Diplomacy and International Relations in the 20th Century

 Diplomacy and international relations dominated the daily lives of average people more in the 20th century than in perhaps any previous century. Whereas it had been possible for earlier generations to live their lives free of such concerns, escaping the state of international relations in the 20th century was a near impossibility for the majority of the world’s population. The state of international relations and diplomacy was instead their ever-present concern and interest. This heightened importance for diplomacy and international relations to nearly all people in the 20th century is largely attributable to two phenomena that arose essentially side-by-side, namely the rise of modern republican and democratic nation-states in which every citizen plays a part in determining the policies of the government and the increase in technology, especially the technology used for warfare, that, in a sense, made the world simultaneously a “smaller” place as well as a more dangerous one.

Earlier generations of people had had the ability to live lives largely independent of any concern with diplomacy, international relations, or even politics in a more general sense. This was true of the ancient and medieval worlds as well as of the early modern period, essentially right up to the beginning of the 19th century. Although, of course, warfare has existed throughout human history and various peoples have no doubt been subject to the vicissitudes of politics, the whims of rulers, war, and diplomacy, any change was generally gradual and, given the limitations in communication and travel, generations could pass their lives with little or no knowledge of the political situation of the kingdom of which they were ostensibly subjects. Historian William Chester Jordan notes in his history of Europe in the High Middle Ages, for instance, that in that time period few in France outside of Paris would have considered themselves “French.”1

The change from this situation to the one that predominated in the 20th century largely occurred in the 19th century. As with so much that distinguishes the 20th century from previous eras in history, the 19th century was the transition point. It was during this period, under the influence of such events as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, both of which occurred near the close of the 18th century, that the subjects of the various kingdoms of the world began the transition to becoming citizens of the nations of the world, a very important difference in terminology. Individuals of all ranks, races, and economic statuses had a greater say in the policies of their governments than ever before in history. As a result, politics became a greater concern for the average person than it had been at any previous point in history. Political decisions were now in the hands of the people as a whole rather than in being the purview of only kings and the various aristocrats and nobles who surrounded these monarchs. As a result, politics was a greater concern for the private individual than it had ever been before in history.

The 19th century was also in large part the transition point for the second and equally affective major change that brought about the differences in regards to diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century in contrast with previous centuries, namely the advent of a great deal of new technology, especially travel, communications, and military technology.

New technology in travel that arose in the 19th century and advanced significantly in the 20th century includes trains, airplanes, and motor vehicles. Railroad travel enabled materials and men to travel greater distances at greater speeds than ever before. Airplanes also increased the ability to move people and materials quickly and effectively, as well as to bring the war behind enemy lines in combat and reconnaissance. The reconnaissance balloons of the American Civil War in the 1860s led to the stealth craft used by the opposing powers of the Cold War to spy on each other and also led to the omnipresent danger of bombs falling suddenly and unexpectedly from the sky in any given place, making the matters of diplomacy an ever-present reality for all people.2 Similarly, motor vehicles made people all over the world more mobile than ever before.

In addition to these abilities to move people and things faster than ever before over great distances, messages also moved with greater speed than ever before. The telegraph changed the nature of warfare in the 19th century and in the 20th century the advent of telephones, radios, and, later, computers and the internet made it possible to communicate around the world in a matter of seconds. Allied radio messages sent behind Nazi lines during World War II demonstrate the effectiveness of these new communication tools in shaping ideas, diplomacy, and warfare.3

Military technology is perhaps the greatest inventive force in shaping the realities of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century and bringing these subjects into the homes of otherwise average people all over the world. The Cold War was largely the product of a mutual fear between the Soviet Union and the United States that the other would use nuclear weapons to advance their side in the conflict of ideas. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorist groups or rogue nations with bizarre ideologies such as Iran and North Korea continued to shape diplomacy at the highest levels as well as to bring the concerns of international relations to the minds of average people.

As a result of these two factors, the rise of individual concern in politics and the increase in technology that brought the realities of international relations into homes all over the world, a further element that defined diplomacy in the 20th century emerged, specifically the focus on nearly all-encompassing conflicts in ideology between large blocs of nations. Though it may seem ironic at first glance, the reality is that individual participation in politics, through spreading the concern in these issues wider than ever before, forced a situation in which international relations took on larger proportions than ever before. This can be seen in cases like World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, three conflicts which arguably defined international relations in the 20th century and all of which involved formations of alliances by dozens of nations arranged against an “equal and opposite” alliance of other nations, and all nations participating ostensibly out of a conflict of ideology coupled with a perceived existential threat from the other side.

