Diplomacy & Ethics

International Relations Essay Example

Diplomacy & Ethics and their Role in International Relations

This paper is a research proposal into ethical diplomacy and the extent of its impact on international relations. While the intention is to explore this topic in general terms, it is nonetheless important to identify and analyse specific issues in order to arrive at some coherent conclusions. Indeed all three components in this research project (namely diplomacy, ethics and international relations) constitute disciplines in their own right and as such can be researched in isolation. Therefore to minimise the scope for overly-superficial analysis, it is important to outline and explore specific cases.

It is often assumed in international relations theory that the conduct of diplomacy and international relations are essentially divorced from moral and ethical norms. The most vociferous proponents of this idea are the so-called “realist” school of international relations, who contend that the core objectives in foreign policy are the maximisation of power and influence. However, these assumptions are being increasingly questioned by a range of specialists, especially globalisation theorists who envisage a more multi-polar and equitable international system.

At the heart of the debate is the notion and value of diplomacy itself and whether this ancient craft is still an effective tool in an age of increasing American unilateralism. This point alone would be a good enough reason to conduct this research. However the complexities surrounding this case are much more extensive for principally two reasons. First and foremost is the issue of globalisation, both as a corporate/cultural phenomenon and as a system of international relations based upon consensus and balances of power. The second issue is the debate over the role of “ethics” in international relations, particularly in the case of war and armed interventions. Clearly recent events, not least the invasion and occupation of Iraq in March/April 2003, have overtaken ethical developments in international relations theory. This point, instead of making the whole debate superfluous, in fact adds greater urgency to it.

This proposal is divided into five sections. The first section presents a background and literature review. The second section presents the research proposal. The purpose of this research is to gain an understanding into the values and world views of influential players in the diplomatic establishments of the United States and the European Union. The fourth section outlines the methodology of the proposed research topic. There is a brief presentation of social research methodology and terminology before the specifics of this particular methodology are outlined and justified. The fifth section anticipates some possible difficulties, especially in relation to the analysis and assessment of the information acquired during the research. The final section briefly outlines the resources and budget for the project.

Literature Review

Instead of providing an exhaustive literature review, this section provides an introduction to the subject and outlines three pieces of work that constitute an excellent starting point for further research. First and foremost it is important to develop some knowledge on “ethics” in isolation from the other two components of the research piece (namely diplomacy and international relations). After all an “ethical” diplomacy, or an “ethical” approach toward designing a new international system, require an in-depth understanding of ethics, particularly in the way it interfaces with politics.  While there are numerous books and anthologies on ethics—much of which is of excellent quality—there is very little that is truly multi-cultural in scope and analysis. This has profound implications for this research project, not least because globalisation is one of its major themes. However, “Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach” is a refreshing exception. This anthology draws on the works of prominent past and contemporary ethicists, philosophers and historians to provide a penetrating insight into the multi-faceted dimensions of ethics. The section on war and violence is particularly relevant to this research project.

Much of the debate on ethical foreign policies can be reduced to the divide over whether powerful western countries can adjust their foreign policies to promote greater political freedoms and economic equality in the world. This debate is particularly acute in the U.S. where the “ideal” school of international relations has always been stronger than its counterpart in Western Europe. An excellent article that argues the case for an “ethical” American foreign policy in the Middle East, especially in regard to putting pressure on regimes to reform, is to be found in the “Middle East Intelligence Bulletin” (MEIB) journal. Despite its mildly polemical tone, the article does provide a critical analysis of the main issues involved and outlines the practical benefits of a more ethical foreign policy.

An article in “Foreign Affairs” explores the differences in U.S. and European foreign policies in the context of the values and assumptions that drive them. The article asks whether the differences are eroding the cultural and structural basis of the transatlantic alliance. While much of the analysis in the article is perceptive and timely, the author does not truly assess the extent to which ethics—or different conceptions of ethics—have contributed to a greater transatlantic divide.

A more in-depth analysis of the trans-atlantic divide (especially in the context of differences on values and ethics), and a greater appreciation of ethics, particularly insofar as it interconnects with international relations, should inform the selection and assessment of further literature.

