Book chapter

Revolutionary Diplomacy (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies


Revolutionary diplomacy presents an uneasy coupling of two slippery terms. Revolutions are said to disrupt, replace, and transform particular social orders, but the term revolution can be applied more broadly to almost any sort of change and the changes are carried out. Diplomacy is said to maintain the separateness of different social orders peacefully, while keeping them in touch with one another, but it can be used to describe a way of conducting all kinds of human relations. Spokespersons for both, in their narrower uses, have declared the other to be its enemy—diplomacy as a servant of the status quo, revolution as the servant of international disorder. This estrangement is reflected in the research and literature on revolutionary diplomacy in three ways. First, there is not much of it. Second, in the pairing between the two themes, researchers, following practitioners, are typically more interested in one side or the other, in revolution or diplomacy, and the junior partner receives little attention. Third, even in the literature that considers revolutionary diplomacy directly, the focus often shifts to other things: for example, the foreign policy problems posed by rogue states; the techniques of public diplomacy; or how to deal with terrorists and hostage-takers. Nonetheless, revolutionaries and established powers talk to each other and, in doing so, find themselves engaging in revolutionary diplomacy. The literature identifies several patterns in revolutionary diplomacy by tracking the practice, scope, and trajectory of revolutions themselves: for example, national revolutionary diplomacy directed at creating a place for a new actor in the established order of things; international revolutionary diplomacy directed at subverting and overturning the established order of things; and counter-revolutionary diplomacy directed at responding to and managing both types of challenges. In addition, however, the literature has developed its own themes, for example, identifying how revolutionary states are socialized into conformity with established state practices; and identifying how even subsumed revolutions leave markers and traces that change the way international relations are conducted. In so doing, the literature has become increasingly drawn into broader discussions of revolution, stability, and change rooted in historiography and philosophy but accelerated by sociological and linguistic inquiry into the relationship between communication and technology. Its focus is less on the diplomatic consequences of revolutions, seen as discrete, bounded historical events, with beginnings and ends, and more on the idea of the diplomacy of permanent revolution—the management of international and human relations in an era of constant and accelerating change—and the idea of the revolution of permanent diplomacy, which suggests that the legal, political, economic, cultural, and other dimensions of the way human beings relate to one another are increasingly governed by diplomatic assumptions about how the world works, what is to be valued in it, and how to succeed in such a world.