LinkedIn tracking pixel

Janus-Faced Diplomacies

Thomas Flichy de La Neuville is a Research Professor at IWP and a Doctor of Research (with French Agrégation qualification) in History and Geopolitics Chair at the Rennes School of Business.


The art of diplomacy is founded on ambiguity.[1] Foreign policy is rarely enacted singlehandedly. Duets are infinitely more effective. As such, an official representative will be received with due honors, while another, unofficial voice provides the counterpoint.[2] The bassline discreetly leads the way, while official diplomacy takes care of the ornamentation and, with it, the license to improvise and operate fractionally behind the beat.[3] As a result, rather than a single impenetrable, ambivalent figure leading negotiations, we have witnessed the emergence of a dual part-official, part-covert mode of diplomacy. This two-pronged approach has become a necessity. It gave rise to the transparent diplomacy that provided a channel for Irenicism. Historically, 18th-century France was one of the first testing grounds for an approach comprised of track I and track II diplomacy. Thanks to their increased flexibility and responsiveness, covert track II diplomatic measures have been able to steer around the roadblocks that bureaucratic apparatus impose. They rose to prominence via operators who sometimes wished to bend diplomatic action to suit their own aims. As a result, they have provoked noisy protest from official diplomatic figures who, dispossessed of their monopoly, have maligned such approaches in an effort to regain their freedoms and privileges.

The Origins of Two-Track Diplomacy

It is impossible to identify when covert diplomacy was first practiced, as it is naturally built into foreign policy.[4] However, the emergence of bureaucratic nation-states provided the conditions for parallel diplomacy to flourish. The “cabinet strategy” instituted from 1674, for example, enabled Louvois to enact unofficial diplomacy under the orders of the French King.[5] Half a century later, in 1722, the French secret service (or Secret du Roi) would set parallel diplomacy within a framework. The service made overtures to Austria and Russia while France was officially allied with Prussia and England.

The new French minister in Saint Petersburg; Sir Douglas and his secretary; and the Chevalier d’Éon were the King’s agents of confidential diplomacy. It was in this capacity that they had each donned a disguise and, armed with the pretext of buying furs, spent the previous winter traveling to Petersburg to learn about the state of Russian power […] They agreed upon a number of codewords which they would use to send each other letters without fear of indiscretion. The English minister was thus referred to as ‘black fox,’ while the expression ‘black fox commands a high price’ meant that English credit had the upper hand […]Two secret diplomatic representatives were sent 1,000 leagues from France to two allied and intimately linked theatres. There, they would work to diametrically opposed ends, one fomenting anti-Russian feeling, the other ceaselessly seeking to please the Russian sovereign. Each presented one face of a Janus-faced operation.

In Albert de Broglie’s view, Louis VX kept the best elements of his policy under wraps. Comparing the King’s official and unofficial diplomacy, the historian observes that “on the one hand, a casual approach unburdened with foresight reigned almost entirely while, on the other, skillful but faceless figures quietly enacted a more sober approach which has escaped posterity’s judgment. Licentious frivolity ruled the stage, but, behind the scenes, common sense, morality, and patriotism often found a home.” Over the course of the 18th century, official and unofficial diplomacy’s complementary practices developed into an art. The diplomat Guillaume Bonnecarère (1754-1825), for instance, was one of the agents to undertake secret diplomatic missions to the Netherlands and Germany. In 1786, the diplomatic “pincers” – with one visible and one invisible part – found their most perfect form. This system was a response to the needs of the time.

Why Did Parallel Diplomacy Thrive?

The main cause of secret diplomacy’s success relates to unwieldy state apparatus.