Research Proposal

The central idea behind any piece of research is to make a genuine contribution to the body of human knowledge and understanding on a particular subject. The scope for making a unique contribution to the debate on diplomacy and ethics and their role in international relations is great, providing the research is focussed on a narrow and contemporaneous field. For instance a research paper on Britain’s so-called “ethical” foreign policy, following the Labour victory in the 1997 General Elections, would be widely welcomed by both the academic and diplomatic communities. Indeed once the research topic is narrowed down, the scope to make a genuinely unique contribution increases exponentially. However in this case the focus is on diplomacy and ethics in a general sense, and subsequently the opportunity to produce a research paper with the potential to make a significant impact, diminishes accordingly.

One possible way to focus on the general theme, and yet address specifics simultaneously, would be to introduce a “comparative” dimension to the research. Therefore the core of the research proposal outlined here revolves around a comparative study of how the two greatest poles in international relations (namely the United States and the European Union) view the roles of diplomacy and ethics in international relations. This is not to deny that there are other important poles of power and influence in world affairs, in particular rising giants like India and China, but to assert that the U.S. and the EU are likely to remain the pre-eminent diplomatic and military powers in the world for the foreseeable future.

The proposed research project revolves around a detailed study of the views and positions of the influential actors in both camps’ diplomatic establishments. There is a major problem here insofar as the very notion that the EU has a common or unitary foreign and diplomatic policy is very controversial indeed—not least in some of the major EU countries themselves. Nonetheless there is a general consensus in the international diplomatic community, as well as in academia, that the EU is gradually developing a common foreign policy on many important issues. While the occupation and invasion of Iraq in March/April 2003 highlighted the divisions in the EU (with the UK, Spain and Portugal backing the U.S. and the French and Germans vehemently opposed to the invasion), the Europeans have begun to unite recently, especially in regard to the brewing crisis over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme.

There is a widely held notion that U.S. attitudes towards diplomacy and ethics (or ethical diplomacy) is radically different to the European view. Much of this is clearly rooted in the Americans’ super-power status and the undeniable fact that their economic and military power is beyond challenge. Nonetheless it would be interesting to see whether there are deeper cultural and historical forces that shape a nation’s attitudes towards ethical diplomacy. Exploration of this issue forms an important purpose of this research. The proposal outlined here is to access first hand information from influential actors in both camps and subject them to a detailed comparative analysis, using conventional analytical techniques.  Statistical—and other quantitative-based analysis—is superfluous here; what is really needed is a comparative study that outlines and explores the positions and world views of both parties. Furthermore the ultimate objective of this research is not to arrive at a conclusion regarding the moral value of any of the approaches, but to outline and understand the geo-political implications that would follow from them.


Before outlining the methodology for this specific research, it is important to examine social research jargon and methodology. There are some divergences in opinion, but the intention here is not to elaborate on these and instead focus on the core issues and characteristics that define research in the field of the social sciences. Grix for instance outlines 10 points that should be included in any good, clear research proposal. Moreover Grix contends that: “ontology and epistemology are to research what ‘footings’ are to a house: they form the foundations.” Arguably the most interesting point made by Grix in his book is the notion that theory should never be used for the sake of it. This is an important point insofar as it highlights the importance of the “practicality” of the subject and implicitly champions research that is inherently purposeful and genuinely designed to further human knowledge and insight, rather than making a perfunctory contribution to the debate.

The same point is made differently by other authors who highlight the “evaluative” and “emancipatory” dimensions of research; in other words a piece of research can be evaluated for its quality in terms of how well it was completed and how credible were its results. The term evaluation can also mean moral judgements, as moral norms constitute an intrinsic feature of the social sciences. Meanwhile Punch focuses on the functions and purpose of a research proposal, drawing on the work of other authors to list three functions of the research proposal; namely communication, plan and contract. Punch also outlines the critical role of “strategy” in any research proposal, arguing that the central feature in the design of any study is its internal logic; i.e. the reasoning and rationale the study pursues to answer its research questions.

The themes introduced above are by some of the most well-known theorists of research. However, developing a better understanding of the research process requires a wider study, including works that are relatively unknown in this field. Ralph Berry’s “The Research Project” is a short and concise introduction into all the stages of the research process. It starts from choosing the research subject and charts the entire process through to the publication of the material in a relevant journal. Berry offers some useful advice that is not altogether apparent in the works of the better known theorists. For instance Berry contends that a research paper should be “circular” in argument. In other words the formal aim of the paper should be stated in the opening paragraph; the conclusion should refer back to the opening and assess the original purpose in the context of the body of the research (i.e. the information assembled and analysed during the research process).Moreover Berry identifies flaws during the documentation process (i.e. the writing up of the research findings) as one of the chief reasons for student failure. Furthermore Berry identifies “presentation” as another major determinant of the quality of the research piece, and effectively argues for the “standardisation” of the research process, in particular the writing up of the research findings.