The defining feature of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century, as with so much of what makes the 20th century distinctive, is ultimately the allegorical shrinking of the world. The concerns of the government became the concerns of the average person. Simultaneously, the realities and concerns of far off lands came into the purview of people far away. These new advances in the political participation of individuals and technology created the unique diplomatic situation of the 20th century.


1 William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 229.
2 Amrom H. Katz, Some Notes on the History of Aerial Reconnaissance (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1966).

3 Robert Rowen, “Gray and Black Radio Propaganda against Nazi Germany,” New York Military Affairs Symposium, 18 April 2003 (accessed 2 December 2012), http://bobrowen.com/nymas/radioproppaper.htm.

The American Civil War: A Case Study in 19th Century Diplomacy

Just as in previous eras, diplomacy and international relations functioned as tools by which nations sought to advance their respective interests relative to the interests of other nations in the 19th century. One event of the 19th century that serves as an example of many of the features and facets of diplomacy and international relations as it was practiced in that period is the American Civil War. In the Civil War, a part of the United States broke from the rest of the nation and formed its own ostensibly independent nation, the Confederate States of America. In a complex situation which combined domestic affairs with international relations, the struggle between the two sides included negotiations for prisoner exchanges and attempts by the Confederacy to draw certain European powers into the conflict on its side.

One feature of the Civil War which makes it an interesting case study in diplomacy is that the two powers primarily involved were two halves of the same nation, sharing in a common history and identity, and yet one of those powers, the Confederacy, tried to separate itself from the other and regard itself as a different entity. The other power, the Union, attempted to keep the states which had joined the Confederacy from breaking away but was forced by circumstance to interact with the Confederacy as if it were a separate power. This created an unique situation for both powers, one in which domestic affairs and international relations had to be combined and treated as synonymous in some sense.

One example of this situation may be found in the attempted prisoner exchanges between the Union and the Confederacy. The weapons used by both belligerents in the war, like nearly all weapons before the 20th century, were notoriously ineffective. The soldiers behind the weapons were also often undertrained and sometimes even entirely untrained. As a result, far more casualties were wounded than were killed and far more enemy soldiers were captured than wounded or killed by either side. Very early in the war “the ranks of prisoners began to swell.”1 In total, by the end of the war, the Union had “captured and held about 220,000 prisoners” and the Confederacy had taken approximately 210,000 prisoners.2

Because of these very large numbers of captured soldiers, the two sides found it difficult to adequately provide for those whom they held captive and devised a complex system of values by which to exchange the enemy’s prisoners for their own. Each prisoner was assigned a value determined by his rank and was traded to the enemy based on that value. A captured noncommissioned officer, for instance, was worth two privates. A captured general, on the other hand, was worth as many as 60 privates.

Of particular significance in regards to the complexities of mixing domestic affairs with international affairs due to the nature of the Civil War is the treatment prisoners received at the hands of the Confederacy versus that under the Union. Confederate soldiers captured by Union forces found far better conditions than Union soldiers captured by Confederate forces. The Union had hopes of restoring the Confederate states to itself and so tended to treat prisoners better in the hopes of repatriating them to itself in the future. The Union was also more willing to parole prisoners than the Confederacy, as can be seen by the 329,963 soldiers the Union “paroled or exchanged” by war’s end versus the 152,015 prisoners the Confederacy had “paroled or exchanged.”3

Also demonstrative of these complexities is the failed attempts of the Confederacy to gain the recognition and support of European governments. Immediately after secession, Confederate leaders had believed that European dependency on cotton from the states of the Confederacy would lead the nations of Europe to support the Confederate cause. Contrary to their hopes, however, the British government issued an official “proclamation of neutrality, which the other European powers followed” within only about a month of the war beginning.4

