Diplomacy is the art and science of maintaining peaceful relationships between nations, groups, or individuals. Often, diplomacy refers to representatives of different groups discussing such issues as conflict, trade, the environment, technology, or maintaining security.


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Diplomacy is the art and science of maintaining peaceful relationships between nations, groups, or individuals. Often, diplomacy refers to representatives of different groups discussing such issues as conflict, trade, the environment, technology, or security.

People who practice diplomacy are called diplomats. Diplomats try to help their own country, encourage cooperation between nations, and maintain peace. A group of diplomats representing one country that lives in another country is called a diplomatic mission. A permanent diplomatic mission is called an embassy. An ambassador is the lead diplomat at an embassy. A large diplomatic mission may have representation besides a single embassy. Other places of representation are called consulates.

For example, the embassy of the United Kingdom is in the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C. The United Kingdom also has consulates in the U.S. cities of Atlanta, Georgia; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; Miami, Florida; New York City, New York; Orlando, Florida; and San Francisco, California. The British ambassador and the rest of the British diplomatic mission are responsible for representing British policies to the U.S. government, as well as assisting British people in the U.S. This often involves helping them with legal matters, such as visas or work permits.

American diplomats work for a branch of the Department of State called the Foreign Service. More than 12,000 people work for the Foreign Service, helping Americans who travel abroad and pursuing American foreign policy.

The U.S. has 265 diplomatic missions around the world. The largest U.S. diplomatic mission is in Mexico, which has an embassy in Mexico City and 22 consulates and consular agencies throughout the country.

Ambassadors are appointed by the president of the United States. The U.S. has ambassadors in most countries, but not all. An ambassador or diplomatic mission does not represent the U.S. in Cuba, for instance. The U.S. had supported the government of Fulgencio Batista, until the dictator was overthrown by the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

The U.S. withdrew diplomatic recognition from Cuba in 1961. Diplomatic recognition is the act of one nation or state accepting the independence and legitimacy of another nation or state. Today, the U.S. is represented by a branch of the Swiss embassy in Cuba—the United States Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland in Havana (USINT Havana). Similarly, Cuba is represented by another branch of the Swiss embassy in Washington.

American diplomatic missions are staffed by foreign service officers and foreign service specialists. Foreign service officers are formal members of the Foreign Service. There are five major branches of work for foreign service officers: consular affairs (helping Americans living or visiting foreign countries); economic affairs; management affairs; political affairs; and public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is the practice of representing the U.S. in social and cultural activities, such as sports events, films, books, and radio broadcasts.

Foreign service specialists provide important support services for diplomatic missions. This includes health care, construction and engineering, and English-language programs. Often, foreign service specialists must provide security for Americans in the event of a natural disaster or political unrest in a country.

History of Diplomacy

The art of diplomacy began in ancient times. Treaties between different cities in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, date back to 2850 B.C.E. Leaders of Egypt and Canaan (an ancient country in the Middle East) exchanged diplomatic letters in the 14th century B.C. Writing on the walls of ancient Mayan buildings in what is now Mexico indicate that Mayan cities exchanged diplomats. Embassies were first established in northern Italy in the 14th century.

For most of history, diplomacy was concerned with bilateral relations, or negotiations between two nations. A country or region often had dozens of trade or border agreements, each limited to a single other country or region. Bilateral relations are still a very common form of diplomacy.

In the 20th century, diplomacy expanded. Today, the United Nations (UN), an international organization that works to promote cooperation and settle conflicts among nations, plays a large role in diplomacy. The General Assembly, the main body of the UN, has 195 members.

Diplomacy also grew to include summit meetings. Summits are meetings between top government officials. Summits can be between national leaders, such as presidents or prime ministers. Economic summits often involve business leaders, as well as treasury secretaries or trade ministers.

Camp David, in the U.S. state of Maryland, is the site of many summits between American presidents and foreign leaders. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter held an important summit with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Egypt and Israel had been in conflict for more than 30 years. Often, as during the Six Day War of 1967, the conflict was violent.

The summit between Carter, al-Sadat, and Begin resulted in the so-called “Camp David Accords.” This established the basis for the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Begin and al-Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and the treaty is still enforced today. The Camp David Accords are considered a triumph of diplomacy.

Diplomacy also involves large international conferences. Like summits, international conferences are usually attended by heads-of-state or other national leaders. Conferences are usually much larger in scope—dozens of leaders may meet to discuss migration or border issues, trade, or the environment.

The United Nations Conference on Environmental Development, for instance, was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. More than a hundred heads-of-state attended the conference, in addition to thousands of professional diplomats and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Diplomats at Rio’s so-called “Earth Summit” reached an agreement to limit carbon emissions.

How Diplomacy Works

Diplomacy is accomplished by negotiation, or bargaining. Usually, each group in a negotiation will ask for more than they expect to get. They then compromise, or give up some of what they want, in order to come to an agreement. Often, an outside diplomat will help with the negotiations. For example, Martti Ahtisaari, a Finnish diplomat working for the UN, helped Namibia gain independence from South Africa in 1990.

Sometimes, one side in a negotiation refuses to compromise. When this happens, others involved in the negotiation may use diplomatic sanctions. Diplomatic sanctions involve the reduction or removal of all embassy staff from the offending country. Lighter diplomatic sanctions may involve the refusal of a president to visit the offending country or meet with its leaders. Nicaragua cut off all diplomatic relations with Israel, for instance, in 2010. Nicaragua was protesting Israel’s attack on a shipment of aid to the Gaza Strip.

Countries may also threaten to use economic sanctions, or penalties. In 2006, many countries agreed not to trade with North Korea in an effort to stop the country from illegally testing nuclear weapons.

Other times, diplomats threaten to use force if a settlement is not reached. In 1990, Iraq invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait. When Iraq refused to leave Kuwait, the United Nations approved a military response. A coalition, or group of nations working together, fought the Iraqi army, forcing them out of Kuwait.

Successful negotiation results in a diplomatic agreement. The most formal kind of an agreement is a treaty, a written contract between countries. The Treaty of Versailles, for instance, formally ended World War I. It was signed in Versailles, France. Diplomats from the Central Powers, including Germany and Austria, were not allowed to negotiate the treaty. However, diplomats from other Central Powers nations and the Allied Powers, including the United States, approved the treaty.

Some treaties require years of diplomatic negotiation. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union began in 1969. The talks continued through 1979. The treaties that resulted from these diplomatic negotiations (named SALT I and SALT II) reduced the number of nuclear weapons being produced.

Another type of agreement is a convention, which is signed by multiple nations and becomes international law. The most famous are the Geneva Conventions, which outline the treatment of prisoners of war, civilians, and medical personnel in a war zone. The first convention was signed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1864. The fourth, and perhaps most important, was signed in 1949 after World War II.

Protocols, the least formal diplomatic procedure, change or expand an existing agreement. The Kyoto Protocol is an update to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC was produced at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in Kyoto, Japan, was produced in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol aims to stabilize the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Fast Fact

Free From Harm
Top diplomats have immunity, or protection, from search, arrest, and lawsuits in the country to which they are sent. They cannot be fined, arrested, or harmed in any way, even during war, and they are not searched when they cross borders. This diplomatic immunity allows them to do their work and negotiate freely. Embassies are also not subject to the host country's rules. In fact, they are considered part of the territory of the sending country.

Fast Fact

When a country declares independence, it needs to be recognized as independent by other countries. Countries may recognize new nations by receiving ambassadors and diplomatic missions. The first nations to recognize the new United States of America in 1779 were France, Morocco, and the Netherlands.

Media Credits

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Diane Boudreau
Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Andrew Turgeon
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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