Another excellent short and concise book to consult is Fiona Devine and Sue Heath’s “Sociological Research Methods in Context”. The core purpose of this book is to discuss issues of methodology within the context of current empirical research. The book attempts to accomplish this by way of a critical evaluation of eight pieces of “real” and recent research in the areas of education, family, employment, housing, health, crime, class and political activism. After outlining and justifying all the eight research pieces, the authors make a number of conclusions. They stress the importance of methodological eclecticism and the appropriateness of method. They call into question the “classical” textbook approach to research methods, which they allege compel students to adopt one method at the expense of others, rather than trying to forge several methods into one coherent strategy. While the authors’ assessment of the “classic” approach is not altogether accurate, nonetheless some of the insights they provide on the merits of methodological eclecticism are very valuable indeed.

Aside from studying the works of theorists of social research, the student is also advised to gain some understanding of the wider issues related to research. Although social science is often depicted as being “qualitatively” different from the natural sciences, there is little doubt that much of the methodology of the former has been borrowed from the latter. There are historical and technical reasons for this. First and foremost the emergence of the natural sciences (and the methodology that was constructed around them) predates the formation of the social sciences by at least three centuries. It is important to note that “Sociology” and the other “Social” sciences that followed it emerged in the late 19th century. Moreover, from a technical perspective, it made sense for social scientists to borrow the tools of the natural scientists, not least because the latter relied on greater historical experience. While some of the early pioneers of the social sciences (notably Max Weber) argued that their discipline was indistinct from the natural sciences, the general consensus was that the social sciences are premised on wholly different conceptual and normative values.

The upshot is that, despite appearances to the contrary, much of the methodology of the social sciences is rooted in the natural sciences. This is a point that is made repeatedly by the historians and philosophers of science. Therefore it is worthwhile for the student to study some of the works by the giants of the history and philosophy of science in order to gain that extra “edge”, as far as understanding the nature of the research process is concerned. Arguably one of the more interesting and relevant texts for consultation is Imre Lakatos’ “The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes”. A brief perusal of the first chapter of the book entitled “Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes” provides a wealth of insights into the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of research programmes. While much of this insight is not directly useful to the completion of this research project, nonetheless it provides a peripheral understanding that could help the student avoid some pitfalls during the project.

The central methodology of this specific research proposal revolves around interviewing influential players in those U.S. and EU institutions that are playing the leading roles in international diplomacy. The rationale behind this approach is simple; interviewing people is the most effective way of gathering quality information. And since the “product” of this research will be a detailed analytical report, it is absolutely vital to gather and assess high quality information; especially information that is not readily available in open-source literature. Some authors readily allude to the effectiveness of interview transcripts, effectively arguing for their direct insertion into the body of the report. Denscombe argues that interviews provide a depth of quality information that is difficult to access through other methods.

The specific strategy outlined here does not envisage the direct insertion of interview transcript into the body of the report for two reasons. Firstly it is wholly unnecessary since the research being outlined is designed to yield an analytical report and not in-depth insights into the views of particular actors. Secondly, as Grix points out, it is important to guard against ‘method-led’ research; that is allowing a particular method to dominate the research process in an inflexible manner rather than focussing on the core questions and allowing these to determine the method and the sources.

Anticipation of Possible Difficulties

Denscombe contends that interviews are fraught with hidden dangers and can fail miserably unless there is good planning, proper preparation and sensitivity to the complex nature of interaction during the interview itself. Pre-empting this problem will require an in-depth study into the history of diplomacy and its relationship with ethics. Indeed the relationship between ethics and diplomacy is arguably more elusive than its relationship with other political and social disciplines. For this reason alone it is important for the researcher to gain a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of ethics and how it has shaped the debate and norms across a range of academic disciplines.

