The most obvious action that unmistakably illustrates Byzantine diplomacy is accusing others of what you are doing or are about to do.
One might argue whether there even is such a thing as a particular, clearly distinct Byzantine diplomacy that differs from every other type. However, particular characteristics manifest themselves during different civilisations, cultures and eras that make it possible to group and distinguish between them, which is why I now take the risk of limiting Byzantine diplomacy to being a phenomenon. In doing so, I do not view Byzantine diplomacy as the diplomacy of Byzantium, but rather as a tradition of diplomacy whose legacy continues today, in the first decades of the 21st century.
There is no agreement about how diplomacy came into being as a separate field. Negotiations, alliances, and prisoner exchanges existed even in tribal societies. Ancient rulers sent envoys to other rulers with powers to enter into agreements. In the 15th century, Italian city-states regularly exchanged envoys. The word “diplomacy” comes from a Greek root (diploma, meaning “folded paper”), and came into use in its modern meaning only in the 18th century. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord is considered the first great professional diplomat, and managed to provide his services to all forms of French rule at the time—the Bourbon dynasty, the revolutionaries, Napoleon, Restoration-period monarchs—while constantly switching sides. Nonetheless, he did manage to negotiate dignified peace terms and the restoration of France’s pre-Napoleonic War boundaries.
All beginnings are inevitably conventional in history, and I propose the year 740 as the beginning of diplomacy and the Byzantine Empire as its place of origin.
What happened in the Byzantine Empire that could not have occurred anywhere else at that time?
Life has shown that if one has power, one does not waste time on ceremony. Hence, if one has a strong army, one does not bother to negotiate. For many centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire remained at the height of its glory and was the leader of the world—the Second Rome. Even the 8th-century Byzantine Empire was very powerful, but its vast territory, long borders and vicious neighbours drained the state both militarily and economically. The Roman legacy started to crumble away as well, and in the 7th century the Byzantine Empire changed from a Latin realm to a Greek one. Something had to be done to reduce the military burden. Naturally, the alternative was found in negotiations and agreements. A so-called Bureau of Barbarians was established and used to manage relations primarily with the barbarians living on the Balkan Peninsula—Bulgarians, Vlachs, et al. In the year 740 the first permanent office dealing with foreign relations was created on the basis of that bureau—a predecessor of the modern ministry of foreign affairs. The task of this office was to find ways of settling both revolts within already subordinate regions and invasions from neighbouring regions in a situation where military power alone was insufficient.
The training of negotiators and interpreters was established. Byzantine envoys were prepared for missions abroad and for receiving foreigners; negotiations were organised, and decisions were made on declaring war and making peace. A logothete was appointed—a foreign minister in today’s parlance. However, in reality, the ruler personally directed foreign policy and the logothete was just a spokesman. Diplomatic customs—formalities, protocol, etiquette—were developed. Formal rules of protocol were very rigid in the Byzantine Empire, and were used to emphasize the might of the state, to make it appear much more powerful than it really was. The ruler decided what could and could not be shown to foreigners. Later on, Russia called this deceptive glory displayed to hide real weakness and poverty a “Potemkin village”. In Byzantine diplomacy, certain methods of communication with foreigners were developed, including relying on the opponents’ weaknesses—such as greed or arrogance. Likewise, bribery, deception, deceit, playing enemies off against each other (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) and guile were put to use. It can be said that the Byzantine Empire was not the first to apply these methods—earlier rulers knew them as well. However, the Byzantine Empire used them systematically. Perhaps the limits within which diplomacy could be an honest activity (and whether it could be honest at all) were already being questioned; meanwhile, the opposite—to what extent does diplomacy constitute the deception (at least attempted) of the opponent—was also argued.
The Legacy of the Byzantine Empire
Understandably diplomacy did not remain within the borders of the Byzantine Empire, and other countries also learned some lessons from it. Foreign relations became more intensive with the creation of the city-states in Italy and the creation of colonies by the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, and later by other countries that had the requisite power. With the creation of centralised great powers, rivalries between countries became intense and not all could be resolved from a position of strength. The origins of international law were shaped. These were first formalised in 1648 in the Peace of Westphalia—a foundation that has, for the most part, remained in place ever since.
Even with the Byzantine experience at its disposal, the Western political system did not enable the creation of a centralised foreign policy for some time. The first interrupting factor was feudal fragmentation, but the separation of secular and ecclesiastical powers was also a feature. Power was mostly in the hands of secular authorities, while diplomacy was in the hands of the Church. In the Byzantine Empire both secular and ecclesiastical powers were subordinate to one ruler. In Western countries a similar situation obtained only for a short time in absolutist countries—this could be considered the heyday of Byzantine diplomacy in the West, something that Niccolò Machiavelli dreamt about in his book The Prince. These circumstances most probably caused the differences between Western and Byzantine diplomacy that manifested themselves first and foremost in values and methods. In the modern West, democracy developed alongside public control over the actions of authorities, which inevitably set boundaries in foreign relations and forced the establishment of a public set of rules as well as the consideration of public opinion.
