By definition, diplomacy is the point of contact between two or more sovereign states. It is therefore the only branch of public power that, even as a last resort, may never resort to duress; its action is through dialogue, otherwise known as negotiation.

What is negotiation?

Negotiation is having a discussion with the other party until common ground is found. It is not imposing one’s will by force, although pressure is not excluded. Neither, contrary to popular belief, is it a question of trying to fool one’s partner: tricks make no better treaties than violence does. Firstly, negotiation is properly explaining one’s position and trying to understand what the other wants. It is determining what is most important for each party so that concessions can be balanced. Negotiation is therefore naturally a question of bargaining with all that that requires in terms of astuteness and discretion. However, it is also about speaking the truth, as a negotiator that lies is quickly unmasked; as he no longer inspires confidence, he can only fail. Finally, negotiating is overcoming contradictions by an effort of imagination, the key to success. That is why negotiation is an art, which perhaps can be learnt, but which cannot be taught.

"Genuine finesse is the truth spoken sometimes with force but always with grace." Choiseul, quoted by Jules Cambon, Le Diplomate.

Politicians and professionals

We sometimes think nostalgically of the time when in remote capitals great ambassadors led decisive negotiations from beginning to end. Direct contacts between political leaders put an end to this golden age. However, it is somewhat of a myth. The old negotiators used to ask Paris for instructions and indeed received very strict ones. It used to take longer than it does nowadays. However, in any event, negotiations take time and the politicians have very little. The ground has to be "prepared for them" by removing any secondary issues, submitting the crucial points to them and proposing solutions from which they can choose. Next, the application of the agreement that has been signed has to be monitored, or the means of monitoring it have to be negotiated. Furthermore, with the development of international relations, the number of issues requiring negotiation increases all the time, which leaves the lion’s share of the work to the professionals.

"Ambassadors negotiate on behalf of the state" Decree of 1June 1979.

A redistribution of tasks

It is perhaps the division of work between diplomats that has changed the most. A major part of any negotiations is now conducted by envoys from the central administrations. Although it is the responsibility of the ambassador locally to sign the agreement (unless a member of the government is present), it is true that the negotiating role of embassies, without having disappeared completely, has been reduced. However, it is the reverse for missions to international organisations. For the most part relieved from the classic roles of diplomacy, they are negotiating machines, completely devoted to the task, based on numerous organisations: councils, assemblies, committee and other working groups, both official and unofficial.

The role of negotiation is still the essence of the profession of diplomat and has even developed further. It is more the formalities that have changed.