The core information from the interviews with leading actors will have to be compared and contrasted with existing information in open-source literature, and this could potentially cause problems. Problems will arise if the sample of literature selected for the research is, for some reason, unsuitable. The main problem will be keeping a balance between the different “types” of literature available. Although every piece of research should endeavour to add something genuinely new to the existing body of knowledge, the research process (in particular the final product) must refer to and to some extent reflect current understanding. This is because once a research project is completed it will be positioned into the existing body of literature, and if it is found to be a radical departure from current norms, then it runs the risk of being ignored. This is not to downplay the importance of innovation and imaginative thinking, but to outline the need for “continuity” in the style, language and product specifications in the academic community.

A quick perusal of major research projects completed both in the natural and social sciences reveal a remarkable similarity and continuity in style and language. Even in the realm of the natural sciences—where the scope for innovation is considerably greater—one does not usually encounter radical departures from existing research norms and methods. The important point to be made here is that the research process should not be confused with the final results. This is a mistake that is made all too often by inexperienced social science researchers who assume that to be innovative requires a radical departure from existing norms and methods. This false assumption leads to serious mistakes being made during the entire course of the research process, particularly in the connections that the researcher makes between the existing body of literature and his/her methodology.

The mistakes often manifest themselves in the researcher’s inability to make meaningful connections between the existing body of literature and the unique contributions that he seeks to make. Avoiding this problem requires a careful selection of material from the existing body of literature. The emphasis should be on selecting fairly from a range of disparate—and often conflicting—viewpoints. Moreover the researcher must take care to select the very best material that is available in open source literature. This is one area that discrimination is called for, inasmuch as the avoidance of sloppy and low-quality material is concerned. The selection of the best material not only automatically improves the quality and standard of the research project but also highlights the areas that need further research and explanation.

It is often assumed that making a genuine contribution to the field of diplomatic studies requires going beyond the existing body of open source literature and accessing the archives of governments for recently “declassified” material. While this declassified material is—technically speaking--part of the open-source literature, nonetheless it is often assumed that this kind of information is special and not altogether different from “closed-source” information. This assumption is generally correct and indeed any unique study into the fields of politics and international relations would be incomplete without reference to recently declassified material. However in this particular case the researcher should try to avoid this kind of information. Broadly speaking there are two reasons for this. First and foremost the research topic in this case is very general and theoretical and hence it is difficult to see how careful selection of recently declassified material could be neatly positioned into the text of the report. Secondly the interviews envisaged for this research project are in themselves a unique source of information and this partially alleviates the need to access other sources of unique information.


This is a small-scale piece of research and extensive resources are not required. While outlining numerical information is beyond the scope of this proposal, expenditure in the following areas are to be expected:

1) Office with good communications equipment; i.e. computer, internet connection, telephone and fax (contact will have to be made and sustained with different institutions over a period of time).

2) Plane tickets to Washington D.C., Paris, Bonne and Brussels.

3) Accommodation in the three locations specified above.

4) Tape recorder with plenty of tapes.

The important point about drawing up a budget for a research proposal is that the resources outlined must closely suit the scope and depth of research. Whilst this may strike some people as obvious, in fact many research projects (especially those that have a purely academic function) are either badly completed or abandoned altogether, because the researcher has not matched the resources with the requirements of the task.

Central to this requirement is the need to think through the research process and anticipate any problems that may arise from a potential mismatch between the core objectives of the research and the resources outlined for the completion of the task. In other words the drawing up of a budget should be an intrinsic feature of the “planning” process.


  • Berry, R, The Research Project (Fourth Edition), Routledge, London 2000.
  • Collins-Chobanian, S; May, L & Wong, K ed., Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach (Second Edition), Prentice-Hall, New Jersey 1998.
  • Denscombe, M, The Good Research Guide for Small-Scale Research Projects (Second Edition), Open University Press, Maidenhead 2003.
  • Devine, F & S, Heath, Sociological Research Methods in Context, Palgrave, New York 1999.
  • Gomm, R, Social Research Methodology: a Critical Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2004.
  • Grix, J, The Foundations of Research, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2004.
  • Lakatos, I (Edited by John Worrall & Gregory Currie), The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1978.
  • Punch, K.F, Developing Effective Research Proposals, Sage Publications, London 2004.


  • Foreign Affairs, Vol. 82: No. 1, January/February 2003.
  • Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 4: No. 3, March/April 2002.

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