The absence of a 'higher power' is why Latour adopts diplomats as the ideal subjects of his political 'negotiations.' In lieu of a higher, cosmic force along the lines of God or Nature there is no 'trump card' for ontological discussions. No one can say 'God willed it, thus it is so' or 'but that is just how Nature is, no argument.' The philosopher qua diplomat has to work with her opponent so as to achieve not unity or unanimity but a settlement, peace.
However, Latour's 'diplomat' is quite a gaunt, ahistorical creature. There is much more to the diplomat than the simple fact of 'negotiating in the absence of a higher sovereign.' If this concept is to be taken seriously then it should be investigated much more closely - and broadly.
To that end, the following is an extract from my MSc thesis that I wrote several years ago:
The origin [of the word diplomacy] is usually credited to Edmund Burke who in 1796, spoke of the ‘diplomatic body,’ and used “‘diplomacy’ to mean skill ... in the conduct of international intercourse and negotiations.” In seventeenth-century Italy, diplomatic agents had become known as “orators” and in most of Europe “ambassadors were still legati”. To use ‘diplomacy’ or ‘diplomat’ to refer to events of the seventeenth-century is, therefore, an anachronism, however, diplomacy was not “immaculately conceived in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or any other century” – there are traces of it throughout history. The Ancient Greeks, for instance, engaged in the sending of ambassadors and heralds; however (as with ‘representation’) they had “no single term that conveyed the themes of diplomacy”, nor any equivalent without “supplementary political associations and meanings”. Nevertheless, the word does have Ancient Greek roots.
The diplo- in ‘diplo-macy’ derives from “the ancient Greek verb diploun (to double), and from the Greek noun diploma” (“diplo = folded in two + suffix ma = object”). ‘Diplomas’ were documents “written on parchment and ... papyrus”, “handed over to heralds [and] carried as evidence of their status and authority.” The word diploma later “came to mean a letter of recommendation,” a passport or “an order enabling a traveller to use the public post.” As diplomas increased in quantity and importance amidst the fractured jurisdictions of the Middle Ages, the accumulation, organisation and authentication of these documents became an imperative for any self-respecting polity.
"[C]hanceries were set up to handle ‘diplomatic’ affairs. Indeed, in the early years of the Holy Roman Empire, and particularly in the Empire of the Ottos, control of the disposition of diplomas was tantamount to control of the Empire."
The -macy in ‘diplo-macy’ derives, according to Costas Constantinou, from the ceremonial staff or mace carried by the heralds and messengers of the Carolingian dynasty (751–987). These items, which were of symbolic rather than defensive utility, authorised “the agent as an official medium”. These items were presented to messengers (known as ‘missi’) at court ceremonies. Of additional etymological significance is that ‘missus’ was “the name for the royal procurator” of this period, while ‘mace’ also denoted “the scepter of sovereignty”.
During the seventeenth century, ‘diploma’ became associated with ‘diplomatica’ [the science of authenticating documents], a change that “appears to have started with the charging of ... Daniel Van Papenbroeck, with the examination of ancient monastic diplomas in order to determine their authenticity”, the falsity of which “had been suspected since medieval times.” Papenbroeck “claimed that almost all Merovingian diplomas and other medieval documents were forgeries”. Devastating as these claims were to the archival wealth of his order (not to mention the reputation and integrity of the entire system of political communication of the time), the Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon “worked silently for six years” to refute Papenbroeck’s criticisms. He studied “the form, not the content, of old diplomas” and his forceful critique compelled even Papenbroeck to accept his methods and conclusions. Mabillion’s masterwork ‘De re diplomatica’, first published in 1681, established a new science called ‘diplomatic’ or ‘diplomatics’, which Mabillon defined as:
"[C]ertain and accurate terms and rules by which authentic instruments can be distinguished from spurious, and certain and genuine ones from uncertain and suspect ones."
His techniques and his definition remain in use to this day.
In 1693, Gottfried Leibniz published Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus, a collection “of treaties and other official documents” which attributed “to the adjective diplomatic the meaning of something related to international relations.” Such activities were institutionalised across Europe: shortly after his appointment as English historiographer royal in 1693, Thomas Rymer was directed to compile and “publish all records of alliances and other transactions in which England was concerned with foreign powers from 1101 to the time of publication”. This became the Foedera (“treaties”).
