“Conference diplomacy has its antecedents in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 4th-century bc when the Greek city-states and Persia convened eight international political congresses, established a mutually guaranteed territorial status quo, and agreed on rules of conduct for regulating international affairs.

What is Conference Diplomacy?

Conference diplomacy is the management of relations between governments and intergovernmental organisations that takes place at international conferences. This definition encompasses relations between governments and relationships between governments and the organisations to which they belong. This latter type of relationship has brought new elements to diplomacy. The term “conference” is used broadly, preventing the old distinction between a conference and a congress. The latter refers to gatherings attended by sovereigns or their principal ministers.

It is about resolving differences through an interconnected set of compromises and trade-offs in which no party gains everything, but all parties gain something and concede something.

Actors in Conference Diplomacy.

In most intergovernmental conferences, four main actors can be detected:

  • the delegations, as representatives of their governments.
  • the secretariat and its executive head.
  • the presiding officer(s).
  • various groups of governments, often acting through a single delegation appointed by the group.

Sometimes others become involved in conference diplomacy:

  • non-governmental organisations.
  • formal mediators, appointed by the parties in the dispute, by the UN Secretary-General, by the UN Security Council, or somehow.
  • informal facilitators- a recent example is former US president Carter, with his interventions in North Korea, Haiti, and former Yugoslavia

Rise of Negotiations in Conference Diplomacy.

Westphalia, especially the Münster agreement, can be seen as a network of interconnected bilateral negotiations. It thus had a multilateral connotation, though not in the modern sense. As a result, this study proposes the term multi-bilateral negotiation because the meetings resembled a conference and resulted in numerous informal contacts between delegations that were not involved in formal negotiations. It is worth noting that this transverse or transliteral negotiation, along with regular longitudinal negotiation, is common in today’s conference diplomacy. In fact, the more participants there are and the more complicated and numerous the issues, the more transliteral negotiations are required inside and outside the conference rooms to keep the process moving. While the procedures and methods of the Westphalia negotiations favoured the larger countries, the smaller parties considered themselves fortunate to have been invited. Without the massive gathering, they would have been left much more out in the cold, which is why small countries prefer multilateral meetings. In contrast, their larger ‘brothers’ often prefer bilateral meetings currently. Westphalia can be seen as a bridge between old-fashioned bilateral interaction and twenty-first-century conference diplomacy in terms of procedure and process.

The United Nations and Conference Diplomacy

Diplomacy today faces the challenges of modern phenomena such as increased public attention and involvement, new modes of communication, and an increase in the number of international state and non-state actors, all of which are required to formulate foreign policy. From air traffic to the internet, modern communication technologies have allowed top diplomats, politicians, and heads of government and state to communicate personally and directly.

Conference Diplomacy (Kaufmann, 1996) by Johan Kaufmann assists practitioners in dealing with the procedures of institutionalised conferences, particularly in the context of the United Nations. Today’s United Nations has unrivalled convening and mobilising power, which has been used to organise many global conferences on various topics ranging from women to human rights, population to social development, and economic development to environmental conservation. Typically, the panels have included all global governance actors—states, civil society organisations, and, to a lesser extent, private sector firms. Whereas intergovernmental conferences are essential for the development of treaty law, global discussions are critical to the evolution of norms and ‘soft law,’ which begins to exert a binding effect in customary international law. According to two UN scholars, these conferences are “important for articulating new international norms, expanding international law, creating new structures, setting agendas… and promoting linkages among the UN, the specialised agencies, NGOs, and governments.” Any major global conference is accompanied by extensive diplomatic activity, which can last several years. Countries try to identify like-minded and thus likely coalition partners, harmonise strategies to advance their own and defeat competing interests and efforts, mobilise NGO support or blunt NGO dissent, etc.

Did you know?

A conference diplomat can jeopardise himself if he makes deliberate misrepresentations or avoidable errors, which are likely to be discovered sooner or later by his fellow delegates. Another delegate may confront him about his mistake in a speech, or he may be approached informally. In both cases, he will be questioned about the integrity of what he said. As a result, the conference diplomat will ensure that the facts he mentions in official sessions, informal speeches, or private conversations can be supported. On the other hand, the problem is that ‘truth’ is not always a singular entity. Truth can mean one thing to one person and something else to another when it comes to policy.


Modern conference diplomacy is one result that uses an ancient diplomatic strategy for avoiding conflict for as long as possible—ideally until a solution is found.



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Writer by Eric Muhia, International Studies and Diplomacy Graduate Student

Category: Diplomacy

06 April 2022, Kenya

Reference: EM06042022D  

Photo: jonathan-ansel


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