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Unequal Diplomacy in the Pre-Westphalian Period

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To answer the question directly, yes— ‘unequal’ diplomatic interactions in the pre-Westphalian period can be understood as real diplomacy. According to Wallerstein’s world systems theory, there are core and peripheral states in which core countries benefit and peripheral countries are exploited, creating an inescapable unfair exchange due to the natural economic/power imbalance of the world (Skocpol, 1977). In other words, there will always be more powerful advanced countries and weaker poorer countries that add to an imbalanced and unequal diplomacy due to varying power levels. However, this does not rule it out as real diplomacy since diplomatic relationships between states are still being formed and interactions between rulers are still being made, regardless of the interactions and representations being equal or not.

An imbalance of power that leads to unequal representation during negotiations between states is thought to occur between states of different power levels. Yet, the same unequal representation can still occur when two negotiating states are of equal reputation and power. This is the case of the Treaty of Tordesillas from 1494.

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Leading up to the creation of the Treaty of Tordesillas, the Portuguese were pioneers of early age exploration. With guidance from Prince Henry the Navigator, explorations towards the eastern hemisphere starting from the early 15th century continued long after his death and aided in Portugal reaching and monopolising trade routes that ran through India, Indonesia, and most of Asia (European Exploration, n.d.). Due to Portugal’s monopolisation of these popular trade routes, it is understandable why Spain was looking for a way to get to China without having to go through the Portuguese-ran posts where they would have to pay taxes, on top of wanting to catch up with Portugal’s rapid expansion towards the East. This led to Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Aragon to acquire Christopher Columbus’ aid in exploring the Western oceans in the late 15th century to navigate a possible new route to China. However, Columbus instead discovered a whole other land in what we now know today as North and South America. With both Portugal and Spain eyeing this new land to monopolise and exploit, they looked to Pope Nicholas V for a resolution as to who had the right to this newly discovered continent as was the custom back in the day for international disputes. Both Spain and Portugal were giant powers of the time. Thus, both theoretically had equal representation in negotiation because they left it to the pope to make the decision for them. The original papal decision on the issue drew a line in the Atlantic Ocean, with everything East belonging to Portugal, and everything West belonging to Spain, cutting the Portuguese out of any opportunities to explore the freshly discovered Western lands, which, for obvious reasons, angered the Portuguese (Prescott, 1854). This is addressed later which resulted in an amendment in the treaty that gave Portugal what we now know of today as Brazil. Looking at the intentions behind the original papal decision, it is extremely important to note that Pope Nicholas V was a Spaniard by birth “and a personal friend of Ferdinand” (Williams, 1922). This is where inequality in representation comes into play. The third party involved in resolving this dispute was supposed to be neutral and unbiased, feeding to the ‘equal representation’ aspect of negotiation. But by being a Spaniard by birth and a close friend of the Spanish king, Pope Nicholas V failed to equally represent both Spain and Portugal in his considerations towards his final decision. Due to his prior ties to Spain, there is a very high possibility that his initial decision was laced with bias towards his home land and his close friend.

Modern definitions of diplomacy emphasise diplomacy needing to be equal in terms of representation because of diplomacy’s inclination towards liberalism. As stated by Keens-oper (1975), “Diplomacy is a principle of order because it is a mechanism of adjustment, and the marriage of plurality, order, and change is a persistent liberal endeavour”. This, however, is only a modern viewpoint on the act of diplomacy, with liberalism only truly gaining its political meaning in the mid 18th century (Klein, 2014). This suggests that our ‘requirement’ for real diplomacy to be mutual and equal is unique to our time, which makes ruling out diplomatic events of the past that do not meet our modern definition and standards for real diplomacy rather ignorant and selfish. While we can definitely learn from the past and use events involving unfair diplomacy to mould modern diplomacy to one that is fair and un-biased, we cannot disregard them on the basis of them being ‘not real diplomacy’.

Though involving conditions that do not meet modern definitions of diplomacy which assumes equal representation and mutuality during negotiations, conflicts are still resolved, trade is still negotiated, and diplomatic relationships between foreign states are still formed. As such, yes—unequal diplomatic interactions in the pre-Westphalian period is still real diplomacy.


  1. ‘European Exploration’. 2019. Iro.Umontreal.Ca.
  2. Prescott, William Hickling. 1854. History Of The Reign Of Ferdinand And Isabella, The Catholic, Of Spain. Ebook. 7th ed. London: Richard Bentley Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty.
  3. Keens-Soper, Maurice. 1975. ‘The Liberal Disposition Of Diplomacy’. International Relations 5 (2): 908-916. doi:10.1177/004711787500500204.
  4. Klein, Daniel. 2014. ‘The Origin Of ‘Liberalism”. The Atlantic.
  5. Skocpol, Theda. 1977. ‘Wallerstein’s World Capitalist System: A Theoretical And Historical Critiquethe Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture And The Origins Of The European World-Economy In The Sixteenth Century.Immanuel Wallerstein’. American Journal Of Sociology 82 (5): 1075-1090. doi:10.1086/226431.
  6. Williams, Mary Wilhelmine. 1922. ‘The Treaty of Tordesillas and the Argentine-Brazilian Boundary Settlement.’ The Hispanic American Historical Review 5, no. 1 : 3-23. doi:10.2307/2505977.

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