Below is a contribution to the blog by Research Network member Jason P. Rancatore ( Please get in touch if you would like to write for the blog!


In this short piece, I will take up the first theme of the research network concerning the “translation of diplomatic culture.” Let me be clear about my purpose: to briefly articulate and defend a conceptual framework and a possible application so that some discussion over the diverse possibilities for research can be generated.

First, I would like to point out a long-standing research puzzle in diplomatic studies: the persistence of particular modes of doing diplomacy in spite of shifting contexts. Indeed, what motivates much of the criticism from the policy world about diplomacy, and diplomatic organizations like the UN or foreign ministries, is how “old ways” of doing things are the problem. They are antiquated, non-sensical, and resistant to change. The problem, in short, is that these entities condition individuals, by virtue of their culture, to unquestionably follow certain standard operating procedures ill-suited to rapidly changing political contexts. I think this proposition still resonates.

Now, if “old ways” are the problem, then “new ways” are the solution. So, I am suggesting here that we may employ the idea of “translation” to specify this intersection of the new (or strange) and the old (or routine). In addition, we could follow Neumann (2002) in typifying culture as a circuit of discourses and practices (which are only separable analytically). In so doing, our conceptual framework would direct our attention to how language and action is made familiar, if at first strange.

The ideal-typical model in the figure above permits some organization of the framework. Through a process of translation, old and new discursive practices (discourses + practices) are re-configured to constitute an evolving culture. I would suggest that by adopting such a framework, we can bring into relief moments of accommodation and resistance as part of a process of translation.

One question that occupies this research network is the origin of the UN’s culture. In thinking about this question, one starting assumption is to follow Goodrich (1947) who argued that the organizational infrastructure of the League was simply transplanted to the UN. If so, we can look at various equivalent departments and trace the history of their standard operating procedures. One particular section that would be of interest is the League’s Information Section. Reason: today, all of the UN agencies and all of the major international organizations (and perhaps all governments, at many levels) have a public affairs section that is responsible for producing press releases and communiques to the public concerning their activities. This has a history that has roots in a contentious moment in diplomatic practice. At the end of World War I, “open diplomacy” was argued to be the future of international relations. The League of Nations, as an international organization–a diplomatic actor in its own right, but also comprised of diplomats from its member states–formed an Information Section to write and disseminate communiques and press releases regarding its work (see Ranshofen-Wertheimer 1945). This went against the standard operating procedures of diplomats in capital cities around the world (e.g. Nicholson 1939; Satow 1917).

In a sense, the public-ness of diplomacy and international organizations began to take shape with the League, and over time, new discursive practices were introduced and replicated so that these diplomats could manage the demands of their jobs. By recovering historical meaning and action through contemporaneous sources such as memoirs and de-classified cables, we can gain a better understanding of the way in which translation processes unfold. In some moments, we may see accommodation, a simple transplantation of practice, such the format of a press release. In other moments, we may see resistance; and this may be a consequence of an array of factors. Identifying and explaining these factors may be a very useful research task.

Jason P. Rancatore holds a PhD (International Relations) from American University in Washington, DC, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer at the School of International Service. He defended his dissertation, a genealogical study of multilateralism, in December 2012.

Goodrich, Leland (1947) “From League of Nations to United Nations,” International Organization 1(1): 3-21.
Neumann, Iver (2002) “Returning practice to the linguistic turn: the case of diplomacy,” Millennium 31(3): 627-651.
Nicholson, Harold (1939) Diplomacy. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co.
Ranshofen-Wertheimer, Egon (1945) The International Secretariat. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Satow, Ernest (1917) A Guide to Diplomatic Practice. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Sharp, Paul (2004) “The Idea of Diplomatic Culture and its Sources,” in Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy edited by Hannah Slavik. Malta: DiploFoundation.
Sweetser, Arthur (1946) “From the League to the United Nations,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 246: 1-8.