No country exists in isolation.
Unless it’s so far out in the ocean that it has no regular contact with anyone, and also centralized enough that the whole place is unified under a single ruler — a set of conditions even Rapa Nui/Easter Island generally failed to fulfill — then it has neighbors. And unlike you and your neighbors in your apartment building or suburban development or rural area, countries can’t just ignore each other; they kind of have to interact. They share borders, haggle over trade, go to war.
And so, they need diplomats.
They need diplomacy, at least, and most of the time that will be handled by someone other than the ruler. I suppose if you govern a city-state whose entire territory you can ride across in a few days, then you can be your own diplomat, jaunting off to your neighbor’s city as needed to discuss international affairs. But that still means you’re not at home taking care of business there, which isn’t great. And as realms get larger, the travel time involved makes that approach less reasonable — at least until the Industrial Revolution gave us faster ways to move. On top of that, there are security concerns around placing yourself in someone else’s territory, especially without an army at your back. If you have to conduct your diplomacy in person, it might be safer to meet at the border, where everybody can retreat pretty quickly if things go wrong.
Or — and this is the route most rulers have gone — appoint someone else to handle diplomatic relations on your behalf. That way you can keep your attention on the business of governing your own lands . . . or, depending on your temperament, enjoy leisure in the comfort of your palaces rather than endure the rigors of travel. The idea of meetings between monarchs (or other rulers) has never completely gone away, because there’s significant value in the idea of face-to-face diplomacy between the people in charge, but a lot of more routine business has been delegated to representatives basically as far back as the historical record allows us to see.
We’ll get to the diplomats themselves next week. First though: what does that routine business consist of?
Trade concerns often make up a significant portion of international affairs. This includes both direct trade between the two countries and trade with other countries that might be considered allies or enemies of one or the other (“please stop supplying valuable materials and/or money to the guys I’m about to go to war with”). Other points of negotiation might include what commodities are welcomed, forbidden, or taxed on import or export, along with access to key ports or mountain passes that open up more profitable opportunities.
Of course, you don’t always have to negotiate for access to those ports or passes — which leads us into a second realm of diplomacy, the penumbra of war. Diplomats may be tasked with trying to forestall a war . . . or with threatening to start one, in the hopes of getting the other guy to make concessions. As with trade, this can also be about third parties, not just those directly involved in the conversation: France is gearing up for a war with Spain and therefore asks England for support, or England is in conflict with Scotland and tries to persuade France to stop backing the Scots. After a war ends, the diplomats might have responsibility for hammering out the terms of the peace treaty . . . and then convincing their respective governments to sign, which sometimes is the harder part.
Those treaties are very capable of moving borders. In modern times we’re used to international boundaries being relatively stable, especially in the developed world — though there are exceptions; witness Russia trying to forcibly annex Ukraine, and occupying portions of Georgia a few years earlier — but it used to be that chunks of land changed hands on a regular basis, often creating hybrid cultures that share characteristics with the realms to both sides.
Such shifting and mixing didn’t always require war, though. International marriages could accomplish the same thing, with territory being handed over as part of the dowry or the bride-price. Princes and princesses were sometimes able to jaunt off to view prospective spouses; Prince Charles (later Charles I) of England went incognito to Spain to meet the Infanta Anna Maria, though his trip ended in a total collapse of the marriage negotiations. Monarchs, however, rarely had so much leeway, and so they depended heavily on their diplomats to evaluate candidates and report back as to their appearance, education, behavior, and other qualities.
Other points of diplomatic negotiation may not be as obvious to the modern layperson. Foreign countries can influence internal affairs, by offering inducements or threatening consequences if a ruler doesn’t change how they rule at home. This arises particularly around topics, e.g. religion, that can cross borders: if I persecute heretics in my own country and they respond by fleeing to yours, I have a vested interest in convincing you not to give them refuge — much less support that will help them destabilize my control. Since that destabilization might be to your benefit, I have to look for other points of leverage that will convince you it’s best for both of us if I stay secure.
It’s not all threats and tension, though. Diplomacy is as much about the carrot as the stick, and diplomats are responsible for presenting and receiving gifts from one government to the other. These can be famous artifacts (ancient statues, saints’ relics, personal possessions of a respected ancestor), items of inherent monetary value (jewelry, artwork, golden dishware, expensive silks), or even services, like a renowned composer or court artist loaned to another realm for a time.
Some of those gifts will be given, not to the ruler the diplomat serves, but to the diplomat themself. After all, if you reply on your ambassador’s reports to know how you should interact with my country, it’s in my best interests to make those reports as friendly and favorable as possible, by making the diplomat my friend. Does this cross the line into bribery? Hell yes it does, at least some of the time. But that’s part of how the diplomatic game is played, and a large part of why someone might seek out an ambassadorial posting.
For the people involved, tune in next week!