However, Byzantine diplomacy did get a foothold in Russia. Ivan III wanted to make Russia the Third Rome and the legacy of Byzantium was part of this. Despite Russia’s backwardness in other fields, its diplomacy had attained a high level of professionalism in the Tsarist Empire.
Since the Peace of Westphalia, the role of international law has constantly expanded—international legislation and organisations gradually started to regulate the framework of international relations. The 20th century saw the emergence of large international organisations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations, while diplomatic relations were regulated with the signing of the Vienna Convention. This development also showed more clearly than ever before the difference between those countries that wanted closer international cooperation and a fixed set of rules and those states that stood against it and relied on Realpolitik—might is right and the end justifies the means. Realpolitik, however, involves a Byzantine approach to diplomacy—until there is power, diplomacy is irrelevant. If there is no actual power, diplomacy must give the impression that it exists. The goal is the same—the preservation and expansion of the empire by all possible means. In the case of schizophrenic dictators, the dream of ruling the world is also a factor.
Byzantine diplomacy today
Both World Wars originated from Realpolitik. Diplomacy subjected to the influence of militarists was incapable of preventing large-scale war. Authoritarian and totalitarian countries have almost always opposed the increasing importance of international organisations, except when these organisations are under their control. These countries do not want international intervention in their actions, whether in the form of an aggressive foreign policy, the violation of human rights and rights of minorities, or the lack of democracy and freedom etc. Germany, Italy and Japan left the League of Nations when they were starting to plan aggression. The Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations in 1939 because it invaded Finland. In 1948 the Soviet Union and its satellite countries abstained from voting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their main arguments concerned sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, notwithstanding that they were ready to infringe other states’ sovereignty in their own interests and constantly intervened in the internal affairs of others.
The reason for opposition to the strengthening of international fora is the limitations it imposes on a country’s freedom of action, mainly in foreign relations, by subjecting the country to collective agreements. In order to resist developments that increase the weight of international cooperation—or even to demolish international cooperation networks—a country must have the prerequisites. These were present in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Today, Putin’s Russia is trying to prove that it also has these prerequisites through the Ukrainian crisis. We will probably find out soon enough.
Totalitarian countries differ greatly from democracies in their distribution of power because the state is represented more by its leadership than by its society. This is why we call the German regime the Reich and the ruling regime in the Soviet Union and Russia Derzhava in their respective contexts.
The prerequisites are:
1) heavily centralised authoritarian or totalitarian power
2) the leader or oligarch’s wish is supreme and above the law
3) a lack of human rights and freedoms
4) internal resistance has been subdued and opposition suppressed
5) the ability of the state (Reich/Derzhava) to make other countries believe that it has the power (primarily military) to carry out its aims. The latter requires an efficient propaganda machine and skilful use of Byzantine diplomacy.
These prerequisites alone are not enough to oppose the entire international community. Some conditions must apply and be used purposefully:
1) The opposing side does not know or understand the methods of Byzantine diplomacy, but proceeds from the principles of justice, law, honour, and values. The opponent honours agreements and the equality and freedom of countries.
2) The economy has been subjected to authority to the extent that makes possible the effective mobilisation of state resources for the purpose of war and to influence the economy of other countries (e.g. by dumping, sanctions, and restrictions).
3) The economy has been constructed according to the principle of autarky so that it would be least vulnerable to or influenced by sanctions imposed by other countries.
4) Other countries foster an environment that makes it possible to spread propaganda, influence the government, media, and public opinion, and, if necessary, organise riots (the so-called fifth column, “useful idiots”, or compatriots).
The most important elements in Byzantine diplomacy are methods and means. In this area, totalitarian countries have all acted alike, irrespective of how their aims were defined. Thus, yet again, the end justifies the means.
Firstly, by using agreements in their own interest:
1) They attempt to conclude agreements that limit the freedom of action of other countries and that create obligations (e.g. Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the USSR [ed. note: better known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact], Anglo–German Naval Agreement etc.)
2) They never enter into contracts that are binding on them. A contract is honoured as long as and to the extent that it is useful—if not, the contract is terminated or breached (again: Anglo–German Naval Agreement and non-aggression pacts, but also the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Tartu Peace Treaty, the Munich Agreement, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States assured the territorial integrity of Ukraine).
3) Other countries are accused of breaching the contract (if this serves any purpose), as the basis for revoking or breaching a contract or initiating aggression. The country portrays itself as an honest party to the contract.
