The Art and Science of Diplomacy: A World War I Activity

By Sheehan, James J. | Social Education, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Art and Science of Diplomacy: A World War I Activity


Sheehan, James J., Social Education


In A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee asserts that all civilizations rise and fall according to how they respond to challenges. (1) The political, economic and military balance of power between nations shifts over time, and the fate of countries depends on the ability of their leaders to understand the changes that are taking place in the international order and chart the best course to deal with the problems and obstacles they face. Typically, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger points out in his book Diplomacy, nations will judge their leaders on how they manage during times of change, and on their ability to preserve the peace. (2)

Skillful diplomacy is an essential component of international leadership. Diplomacy "is the method by which nation-states, through authorized agents, maintain mutual relations, communicate with each other, and carry out political, economic and legal transactions." (3) Diplomats convey information, ideas, and the wants and needs of their countries to other countries. They need to be flexible, to deal with the unexpected, to know the policies and needs of the nations they deal with, and to have the resolve to stand by the actions their countries have taken.

Perhaps the main tool in the repertoire of a diplomat is negotiation. Diplomats need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their own country and the country they are negotiating with. Negotiation is a give-and-take process in which the important question facing the diplomat is: how do I achieve my wants and needs while balancing the wants and needs of others?

Because of the importance of diplomacy, it is a valuable subject for the social studies classroom. In a crowded curriculum, however, the art of international diplomacy can easily get less attention than it deserves. One way of teaching it is to focus on the diplomacy associated with a major event that is part of the typical history curriculum. The activity presented here seeks to accomplish this by introducing students to diplomacy as part of the study of World War I, which marked the creation of modern warfare with the effective and efficient use of technology, the use of vast economic resources, and the mass mobilization of men and material. In the five weeks after the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914, diplomacy and communication broke down all over Europe. Ultimatums and threats became the norm. Europe became embroiled in the inferno known as World War I. Students can achieve a greater understanding of history--and attempt to "change" it--through this diplomatic simulation, in which they play the roles of the leaders of key European powers as they move toward the precipice in 1914.

Simulating an International Crisis

For the role-playing activity, students must formulate a diplomatic strategy and attempt to prevent World War I. When students begin to construct their diplomatic strategy they should take into account the need to do the following: (1) identify and analyze their countries' wants and needs; (2) identify and analyze the wants and needs of the other countries; (3) assess possible threats to their country's national survival; (4) identify and pursue possible economic, social, and political alliances; and (5) identify possible economic, social, and political alliances against them.

Most critical in formulating a diplomatic strategy is first to assess the wants and needs of the students' own country. For example, in July 1934, what were the priorities of France's diplomatic strategy: to maintain the status quo? Conquer other countries? Flourish economically? Or, make peace? It is of paramount importance for students to have a rudimentary outline of what goals the country wanted to achieve.

Second, when constructing a strategy, student diplomats need to be aware of the wants and needs of potential allies and adversaries. As Sun Tzu stated, "know yourself and know your enemy. …

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