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July 24, 2006

The History of Diplomats: The Ambassadors: From Ancient Greece to the Nation State - Jonathan Wright

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Ambassadors: From Ancient Greece to the Nation State
by Jonathan Wright
Pp. 349. HarperCollins, 2006
Hardback, 20

The fascination of diplomacy, of diplomats, in Wright's phrase, as the privileged witnesses of history, is ably brought out in his wide-ranging and well-written book that spans from the ancient world (Egypt in the eleventh century BC) to the Congress of Vienna.

The book is stuffed with fascinating anecdotes and Dr Wright is adept in employing them to draw out more wide-ranging themes. It cannot be said that his book offers much to the specialist, and any major account of diplomats and diplomacy needs to be based in a more informed appreciation of the nuances and tempi of international relations, but, as an introductory work, this is very good and it would make a diverting read on any holiday beach. I indeed much enjoyed reading Wright on a ten-hour flight to Calgary, and this is an impressive sequel to his successful The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and History. It is particularly valuable to see a move away from the conventional Euro-centric exposition, and Wright ranges widely, particularly across Asia. Far less attention is devoted to Africa and pre-Columbian America, which is a pity as the variety of diplomatic interchange which Wright outlines could be amplified were he to consider these continents.

Wright likes to focus on individuals. It enables him to offer his series of vignettes and draws on his view that:

individuals far more tangibly than any impersonal force, wrote the human story.
While applauding this emphasis, it is necessary to point out that his "book of journeys" underplays those who stayed at home and drew up the instructions and assessed the reports. This indeed is the aspect of diplomacy that the study of diplomats is repeatedly apt to underplay. Wright is well aware of this, but his zeal for a good story can lead him to underrate it. Indeed, one of his major themes is that of the storymaking and telling that resulted from embassies. For example, they led to accounts of strange animals such as elephants and giraffes. As he puts it:
an embassy that brought news of a giraffe was something to be cherished.
Among the many conclusions Wright offers, is one of the efficiency of the Byzantine diplomatic machine and that Machiavelli was correct to argue that religious passions could have a deleterious influence on diplomacy. The risk with the latter approach, both in this case and more generally, is to imply a perfect state of diplomacy, rather than noting its interaction with new demands, as in his argument that:
the Protestant Reformation was about to queer the ambassadorial pitch.
Wright also discusses what he sees as a rise of professionalism in eighteenth-century European diplomacy, with attention not simply to the diplomats, but also to writing about diplomacy, including a discussion of Vattel.

If this review might seem to imply that Wright should now try to write a more serious study of the subject, that would be an overly harsh conclusion, because he has clearly set out to satisfy a different market. What he has written is especially impressive because of his engagement with recent literature, his ability to range across the centuries, and his interesting discussion of such dimensions as present-giving (and receiving), religious considerations and the hazards of travel.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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