the universal alienation of mankind’” (1987:136). Although later Der Derian (1989) moved from his initial understanding of antidiplomacy as a form of utopian universalistic emancipatory movement, toward a less promising dystopian one, in the hands of spies, warriors, criminals, and terrorists, his original notion remains of particular interest. Nevertheless, it is also true that in spite of the antidiplomatic impulse that generally surrounds revolutionary political culture in its early stages, and partly due to counterrevolutionary reactions among the advocates of the prevailing order (Calvert 1990; Bisley 2004), it happens almost invariably that revolutionary regimes come to realize sooner or later the need to adapt themselves to some extent to the same diplomatic system that they initially seemed to reject. To realize this constitutive ambivalence of revolution regarding the diplomatic system is surely the point of departure for any reflective approach to the theoretical and practical dimensions of this relationship.

This ambivalence explains the many hesitations that revolutionary leaders have always shown when confronted with the need to establish priorities in the international field. The dispute between moderates and radicals appears at the core of the American, French, and Russian initial efforts to attain international recognition and influence, as well as later appearing among Chinese, Iranian, and other more recent revolutionaries. Most importantly, the conventional distinction between national and social revolution can be largely explained in terms of their diverse compatibility with the prevailing diplomatic order. While national revolutions, such as American or Haitian, always will need to gain some international recognition among other sovereign states, social revolutionaries – such as Jacobins, proletarians, anarchists, feminists, indigenists or Muslim fundamentalists – may be better depicted as radical internationalists, more inclined to trespass over states’ territorial boundaries and to challenge state sovereignty. Although this divide does not always appear so clearly differentiated in practice, the Soviet revolution provides surely the most eloquent illustration of this debate in the struggle between Stalin’s socialism in one country, and Trotsky’s permanent revolution (see Goodman 1960; White and Revell 1999). This conflict of priorities between advocates of the consolidation of revolution in a particular country, and those who prefer the spreading of revolution across the world, remains today one of the most emblematic expressions of the contradictions surrounding revolutionary internationalism.

Changing the Terms of the Scholarly Debate

As previously stated, for a long time the interplay between revolutions and the international realm was a neglected topic in the scholarly literature. Except in Marxist historiography (e.g. Hobsbawm 1962), and in the more ambitious scholarship within the field of diplomatic history (e.g. Droz 1952; Duroselle 1957; Albrecht-Carrie 1958), both the international sources of revolutions and their more prominent international effects have been largely absent from the literature on revolutions written by the most influential historians, sociologists, and political scientists (see Brinton 1965; Gurr 1970; Skocpol 1979; Goldstone 1986; Tilly 1993). Moreover, the narrowly positivist and comparative approaches that dominate those works sharply contrast with the hermeneutic and holistic approaches that the issue of revolution used to receive in the fields of philosophy of history and political theory (e.g. Arendt 1963), as well as within the grand tradition of critical historical sociology (e.g. Polanyi 1957). Fortunately, however, a select number of prominent works specifically devoted to exploring the connection between revolution and the international arena have forged a minority subfield of scholarly research and debate which is particularly vibrant and plural. Until quite recently, however, the most prominent contributions in the field were those provided by historians and area studies scholars, in the context of their accounts of different revolutions. The enduring relevance of such classic studies is beyond dispute, but their case study approach is typically not conducive to the elaboration of more general conclusions regarding the overall implications of revolutions for the diplomatic world. For purposes of clarity, and departing from the aforementioned precedents, three basic lines of research, not strictly isolated, can be identified here:

  1. 1 Case studies provided by historians and area studies scholars centered on the international dimensions surrounding particular revolutions, such as the American (e.g. Bemiss 1957; Dull 1985), French (e.g. Godechot 1969; Klaits and Haltzel 1994; Lemoin 1996), Russian (e.g. Goodman 1960; Senn 1974; Uldricks 1979), Mexican (e.g. Clendenen 1961; Staples 2000), Chinese (e.g. Van Ness 1970; Gittings 1974), Cuban (e.g. Weinstein 1979; Dominguez 1989; Ritter and Kirk 1995), Iranian (e.g. Djalilli 1989; Esposito 2001) or Nicaraguan (e.g. Vilas 1986), among others, as well as on the foreign policy of specific revolutionary states.

