Swords into Ploughshares, Civilians into Summits?

Prof. Dr. Giles Scott-Smith,  Roosevelt Chair in New Diplomatic History at Leiden University

According to Hedley Bull, diplomacy is “the conduct of relations between states and other entities with standing in world politics by official agents and by peaceful means.”(1) Diplomacy is thus central for the maintenance of peace in the international system: it functions as a monitoring and mediating ‘safety valve’ for competition between states, constantly working towards contact, compromise, and settlement in order to overcome the tensions and antagonisms of rival national interests.(2) Through processes of adaptation, necessity, and legal decision, diplomacy was formalized in the modern era as the official means of inter-state interaction. The orthodox interpretation of this within diplomatic studies (and diplomatic history) is that these diplomatic norms represent the modern era of nation-states, usually dated back to the post-Napoleonic 19th century, with specific traits feeding through from earlier ages (such as the use of resident ambassadors from the city-states of Renaissance Italy).

The modern-era functions of diplomacy continue to be fundamental to international relations into the present day. Yet the political, social, and economic context within which diplomacy takes place, and the relationship between diplomacy and society at large, have both changed radically. Non-state actors, ranging from transnational corporations to non-governmental single-issue lobby groups and ‘global cities’, have become more important as actors in their own right, pursuing agendas that coincide with, clash with or bypass state interests. Commentators now speak of “non-state actors that are more relevant to prospects for global stability than are many conventional states.”(3) The communications and mobility revolutions of the twentieth century have empowered ordinary citizens to not only see the world, but also to engage with it.(4) This has necessarily raised issues concerning the relationship between such non-state actors and the nation-state, and the question of official representation.(5) The ‘official agents’ label mentioned in the opening quote has therefore come under critical scrutiny.

The claim is therefore being made that the practices of diplomacy have been changing in the post-Cold War era. Ministries and embassies are no longer controlling the diplomatic sequence from beginning to end. Yet this still maintains the fiction that before this recent period the state was in control of the entire diplomatic process – at least during the heyday of modern diplomacy during the 19th and 20th centuries – and that the arrival of the non-state actor is intricately related to the ongoing processes of globalization in the 1990s.

In contrast, this project cuts across the orthodox interpretation by exploring the ‘diplomatic’ role of specific non-state actors in the Cold War period. It questions the assumption that non-state actors are only ever involved in ‘low politics’, leaving the ‘high politics’ of matters of national security to state authorities. It argues that nonstate actors, and particularly individuals, have always been able to insert themselves into the ‘stream’ of diplomatic activities, and that the orthodox representation of diplomacy in the modern era has deliberately excluded them. In this way, the scope for investigation is widened, and the possibilities for exploring a ‘new diplomatic history’ of the modern era, which investigates the purpose and role of these excluded actors, take shape.

Project Description

The aim of this research project is to investigate the roles of non-state actors in relation to Dutch foreign relations during the later part of the 20th Century. The historiography of Dutch diplomacy has largely maintained a focus on state authority, and there has been a tendency to ignore the relevance of non-state actors due to their lack of decision-making authority.(6) This narrow interpretation of how power works neglects the influence and impact of the social and economic networks and communicative media that have operated through, above and below the field of international diplomacy in the modern era. Alongside this is a re-evaluation of the Netherlands as a ‘small state’ or ‘middle power’ in international politics.(7) A new generation of historians is now overturning this view by applying a broader understanding of diplomacy.(8) Alongside this, there has also been very little attention given to Dutch involvement in East-West diplomacy with the Soviet Union during the Cold War (or before), the general impression being that official Dutch rejection of the Soviet worldview and its oppressive domestic system limited the level of diplomatic outreach.(9) This narrow interpretation of Netherlands-Soviet relations excludes attention for private initiatives that cut across both official diplomatic practices and the official diplomatic narrative, complicating the representation of two nation-states alienated from each other.