As Nicolson notes, it was through these works of accumulation and authentication “that the usages of diplomacy as a science based upon precedent and experience came to be established”. The association of ‘diplomatic’ with the study of archives rather than inter-sovereign representation persisted until relatively recently. Not until Burke’s accreditation with the origin of the term after 1796 did the meaning shift decisively. However, by the late seventeenth century, the “link of the diplomatic with diplomas and handwriting was increasingly overshadowed by the newly established political theme” as attention was gradually diverted “away from the form or style of the diploma- document,” towards “what it actually represented in international relations.” The meaning of ‘diplomacy’ crossed over from the ‘diplomatic’ verification of documents to the ‘diplomatic’ system of negotiation and communication.
So goes the story of the word, but what of the practice?
"Many aspects of the diplomatic organisation of western and central Europe as it existed by the beginning of the Seventeenth century continued with little essential change down to the French Revolution and indeed beyond."
Change was slow, however diplomacy gradually became more institutionalised in the late seventeenth-century. According to Mattingly, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, foreign affairs remained in a state of confusion due to the nepotism of feudalism, the multiple actors assigned to each task and the multiple tasks assigned to each actor. “Everywhere outside of Italy political relationships ... were still personal” and diplomatic organisation, just like the rest of government “was, in 1600 as in 1500, still just the king’s household and his retinue.” France under Richelieu was foremost among the reformers. In 1626, Richelieu amalgamated the organisation of foreign relations “within the Ministry of External Affairs, over which he himself maintained constant supervision. He thereby secured that the word of command in foreign affairs should be delivered by a single voice only”. By the end of the century, diplomatic representation had lost “any overtones of religiosity” and become the prerogative of the sovereign alone. In this way, the development of diplomacy matches that of political representation as over the century the “undergrowth of quasi- diplomacy” was cast aside as absolutism centralised political authority within each distinct territory. It is unlikely to be coincidental that “from the advent of Richelieu to power in 1616 until the Revolution more than a hundred and sixty years later, the diplomatic method of France became the model for all of Europe”.
For an ambassador in the seventeenth-century, “the safeguarding ... of the honour and standing of the monarch” continued to be “the most fundamental of his duties”. For Mattingly, such duties were characterised by “pointless squabbling”, perceived insults and dangerous symbolic manoeuvres from which physical violence, even war, followed. However, as Der Derian notes:
"[I]t is as much the “petty” rituals and ceremonies of power as it is the “great” events of power politics or the famous developments of international law which define diplomacy[.] "
Particularly as we are interested in the representative function of ambassadors, the ceremonial aspect of their act is of the utmost significance. The seventeenth-century witnessed an increase in the importance, complexity and (most importantly) the sense of representativeness of ceremony. In Italy “symbolic courtesies” and “emphasis on the representative character of the ambassador’s office” had been of the utmost importance since the 1470s, though it was ahead of its time. By the early 1600s in the rest of Europe "ambassadors began to behave as if injury to their master’s subjects was an insult to his crown, and to intervene to protect their fellow countrymen without waiting for specific instructions to do so." The role of the ambassador became such that “in the gesture of obedience or condolence or congratulation which the ambassador performed, he acted as if in the person of his prince.” Ambassadors, therefore, became less authorised communicators and more authorised representatives (as we would understand such today).
The reasons for this change are too complex to go into, however it is undisputed that, to a large extent, the “emergence of Western diplomacy was driven by the disastrous desolation caused by the Thirty Years’ War“. The drive to end this war (or, more accurately, these wars) led to the development of large scale conference diplomacy. “The first of these congresses were the linked meetings held at Münster and Osnabrück (1643-8) which resulted in the Peace of Westphalia.” Although they were novel in format, norms of the time prevailed in the details as, despite their close proximity, the delegations negotiated mostly through correspondence. The mode of communication thus remained largely textual, paralleling the continued importance of diplomas at this time, although increased physical proximity gradually reduced this dependence.
Three principle practical developments have been outlined:
1) Gradual bureaucratisation and centralisation;
2) Increasing ‘representativeness’ of ambassadors in ceremonial and administrative functions;
3) Development of conference diplomacy.
These are complemented by the etymological development of ‘diplo-macy’, both halves of which are related to the authorisation of political communication and the symbolic establishment of sovereign right. The word evolved from its roots in the collection and collation of treaties (e.g. Leibniz, Rymer) and the authentication of such documents (e.g. Mabillon) to the actual engagement with representation and negotiation.
It took the developments of early modernity to make the diplomat ‘representative’ as we understand that term now. While ambassadors had, in a sense, always embodied the messages of their employers, during this period they began to act on the sovereign’s behalf and eventually would act on the nation-state’s behalf as sovereignty was alienated from the sovereign body. Although, diplomacy in the seventeenth century “was still far from modern”, there was a shift in the kind of representation practiced – from carrying the voice of another human to ventriloquising that which has none [the abstract sovereign will of Hobbes' Leviathan]...