4) The principle of “an eye for an eye” is applied during negotiations. Never give in, or do so only in a situation where there are no other ways of pursuing your interests (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the capitulation of Nazi Germany). However, if the opposing side has been compliant and is, for example, seeking a compromise or showing goodwill, the negotiations will be continued from the new positions that have just been claimed.
5) Good cop/bad cop tactics are applied during negotiations. The bad cop conducting negotiations intentionally overplays his role. If everything possible has been squeezed out of the opposite side and there is nothing left, the “good cop” then enters, cooperates, calls for compromise and agrees with superficial concessions to lure his opponent. The opposing side mistakes this for internal dissent and is ready to make some additional concessions for the sake of a compromise.
There are all types of instruments in the Byzantine diplomatic arsenal to get what is wanted: arguments derived from history, law, self-determination, the protection of minorities and human rights etc. Total propaganda, the distortion of history, the arbitrary interpretation of facts, pure lies and the systematic deception of the people are used in making these arguments public. The following concepts can be identified in the light of this discussion:
1) ancient territories. A territory touched by a Russian soldier’s boot or where a Russian soldier has spilled blood is regarded as an ancient Russian territory (Crimea, Eastern and Southern Ukraine). Territories where Germans live must belong to the Reich (Austria, Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine).
2) protecting fellow countrymen. The Reich and the Derzhava are justified in protecting their countrymen, wherever they live or wherever their “rights” might be violated. This is also used as a justification for ethnic cleansing and the relocation of other national groups (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Karelia, the Baltic states).
3) justified interests and spheres of influence. Large countries have their security interests, the protection of which is lawful even if the rights of others are violated. Russia, as the core state in Eurasia, has the right to subject the “near abroad” to its control, and carry out military interventions (so-called “peacekeeping” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova). The Soviet Union had the right to move the Finnish border further from Leningrad and to annex eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia because it increased its security this way. Germany, in turn, was entitled to western Poland—as the core state in Europe, it had the right to lebensraum at the expense of others. The rights of other countries to security and sovereignty are not acknowledged.
4) “the world of large nations”. Countries do not share equal rights. Only large countries can have interests, and the right to decide over the whole world order proceeding from these interests. Small countries exist at the mercy of big ones and have to be either in their spheres of influence or under their control. In this concept, all international laws that treat big and small countries equally are unacceptable and must be abolished.
Byzantine diplomacy is thus the diplomacy of an expansionist country, and a politics that inevitably leads to aggressive behaviour towards other countries. A scheme of action can be outlined from this definition—expansion and annexation are advanced as far as possible by diplomatic means, and direct military aggression is initiated when diplomatic means are exhausted.
1) Germany managed to subjugate Austria and Czechoslovakia without bloodshed. A public vote was held in Austria, which supported joining the Greater German Reich. The Germans from Sudetenland “begged” for Hitler’s aid and, in the end, all of Czechoslovakia was swallowed up by Germany under the name Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Soviet Union annexed eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia without formal military action. The fifth column, armed bandits (the so-called “little green men”), dissatisfied social and ethnic minorities or radical groups, “useful idiots”, and so on are very handy instruments for hidden aggression and can be used in organising mass riots or civil war.
2) Aggression is framed as civil war and the involvement of the aggressor is denied. The subordinate territories declare independence and ask for assistance from the aggressor. (Even during the Livonian War, Muscovy created an “independent” Livonian kingdom in Old Livonia. The Commune of the Working People of Estonia and other pseudo-Soviet Republic countries; the Finnish Democratic Republic and the Terijoki government at the beginning of the Winter War; and Germany’s puppet states Croatia and Slovakia had the same role. Current examples are Crimea, the Donetsk People’s Republic etc.)
3) Territories that cannot be subjugated or which it is not considered necessary to subjugate are marginalised as helpless and failed countries (Vichy France, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Georgia, Ukraine).
4) An aggressor’s appetite grows with eating. If it is not stopped, diplomatic aggression is inevitably replaced with military aggression (Winter War, the World Wars).
The most obvious action that unmistakably illustrates Byzantine diplomacy (and which can be used to predict future intentions) is to accuse others of what you are doing or are about to do. Violation of human rights, persecution of minorities, non-respect for the right to self-determination, excessive violence towards opponents, silencing the press, territorial disputes, interference in internal affairs—all these are found in the annals of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Putin’s Russia. Predictably, they all blamed (or blame) these actions on countries against which they had (or have) aggressive plans.
The forceful return of Byzantine diplomacy is threatening the continuance of the entire world order based on honouring international law. Is the world of Westphalia coming to an end? Are inhuman laws making a comeback?
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.