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The Distinction between Foreign Policy and Diplomacy in American International Thought and Practice

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Throughout his writings, Harold Nicolson advocates a distinction between ‘policy’ (to be subject to democratic control) and ‘negotiation’ (to remain the province of professional diplomatists), preferring to separate these two quite different activities, rather than lumping them together under the general term ‘diplomacy’ (an intermingling that he found conceptually muddled and politically impossible to sustain once general public opinion becomes politically mobilized). Nicholas Murray Butler and George Kennan, who may be taken as representing idealist and realist American opinion in the twentieth century, found themselves at one in rejecting Nicolson’s distinction. Butler believed that the progressive enlightenment of public opinion, resulting in the attainment of the ‘international mind’, would improve both the formulation of policy and the conduct of negotiations; Kennan deprecated public opinion, at least in the United States, as irredeemably clumsy and ill-informed, and was convinced that this domestic political force would not be satisfied with directing policy, but would insist on interfering with negotiation as well. Across the board, American opinion seems to be hostile to Nicolson’s differentiation. This rejection of Nicolson’s view illustrates a more general influence of distinctively American thinking about international relations on American attitudes towards, and expectations of, diplomacy.

Affiliations: 1: Baylor University Waco, TX 76798 United States, Email:


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