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Research project

Research Field: New Diplomatic History

Diplomatic History has never been a static discipline. The traditional, orthodox approach of piecing together the decision-making processes of policy-makers remains central, with its goal of reconstructing the reality of statecraft the defining characteristic. This approach - what A.J.P. Taylor referred to prosaically as “what one clerk said to another clerk” - has consistently been challenged by those looking to expand the scope of the discipline and its objects of interest. The research field of New Diplomatic History looks to consolidate these processes of change as a central component within the study of History and International Studies.

Giles Scott-Smith


In the past, the introduction of social scientific methodologies and the increasing importance given to social and economic history questioned the validity of diplomatic history’s empiricism and its narrowly-defined interpretation of how power functioned. The 'cultural turn' of the late 1980s and early 1990s pushed Diplomatic History further to the side-lines through a greater focus on race, class, gender, and identity, and its post-modern questioning of the status of archival documents as the ultimate sources of truth. The rise of International, Transnational and Global History perspectives has shifted the focus of attention towards broader themes, problematizing the central role of the state in an increasingly complex policy-making environment.

The discipline of Diplomatic History has accommodated these changes, going through regular sessions of productive soul-searching concerning its scope and terminology. It is possible now to publish anything remotely connected to inter-state relations in the leading journals of the field. This is a positive development, but it hasn’t led to a clear redefining of the field in any consistent sense, only an expansion of its scope.

In response, New Diplomatic History looks to gather together this fragmented research field into a recognisable academic network. It encourages the introduction of fresh perspectives for the study of diplomacy, re-framing it with a new set of questions and topics. It looks to combine social scientific methods with historical studies in order to open up the study of diplomacy and diplomats to new approaches: anthropology, network analysis, sociology, emotions, time and space, prosopography, political geography, field theory, institutional analysis, and so on.

New Diplomatic History is not confined to the study of the contemporary era. Leiden historians of the early modern period have also been investigating how the diplomatic landscape was widely populated by non-state actors, whose transnational networks and styles of behaviour defined the stage as much as the recognised state actors themselves. This enables the study of fluctuations and shifts in diplomatic norms over a longer time period, exposing diplomacy as a fluid activity that has always been more diverse in scope and participant than the state-based norms would have us believe.


In 2011 an international academic network under this name was established, with a website maintained at http://newdiplomatichistory.org. This is used for announcements of events, relevant publications, and a rolling blog of diplomatic observations.

International Conferences

The NDH network has held three international conferences, in Leiden (2013), Copenhagen (2016), and Middelburg (2018). These events have seen the NDH field gradually evolve in terms of the range of topics and disciplines that are covered by diplomacy-related research. In particular, the third conference entitled Bridging the Divide for the first time brought early modern and modern historians together to discuss the usefulness of concepts and analytical approaches for exploring practices of diplomacy across the ages.  

NDH4 will be held at Aarhus University, Denmark, in 2020.

In 2016 Leiden was also the host institution for the conference ‘Beyond Ambassadors: Missionaries, Consuls and Spies in Pre-Modern Europe’.


Modern History: Prof.dr. G. Scott-Smith g.scott-smith@hum.leidenuniv.nl

Early Modern History: Dr. Maurits Ebben m.ebben@hum.leidenuniv.nl


All the Leiden and Copenhagen conferences have produced special issues of journals that give an indication of the field’s interests:

Who is a Diplomat? Diplomatic Entrepreneurs in the Global Age”, Special Issue of New Global Studies, 8/1 (2014)

Nieuwe diplomatieke geschiedenis van de premoderne tijd”, Special Issue of Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, 127/4 (2014)

“The Evolving Embassy: Changing Diplomatic Representation and Practice in the Global Era”, Special Issue of New Global Studies, 11/2 (2017)

“The Evolution of Diplomacy: Perspectives on a Profession”, Special Issue of Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 14/1 (2018)

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