However, this mini-history of diplomacy is very informative for Latour's iteration of the concept.
Firstly, diplomacy as a 'duplicitous' enterprise is inherent in the word itself. There is a duplicity to the diplomat that is actually baked into the etymology and genealogy of the word itself. This links into Latour's [POL] mode and its embracing of 'crooked talk.' It seems to me that his whole book is written in a somewhat duplicitous, diplomatic, political way - particularly with regard to his self-professed empiricism and his confusing definitions of 'the Moderns.' His diplomatic project is already in motion.
Secondly, and as I argued at the beginning of this post, the diplomat of history is very much a representative, a mediator - not an adjudicator. A diplomat's vocation is compromise, yes, but only inasmuch as it is necessary to achieve their goals. There are no giveaways, no freebies in diplomacy (if there ever are this is to achieve something, to build trust and respect). There is no rationality more instrumental than that of a diplomat. Acknowledging this fact should help remove the sheen of pacificity and 'beautiful soul-ness' that Latour is wont to impress upon his narrative. As I've argued previously, Latour's [POL] mode has a very strong undercurrent of realpolitik despite the somewhat cosy, collegial, liberal democratic style with which he expresses it.
Thirdly, the emergence of diplomacy as we understand it today is inextricable from the emergence of the modern state, scientific rationality and the partitioning of religion from both these domains - in other words, diplomacy is part and parcel of the emergence of the Moderns. This acknowledgement poses numerous problems. If diplomacy is a Modern institution then how can it be taken so straightforwardly to be the solution to the Modern predicament? Perhaps diplomacy is the one Modern institution that recognises the unavoidability of composition - that would seem to be the point. However, diplomacy requires a plurality of diplomats to represent views from multiple sides, not just one. If diplomacy is a Modern institution then how can non-Modern diplomats exist? Without a truly heterogeneous multiplicity of diplomatic representatives what use is the whole concept?
And where is the emergence of the State (and, correspondingly, modern international relations) in Latour's narrative? There can be no diplomacy between equals in Europe - i.e. no diplomacy conducted in the absence of a higher power - until the Holy Roman Empire is defunct and political power is institutionalised on a purely (or largely) territorial basis. Latour mentions the state in aime but certainly doesn't acknowledge its absolutely pivotal place in this story, nor does he admit that modern diplomacy depends upon the existence of the modern state and states-system - and therefore diplomacy depends upon this geopolitical settlement, too.
While this none of this deals a deathblow to Latour's iteration of diplomacy by any means it certainly shows that it cannot be taken to be a simple, obvious concept that can be asserted without commentary.
Fourth, diplomacy is only possible given the verifiability of representatives. The entire pre-modern genesis of the word and practice involves the symbolic and material validation of political representation and a whole new science had to be invented in order to validate the Benedictine archives (a fascinating entanglement of modes, by the way!). How are the diplomatic spokespersons of the Moderns and their Others (if the latter even exist) to be validated as representative of those they claim to speak for?
Fifth, and enlarging on the last point, many argue that diplomacy is only possible given a skein of established, mutually accepted rules - in the presence of what international relations scholars call 'international society.' This is deeply problematic for Latour because it means that diplomacy presupposes an existing social arrangement. I'll say more about that in a future post.
Lastly, it seems to me that one can, in light of this history, say that Latour is attempting, on an abstract level, to imitate the genesis of diplomacy-proper and develop a kind of ontological 'conference diplomacy.' Recall that conference diplomacy emerged out of the Thirty Years War - the war out of which Europe emerged Modern!! Is Latour's whole bombastic, epochal scenography not built around claim that we are on the cusp, metaphysically speaking at least, of another emergence, this time out of the Modern? And is this whole participatory Modes project not his attempt to piece together a Münster or Osnabrück of his own?
What ceremonies, what 'petty rituals,' what pomp and circumstance are necessary to make this assembly function? As Der Derian argues, it is precisely the arbitrary emptiness of these rituals that makes them valuable - they form a kind of social compact between the participants that commits nobody to anything besides negotiation; a social bond but the bare minimum of one. Perhaps this emptiness is the way out of the impasses that I identified above - a way of joining Modern and non-Modern in negotiation despite their lack of common ground. So far the aime project's discourse has been throughly rational, thoroughly scholarly - every word so full of meaning! Evidently, such full blooded rationalism (for that is what it is) alone will not do.
Diplomacy is built upon an elaborate yet empty edifice of rituals and pleasantries. Reason alone cannot engender diplomacy.