  2. 2 Comparative political studies that try to extract more general conclusions regarding the international implications of revolutions by departing from a more comprehensive theoretical framework but still based in comprehensive case studies (e.g. Kim 1970; Calvert 1984; Schutz and Slater 1990; Keddie 1995; Chan and Williams 1994).

  3. 3 More theoretically comprehensive works which, in addition to careful case studies, aim to provide a general and far-reaching explanatory theoretical framework on the relationship between the phenomenon of revolution and long-term historical change from different perspectives: English school international theory (Armstrong 1993), neorealism (Walt 1996), world systems analysis (Boswell 1989), postmarxism (Halliday 1999), or constructivism (Philpott 2001; Bukovansky 2002).

It is impossible to offer even a brief account of each of these lines of research, but a brief comment at least is dedicated to several of the most influential works. Firstly, Peter Calvert’s work must be noted. Although his work focuses more on the internal pressures and events that forge social revolutions in specific states than on either the wider international sources of revolutions or their impact on the international domain, it contains interesting observations regarding the recourse to specific diplomatic means with revolutionary ends. Calvert emphasizes the way in which diplomatic institutions and procedures have been carefully managed by revolutionary regimes as a powerful vehicle for advancing the cause of revolution across the world (1984:152). The careful administration of diplomatic recognition, the intensive use of diplomatic immunities and privileges (see also McClanahan 1989; Frey and Frey 1999), the selective management of the active and passive dimensions of the right of legation, the problematic consideration of diplomats as political commissaries, or the new prominence assigned to multilateral and summit diplomacy (Moore 1984), are some of the specifically diplomatic tools that revolutionary states have frequently added to their less diplomatic repertory of measures, including covert actions, in support of revolutionary forces elsewhere (see Chan and Williams 1994). This learning process is also illustrated in the remarkable way in which old forms of revolutionary propaganda have evolved toward more elaborate public diplomacy strategies (Sharp 2005).

David Armstrong’s work (1993) is doubtless one the most systematic and accomplished efforts to analyze rigorously the connection between revolution and international relations. Rooted in the English school approach, his analysis takes as its point of departure the disputable premise that revolutionary states disrupt an already existing and stable world order formed by a community of states, based on common values, interests, and rules. Through the detailed study of the American, French, and Russian revolutions, but also taking into account other more recent revolutionary episodes, Armstrong examines the impact of revolutionary states on what he depicts as the foundations of international society: international law, the balance of power, and diplomacy.

Although his analysis recognizes that revolutions can also influence the international realm in relevant ways, such as in the important revolutionary impulse to decolonization, or the promotion of innovations in international law and diplomatic practice, he prefers however to emphasize the opposite effect: namely, the way in which the prevailing international order affects the revolutionary state. At this point, Armstrong advances the notion of “socialization” (1993:271) as the almost inevitable path of conversion that revolutionary states seem to adopt sooner or later. He posits that revolutionary states take this path when the initial hostility toward the existing world order that generally defines revolutionary foreign policies in their early stages moves into conformity with the conventional rules of the game, albeit often with reluctance and “sometimes coupled with a desire to reform them” (Armstrong 1993:302). Illustrations of this trend are offered by American, French, Soviet, or Chinese revolutionary regimes which initially showed a great mistrust, if not a radical refusal, of diplomacy, even though later they needed to engage in diplomatic dialogue and participate in an already existing diplomatic system for both functional and normative reasons, in order to consolidate their own achievements and gain wider international legitimacy and respect.

In line with Armstrong’s approach, but descending to the phenomenology of diplomacy as experienced by professional diplomats, Sharp (2003) has recently provided interesting insights about the unavoidably transformative experience of being a diplomat (see also Neumann 2005), even for the most radical Taliban. However, in contrast with the linear adaptive pattern common to all revolutions suggested by Armstrong, other observers maintain that revolutionary regimes generally adopt a more ambivalent or dual approach, in which radical and rupturist ambitions have to be tempered with more conventional diplomatic means inspired by prudence and realism (see Halliday 1999:133).