The Confederacy made several attempts throughout the years of the war to try to gain legitimacy through securing the recognition of European governments and possibly even bringing them in on its side. They sent ambassadors, for instance, to the French and English capitals in the hopes of persuading those nations’ respective leaders to support the Confederacy. They also, in part, determined battlefield tactics based on their belief that the Europeans might be swayed by what they saw on the battlefield. General Robert E. Lee, for instance, justified his strike into Northern territory, which seemed to go against the stated Confederate desire not to conquer the entire United States but to establish their own independent nation in the South, by reasoning that “a victory on Northern soil might spark foreign recognition for the young Confederate States, particularly from Britain and/or France.”5

Britain and France, for their parts, both exercised some very shrewd diplomacy in regards to the war, which they saw as a regional conflict from which they may be able to secure some profit. To this end, both European nations refused to give official recognition to the Confederacy, believing that doing so would alienate the United States. They did, however, agree to and engage in trading with the Confederacy as well as the Union. In this way, they were able to secure financial gain from both sides in the conflict and set themselves up for future diplomatic success no matter which side won the war.

The American Civil War was a complex situation which involved a strange combination of domestic and foreign affairs, and exhibits the intricacies of both as they were practiced in the 19th century. The issues of prisoner exchange and involvement of European powers both serve as examples of this complexity and importance.


1 David. J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 629.
2 Ibid, 628.
3 Ibid., 629.
4 U.S. Department of State, “Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy,” accessed 18 November 2012, http://future.state.gov/when/timeline/1861_timeline/prevent_confederacy.html.
5 Eicher, 337.

Slavery caused the Civil War

Though there were other, largely secondary, factors involved, the central cause of the Civil War was undoubtedly the “peculiar institution” of slavery. The issue of slavery had been a divisive factor from a very early point in American history. It was so much so that the Founding Fathers intentionally chose to put off decisively handling the issue for a subsequent generation, in spite of their insistence in the Declaration of Independence and throughout their principles that “all men are created equal.”1 In their unwillingness to resolve the issue of slavery once and for all, the founders of the United States created the situation which led to the Civil War. Slavery was identified as the central dividing issue in the Civil War by the leadership of the Confederate States of America in their justifications for secession, by others members of the Confederacy in their thoughts on the war, and by the Union leadership in their statements on the Civil War and its causes.

Confederate leadership early on stated that slavery was the central issue over which they were seceding from the Union. They saw Northern industrialists, abolitionists, and politicians as encroaching on their “peculiar institution” and saw secession as the only way to save it. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, could not have made this point any clearer than when he said, “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from abolition]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”2 

While their leadership recognized and clearly stated, even boasted, over their reasons for secession, the soldiers who fought under them also recognized slavery as the primary reason for their fight. While their leadership proudly proclaimed the inferiority of blacks and sought openly to keep them in subjugation, the average Southern soldier did not own any slaves and some questioned whether the reasons for the war were really worth the cost or were even ethical reasons. According to historian David J. Eicher, “a small but growing number of Confederate soldiers began to question the ruining of their society over slavery.”3 To this effect, he cites the words of one soldier, Colonel William H.A. Speer, wondering whether “there is some national sin hanging over [the Confederacy]” and stating his belief that if Southern slave owners were to agree to emancipate their slaves within 30 years the war would end almost immediately.3

Union leaders, on the other hand, early identified their primary aim in the war as “a struggle to preserve the Union.”5 However, as time went on, Union leadership very quickly realized that the only way to preserve the Union was to agree with the Confederate leadership that the war was primarily about slavery and to adopt the opposite position, seeking to “reconstruct the Union into the nation it should have been without slavery.”6 To this end, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, making it clear that the Union side was willing to match the Confederacy in its own goals.


Though there are other factors that must be taken into consideration when considering the causes of the Civil War, slavery was without a doubt the primary issue and the one around which the others revolve and from which they largely emerged. The Founding Fathers had deferred in their duties and created the situation that led almost inevitably to the Civil War. As is made clear from the stated reasons for secession on the part of Confederate leadership, the statements of soldiers who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the war, and the statements, however hesitant, of the Union leadership, the Civil War was fought over slavery.







1 Declaration of Indepence, National Archives, accessed 14 November 2012, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html.
2 Alexander Hamilton Stephens, in David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 49.
3 Ibid., 626-7.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 364-5.
6 Ibid.