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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)

New Diplomatic History: State of the Field

New Diplomatic History (NDH) introduces alternative layers of investigation that transcend the official / unofficial divide in diplomatic activities. It analyses time and space as constituents in the formation of diplomatic settings and locations, and it looks at the evolution of diplomatic practice and how this has in turn transformed the diplomat’s training, space of operation, functionality, and expectation. More attention is now given to the processes of diplomacy rather than purely the outputs. Diplomacy is a multi-layered scenario, with protocols, taboos, etiquettes, and conventions, peopled by multiple actors of varying degrees of influence. The emphasis still lies on archival evidence, but the approach is more transnational than international in that more attention is given to non-governmental actors who cannot be bound by orthodox understandings of the ‘national interest’ or national identrity. Oral history and personal memoirs from all related actors are important sources, and of equal merit.

The NDH website categorises the field’s scope thus:

Our network’s approach is “new” for two reasons: it is aimed specifically at the study of individuals and groups of individuals who perform diplomatic roles, rather than at international relations as a whole; and it integrates political and economic narratives with other perspectives and methodologies such as prosopography, the sociology of knowledge, gender theory and network analysis.

NDH can therefore broadly be situated in relation to the sociology of international relations. It focuses more on process than on results – on the cultures and persona involved in the production of a given document or event, rather than on the document or event per se. Its areas of enquiry can be further explored from spatial, temporal, and behavioural perspectives.

Spatially, in the sense of granting more importance to the role of individuals and institutions (NGOs/INGOs) often bypassed in the more orthodox study of diplomatic interaction, simply because their input into policy-related decision-making is diffuse at best and absent at worst. NDH considers these activities as equally valuable for identity and interest formation as traditional forms of statecraft.

Temporally, in the sense that the examination of a wider field of diplomatic 'actors' challenges the standard periodisation of diplomatic activity as sketched out according to the sequence of developments in high politics and (inter-)governmental decisions.

Behaviourally, in the sense that the very nature of diplomatic practice and the role (indeed the very notion) of the diplomat is brought into question. The diplomatic role is now being transformed in an ever-more-dynamic global context of multilateral agreements and transactions. Looking beyond the current-day context, NDH critically examines the ‘diplomat’ through history, moving beyond the taken-for-granted interpretation of this position as merely the official representative of a nation-state’s government. It explores the codes, identities, discourses, and public-private divides that have been intrinsic to marking off the diplomatic from the non-diplomatic, but which have often been more arbitrary than formally presented. This includes exploring the role of individuals once ignored due to their lack of any official status in the diplomatic realm.

Once the frame of ‘diplomacy’ is altered, so the kind of actors who become visible changes with it. Diplomatic History has always given space for the informal activities of diplomats, albeit granting them a lesser importance. Attention for Two-Track Diplomacy has set the spotlight on informal efforts to achieve conflict resolution alongside formal negotiations. NDH widens the view to emphasise not just the informal roles of formal diplomats, but also the informal realm as a whole, in its own right worthy of investigation. In this way the field can map out the ‘cloud’ of transnational transactions that surround the makings of statecraft, the relations and interventions between this ‘cloud’ and the realm of statecraft, and the identities, interests, motivations that sustain it. It is thus compiling as much a history of ideas as a history of actions.

Connection with other research

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