Diplomacy: Communication and the Origins of International Order, written by Robert F. Trager. 2017

In: Diplomatica

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Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xiii + 288. $34.99 Paperback, isbn 9781107049161.

Robert Trager, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, opens his very ambitious book by declaring that its aim is ‘to show how a few inferential logics explain most of what diplomats and leaders learn from their conversations’ (xi). It is through a rigorous theoretical analysis and a robust discussion of major (and some minor) historical incidents of the past two centuries that he manages to deliver on his promise and thus render Diplomacy a success, as well as an important addition to the literature on diplomatic and international relations. Contrary to most scholarship, which has focused on public signaling, Trager ascribes primary importance in shaping the international order to diplomatic encounters that occurred away from public view. He, therefore, employs a skillful analysis of large datasets drawn from decades of British diplomatic correspondence to come up with five principal mechanisms that govern private diplomatic exchanges. The main argument presented in the book is that the vast majority of the expectations that form through diplomatic encounters result only from a few signaling mechanisms.

Diplomacy: Communication and the Origins of International Order opens with a chapter that provides a systematic overview of the processes employed by states with the aim to uncover the intentions of other states; that task is masterfully done by analyzing data from the Confidential Print of the British Empire between 1855 and 1914. As this is the first instance whereby large datasets on private diplomatic assessments and activities are examined to show how leaders could draw inferences based on theoretical models, it is easily understood how original this book is and that it opens avenues for further research. The four out of the five mechanisms (choosing the scope of demands on another state, risking a breach in relations, encouraging a protégé, and making a diplomatic approach) form the basis of part I of the book, which is comprised of the theoretical chapters, while the second part is dedicated to the empirical analysis of diplomatic signaling before each of the two World Wars.1

Trager’s choice to discuss two extremely important cases – what the Powers learned from German and Russian diplomacy in 1912 and the British attempt to thwart German imperialism in 1938–39 – in these two periods, was made to demonstrate how consequential private diplomacy can be, as well as to avoid suspicions of “cherry picking.” In the chapter entitled “Fruits of 1912 Diplomacy,” Trager illustrates that what Austria learned from the diplomatic encounters in the years immediately preceding the war constituted the foundation of the specific Austrian arguments for war in 1914. In the next chapter on British diplomacy over Czechoslovakia and Poland, Trager also looks at internal German government documents to conclude that German foreign policy elites took many factors into account in forming judgements about what London would do.

From the point of view of a diplomatic historian, the latter chapters are the most appealing ones, since Trager makes use of archival documents and secondary sources to prove the validity of the arguments he puts forward in the first part of the book. Having said that, though, if a historian were to overcome his/her apprehension when faced with theoretical models and equations (the book does include a 30-page appendix on technical discussion and proofs), he/she could very well benefit from the first chapters as well as the very last ones concentrating on the general implications of the findings for the creation of international orders by themselves. Finally, and when it comes to the study of diplomacy as a subject, it is quite refreshing to see the author of Diplomacy highlight the fact that the recent turn away from traditional diplomatic history within history departments has led to the creation of a significant lacuna in the literature, which should be addressed with more studies of diplomatic encounters that help us understand the determinants of foreign policy decisions.

All in all, this book is much more than just a welcome addition to the literature on the study of diplomacy, since it successfully breaks new methodological ground and manages to gracefully combine history with political science research and methods, while also contributing to historical debates on seminal diplomatic incidents.

1The fifth mechanism of “staking one’s reputation” is considered as the most written-about and complex by the author and, as such, is not thoroughly analyzed in the book.

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