Traditionally, diplomacy referred to the art of negotiations, but by the 20th century, it was defined not only as the management of international affairs through negotiations but also as the communication and methods used by the states’ representatives to achieve their countries’ objectives in various fields—trade, environment, economy, peace and war, human rights, cultural relations, or public health. By the beginning of the 21st century, not only nation-states but also civil society organizations, multilateral institutions (World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), and transnational companies (Gazprom, Toyota) engaged in diplomacy. Through diplomacy, international actors pursue their interests and communicate their policies, negotiate compromise resolutions, manage or resolve conflicts, conclude treaties and create international organizations, limit the use of force in international affairs, prevent war, or sometimes employ threats. This entry examines the aims, strategies, and types of diplomacy; investigates its relationship to surveillance and espionage; and reviews some recent examples of the erosion of diplomacy between nations due to the use of surveillance tactics.

Diplomacy may achieve its aims either through formal negotiations and agreements or through informal talks and tacit “gentlemen’s agreements.” A “secret” diplomacy refers either to secret—unknown to its citizens or to other governments—agreements or arrangements concluded by a state’s government or to the secrecy—as opposed to publicity—surrounding certain aspects of negotiations. Considering its strategies, functions, or aims, scholars and practitioners have identified economic, commercial, business, environmental, cultural, military, security, power, preventive, monetary, public, coercive, nuclear, maritime, bilateral, multilateral, personal, informal, medical, secret, open, old, and new diplomacy.

Despite these provisions of international law, diplomatic communication is threatened by electronic espionage or surveillance conducted by other state or nonstate actors. Moreover, diplomacy itself encompasses activities such as gathering information or intelligence about others, and sometimes embassies are bases for spies, some of whom are deep undercover agents and accredited as diplomats, which is illegal. Although the boundary between diplomacy and espionage in international law remains disputed, in practice, states (as well as firms) do engage in espionage, including diplomatic espionage. In this respect, old electronic surveillance methods, such as listening devices placed in the homes, cars, and offices of diplomats, are now accompanied by new, digital ones. Founded in 2006 by Julian Assange, the controversial WikiLeaks, an international organization that publishes leaked documents, provides many examples in this respect.

In 2009, for instance, U.S. diplomats received several directives demanding technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the Security Council representatives from China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. In 2008 to 2009, directives to gather biographic and biometric information of leading figures in business, politics, intelligence, military, religion, and ethnic groups were sent to U.S. diplomats from more than 30 embassies, including the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Mali, and Bulgaria. The technical details requested included passwords, personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications, DNA samples, and iris scans.

In 2013, another scandal pointing at the blurring line between diplomacy and espionage emerged when the U.S. intelligence agencies the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency were accused of using the American Embassy in Berlin as a listening station to spy on the United States’ ally. Spiegel reported that the NSA had a “Special Collection Service” operational in 80 locations, 19 of which were in Europe—in cities such as Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Frankfurt, Geneva, Rome, and Prague, whose personnel were accredited as diplomats in the U.S. embassies and consulates and whose secret mission was to gather intelligence. Although wiretapping from an Embassy is illegal, the American personnel are alleged to have done precisely that, using sophisticated equipment and technologies placed on the roofs and upper floors of the Embassy and consulate buildings. Being under the protection of their diplomatic immunity and privileges, they could intercept cellular signals, wireless networks, and satellite communication, and they have been accused of even tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.

The German authorities were convinced that these allegations were true, and German-American diplomatic relations entered a phase of crisis of confidence. Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the Parliamentary Control Panel and responsible for monitoring Germany’s federal intelligence services, declared that “the NSA’s monitoring activities have gotten completely out of hand and evidently take place beyond all democratic controls.” Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff also complained that the NSA had tapped her cell phone, and in November 2013, Germany and Brazil asked the General Assembly of the United Nations to adopt a resolution on the rights to privacy in the digital era. One month later, the resolution was adopted.

Elena Dragomir

See also Electronic Surveillance ; Germany ; Privacy, Internet ; Privacy, Types of ; WikiLeaks

Further Readings

Booth, Robert and Julian Borger. “US Diplomats Spied on UN leadership.” The Guardian (November 28, 2010). http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/28/us-embassy-cables-spying-un (Accessed August 2014).

Kish, John and David Turns. International Law and Espionage. The Hague, Netherlands: Nijhoff, 1995.

McClanahan, Grant V.Diplomatic Immunity: Principles, Practices, Problems. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Mwenda, Kenneth Kaoma.Public International Law and the Regulation of Diplomatic Immunity in the Fight Against Corruption. Pretoria, South Africa: Pretoria University Law Press, 2011.

Pigman, Geoffrey. Contemporary Diplomacy. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2010.

Spiegel Online International. Embassy Espionage: The NSA’s Secret Spy Hub in Berlin (October 27, 2013). http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/cover-story-how-nsa-spied-on-merkel-cell-phone-from-berlin-embassy-a-930205.html (Accessed August 2014).

Spiegel Online International. “Out of Hand”: Europe Furious Over US Spying Allegations (October 24, 2013). http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/angry-european-and-german-reactions-to-merkel-us-phone-spying-scandal-a-929725.html (Accessed August 2014).