In the late 19th century, for example, Prussian diplomacy was strictly hierarchical and bureaucratic. “It was the preserve of the land-owning Prussian aristocracy, although, in later years, the gentry and non-Prussians slowly gained ingress. This closed, rigidly hierarchical world vulnerable to public criticism made parallel diplomacy all the more tempting.”[8] The same temptation arose during the Cold War, in which bureaucratic diplomatic machines found themselves locked in a bloodless face-off.[9]

Unofficial diplomacy can also resort to destabilization measures hidden from public view. As such, “as well as making strategic use of turmoil in Afghanistan, some elements of the Pakistani state apparatus launched another type of diplomacy, one aiming at fomenting disorder and utilizing Indian identity-based conflicts. This diplomacy of disorder is another form of parallel diplomacy, in which traditional diplomatic relations are forsaken in favor of operators and tools not internationally recognized as vectors for foreign policy. It is led by the Pakistani Army’s intelligence services, particularly the ISI, which has used Sikh, then Kashmiri and Assamese armed groups, to politically and economically weaken India. Pursued in utmost secrecy by largely self-directing state actors, this parallel diplomacy is gradually integrating international non-state actors into Pakistan’s foreign policy undertakings.”[10] Unofficial diplomacy can be particularly useful during pre-negotiations.[11]  Extremely varied operators are involved in this phase of proceedings.

When Practitioners of Secret Diplomacy Enter the Ring

The simplest way for heads of state to enact secret diplomacy is to select agents from within the diplomatic system.

This was how Emperor Ferdinand I engaged Michel Cernovic, an Imperial secret agent working as an interpreter to the bailo of Venice. “Thanks to his personal charm and linguistic gifts, Cernovic successfully won favor with the viziers while also implementing a spy network and regular communications with Vienna via Ragusa and Kotor. Alongside the official negotiations conducted by his ambassador, the Emperor enacted parallel diplomacy founded on discreet investigations and direct contact with influential Ottoman figures free from any mediation by the court’s drogmans.”[12]

Furthermore, Charles I, King of England, used a handful of agents to indefatigably promote political solidarity among Protestant states. During an era in which English foreign policy was characterized by indecision and pusillanimity, his parallel diplomacy generated real results.[13] Wives sometimes contributed to these efforts,[14] but heads of state generally preferred to find more diligent auxiliaries. The first were selected from the military, which had previously provided a few diplomats from time to time.[15] As a result, in 1917, a few officers from the Chief of Defence Staff’s intelligence bureau plucked up the courage to launch parallel diplomatic relations with Austria.

This practice has become commonplace in the United States, where the Pentagon’s own parallel diplomatic efforts sometimes run counter to the direction set out by Presidents.[16] Consequently, “the management of Iraq while American forces were being withdrawn was left to the Pentagon. The immense American embassy in Baghdad was marginalized, and the Pentagon maintained a strong presence in discussions with Iraqi politicians about the residual presence of the U.S. Army, whose total withdrawal was planned for December 2011.”[17]

Heads of state can also utilize universities to take diplomatic action from a distance.[18] In France, the golden age of university diplomacy arose in the 1880s, when French higher education institutions opened up to the world.[19] Beyond these traditional operators, academic groups,[20] religious communities,[21] and humanitarian organizations[22] carried out sometimes successful parallel – but unmanaged – diplomacy, to the detriment of state diplomacy.

An Outcry from Official Diplomacy

Official diplomatic apparatus could only protest its unofficial counterpart, which it dubbed a “diplomatic pathology.”[23] This term was used at a diplomatic forum in 1986 to condemn deceptive, amateurish parallel diplomacy.[24]

 To fend off competition, bureaucratic diplomatic structures relied upon humble, discreet servants. As such, “the role of first officer for foreign affairs was, in former diplomatic structures, simultaneously highly important and shrouded in mystery. A highly paid occupation, it was designed to suit a succession of unknown but estimable men who were called to direct events with an invisible hand and guard state secrets – yet, by the same token, never to harbor even the faintest hope that their noble birth or the nature of their services would give them access to the glamor of high office. They instructed and controlled all operations enacted by the lower-ranking ambassadors and survived the constant churn of ministers, their humility protecting them from being overthrown. Inheritors of all traditions, they were nonetheless truly the first of their kind for centuries in the history of our foreign policy, acting from their own set cabinet.”[25]

State diplomacy also had its agents work in the shadows:

 Between 1702 and 1793, there were eleven General Agents for the French Navy and Trade in Madrid. Although they enjoyed no official status, these envoys for the Secretary of State for the Navy were the cornerstone of a French intelligence network in Spain. The role was created after Philip V (a member of the Bourbon dynasty) ascended to the Spanish throne, and the experts that occupied it were central to France’s consular network in Iberia, exerting all their economic skills to forge greater trade links between the two monarchies. Thanks to their actions, social cachet, their knowledge of Spain, and their discourse, these intermediaries were able to play a sketchily defined role. Shadow men directed by the French ambassador, they acquired true expertise in 18th-century Franco-Spanish commercial diplomacy.[26]