The most influential contribution in the field surely has been that of Fred Halliday (1999). Taking his inspiration from both historical sociology and historical materialism but open to other influences, Halliday develops a quite personal and innovative postmarxist approach that has renewed considerably the terms of the academic debate in this terrain. As a point of departure, he argues that revolution is one of the most influential formative processes of the modern world and consequently merits a much more central place in the study of international relations than it now has. In so doing, and instead of the comparative or case studies approach characteristic of the already existing literature, Halliday adopts a more holistic and comprehensive perspective, less interested in the narration of political events, diplomatic negotiations details, or foreign policy achievements or failures, than in the deeper exploration of the complex relationship between revolutions and world historical change, in terms of mutual causation and influence. In contrast with Calvert (1984), Armstrong (1993) or Walt (1996), rather than presenting revolutions as isolated events or significant disruptions of already existing world orders, Halliday maintains that revolutions should be understood as multiple expressions of a wider social conflict that exceeds the contours of specific states, and whose influence in the formation of world order needs to be reconsidered. In so doing he emphasizes not only the constitutive importance of revolution in the world system of states, but also the role played by revolutionary forces in the shaping of modernity even within nonrevolutionary states, in regard to democratization, social welfare, and the role of the state in contemporary society. Halliday’s work, although not always received sympathetically, has generated great scholarly interest, giving rise to a plural discussion which finally has renewed the terms of the debate framing the issue of the relationship between diplomacy and revolution (see Armstrong 2001; González Gómez 2001; Halliday 2001; Mann 2001; Walt 2001).

Further Explorations

Presently, in a context of growing inequality and global exploitation, the international dimension of revolutions is receiving renewed attention by innovative critical theoretical approaches (Keddie 1995; Foran 2003; Stopinska et al. 2007). Conventional accounts of this process of renewal in the International Relations domain used to celebrate, in contrast, the arrival of constructivism to the field (e.g. Philpott 2001; Bukovansky 2002). According to this perspective, which has been sharply criticized by Halliday (2001), a new emphasis shall be placed on the way in which social expectations of justice and changing notions of political legitimacy have contributed historically to revolutionary changes in sovereignty, both at the domestic level and in the international realm. Although that argument has surely some plausibility, it has to be applied very carefully. Otherwise, it could facilitate the coming of a new idealism in the study of revolutions not very consistent with the crudeness of historical facts. For instance, through the discussion of a very selective series of cases, such as the Czech velvet revolution, Chilean transition, or South African end of apartheid, among other nonviolent major political changes, the meaning of revolution can be completely redefined, even to the extent of being depicted as a negotiated change in which “festivals of violence” are turned into “festivals of hope,” and “guillotines” are replaced by “roundtables” (see Lawson 2005:487–9).

Contrary to what conventional constructivist approaches seem to suggest, ideas, even those predominant in the scholarly world, do not always promote peaceful change. Sometimes they act precisely in the opposite manner, becoming the most rigid obstacle to human emancipation and international justice. Stinchcombe (1994), for instance, argues that Haiti’s diplomatic isolation in the Americas after its revolution and independence in 1804 was surely due to its problematic place, as an antislavery black republic, in the symbolic system of domestic politics in the United States. Moreover, in spite of Haitian support for the independence movements of many Latin American countries, the republic of former slaves was excluded from the hemisphere’s first regional meeting of independent nations held in Panama in 1826, and was not recognized by the US until 1862. Later, in 1915, US military forces occupied Haiti for almost two decades, and only in 1934, after the US withdrawal, did the small revolutionary republic regain its sovereignty. Almost a century later, the diplomatic establishment in the US and elsewhere is willing to accept the validity of the notion of coercive diplomacy, even in its worst incarnations (e.g. George and Simmons 1994; Art and Cronin 2003), while simultaneously denying diplomatic respectability to the perhaps disturbing but basically discursive outbursts of countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and even, although surely more abrupt, North Korea and Iran.


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Although he remains solely responsible for the text, the author wishes to acknowledge the valuable comments of Celestino del Arenal, Iver Neumann, Monica Schurtman, Paul Sharp, and Robert Weiner.