Case Studies

  1. Ernst H. van Eeghen and the Burght FoundationFrom the 1970s to the 1990s Amsterdam businessman Ernst van Eeghen conducted his own private diplomacy between the United States, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union. Making use of influential contacts made via the World Council of Churches and the World Veterans Foundation, van Eeghen focused his mediating activities first on the ‘high politics’ of nuclear security and later on the issues of human rights, religious freedoms, and minority autonomy. It is clear that van Eeghen acted as a go-between for US and Soviet political interests, but he has so far not been analysed as a relevant figure within the scope of Dutch foreign relations of the period.
  2. Frans Lurvink and the Alerdinck FoundationSelf-made businessman Frans Lurvink established the Alerdink Foundation in the early 1980s to set up regular spaces for East-West dialogue between media professionals. The initiative gathered a significant list of participants from US, European, and Soviet media, and held conferences in Paris, Moscow, and New York, as well as in the Netherlands. The overall goal was to break down the stereotypes of East and West that were being perpetuated by the media outlets on both sides.

New Diplomatic History

The New Diplomatic History (NDH) network was established in 2011 by a group of European-based scholars looking to expand the study of diplomacy through history with the use of social scientific methodologies. In 2013 I organized the network’s first conference at Leiden University, which has been followed by a second(Copenhagen University, 2016), and soon a third (RIAS, Middelburg, 2018). Building on these developments, and the evidence from the conferences that there exists a broad community of scholars working on diplomacy from a variety of disciplinary angles, in 2017 I successfully submitted a proposal to Brill for a new journal, Diplomatica: A Journal of Diplomacy and Society. Under the editorship of myself and NDH founder Ken Weisbrode (Bilkent University), the journal will publish its first issue in April 2019. Spatially, the journal has a global orientation, and temporally it seeks to link the new diplomatic history of the modern era with similar developments among early modern historians, thereby providing a space to encourage a broader investigation into the transformations of diplomacy over time and place.


  1. Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society (London, 1977), pp. 162-163.
  2. See for instance Harold Nicolson, Diplomacy (London, 1969); Adam Watson, Diplomacy: The Dialogue between States (London, 1983).
  3.  Philip Seib, The Future of Diplomacy (Cambridge, 2016), p. 71.
  4. Richard Langhorne, ‘The Diplomacy of Non-State Actors,’ Diplomacy & Statecraft 16 (2006), pp. 331-339.
  5. Richard Langhorne, ‘Current Developments in Diplomacy: Who are the Diplomats now?’ Diplomacy & Statecraft 8 (1997), pp. 1-15; Paul Sharp, ‘Who needs Diplomats? The problem of diplomatic representations,’ International Journal 52 (1997), pp. 609-634.
  6. See for instance Duco Hellema, Neutraliteit en Vrijhandel: de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse buitenlandse betrekkingen (Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 2001) and subsequent editions.
  7. Samuel Kruizinga, ‘A Small State? The Size of the Netherlands as a Focal Point in Foreign Policy Debates, 1900-1940’, Diplomacy & Statecraft 27 (2016) 420-436.
  8. See for instance Ruud van Dijk, Samuël Kruizinga, Vincent Kuitenbrouwer and Rimko van der Maar (eds.), Shaping Foreign Relations: The Netherlands 1815-2000 (London: Routledge, 2018).
  9. Ben Knapen, De lange weg naar Moskou: Nederlandse relaties tot de Sovjet-Unie 1917-1942 (Elsevier, 1985); B. Naarden and J.W. Bezemer, Rusland in Nederlandse Ogen (Amsterdam: Van Oorschot, 1986); F. Baruch and Will Boezeman, Aan de grenzen voorbij: over de betrekkingen tussen Nederland en de USSR (1917-1987) (Amsterdam: De Schalm, 1987); Toby Witte, Een verre vijand komt nabij: de diplomatieke betrekkingen van Nederland met de Sovjetunie 1942-1953 (Kampen: Mondiss, 1990).