 It was not rare for official diplomacy to stymie parallel diplomacy’s initiatives. One example of this is British amateur diplomat James Lonsdale-Bryans. He attempted to put an end to the Second World War by suggesting to Nazi Germany that it take control of Europe, on the condition that the British Empire rule the rest of the world. The Foreign Office, aware of what Lonsdale-Bryans was trying to do, was much perturbed by the possibility that Britain’s foreign policy would be split fatally in two.

Official Dual-Track Diplomacy

While two-pronged diplomacy can provide the conditions for effective negotiations, it loses all effect if it is exposed to the light of day. If they want to operate in secret, real diplomatic agents must stay in the shadows and cede all public recognition to their official counterpart.

Diplomacy’s dual nature can, however, come to light on occasion. This occurs when the center of power is disputed. In the early 17th century, for instance, certain governors and lieutenants from border provinces pursued a genuine parallel diplomatic policy, with considerable military and geopolitical consequences.

In one recently researched case dating back to the 1610s, the King’s Lieutenant-General in Dauphiné, the Duke de Lesdiguières, engineered a rapprochement in Franco-Savoyard relations which Regent Marie de Medici did not support. By the time the French monarchy learned that he had taken the initiative to provide military aid to Charles Emmanuel I against Milanese-controlled Spanish authorities, it was already a fait accompli.[27]

Federal states such as Quebec have their own diplomatic apparatus. Similarly, certain federal American states have developed parallel diplomacy with other federal states around the world as a way of denouncing central government’s position on climate change.[28]

Official two-pronged diplomacy can also arise when two leading state authorities are wrangling for control over foreign policy. Between November and December 1867, the two most significant figures in the Belgian government, Charles Rogier and Walthère Frère-Orban, engaged in a power struggle which would unseat the ruling liberal cabinet. This dispute between Frère-Orban and Rogier stemmed from the latter’s discovery that, unbeknownst to him and at his expense, his colleague and rival had been conducting parallel diplomatic efforts.

It is also well-known that the period in which François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac both served in the French government was marked by struggles for control over the country’s diplomacy. The French president declared that “if the government takes over foreign policy, that would constitute a coup d’état.”[29] Nonetheless, in certain sectors, “dual, competing diplomacy took root, draining away a huge amount of energy. The two men spent considerable time hiding information from each other or attempting to unearth the information they lacked. French diplomacy lost its initiative and imagination. It focused its efforts on communicating and setting up operations whose purpose was to promote each of the two men’s image.”[30]

We also saw dual diplomacy emerge in Mobutu’s Zaire,[31] in Tunisia in 2014, and in Algeria from May 2015 to May 2017.[32] In each case, foreign policy was weakened by diplomatic competition at the head of government.


By leaving the professionals to provide a show while the amateurs work behind the scenes, diplomacy is able to get a firm grasp on its target. In normal times, the dividing line between the head of state and their foreign minister goes unnoticed, but attentive ears may regularly pick up on certain faint signals. Not all information is shared by the two tracks. The usual protests against dual diplomacy ultimately aim to draw attention back towards public diplomacy’s illusory beauty.[33]

[1]In New France, for example, colonists pursued a finely balanced policy in their relations with local tribes: “By counterbalancing their diplomatic efforts favoring the Onondaga with regular diplomacy with the Mohawks, the French are careful not to aggravate the Mohawks,” Alain Beaulieu, Ne faire qu’un seul peuple ? Iroquois et Français à l’âge héroïque de la Nouvelle-France (1600-1660) (thesis, Université Laval, 1992).

[2] “The term ‘parallel diplomacy’ was coined in 1981 by American diplomat Joseph Montville to describe the efforts made by unofficial individuals and organizations on the international stage. This form of diplomacy is based on the idea that national authorities alone cannot resolve military conflicts or power struggles. Parallel diplomacy, as habitually understood, is predicated on the belief that discreet actions unconnected from state apparatus and most often conducted away from the gaze of the media can be used to secure progress on a particular issue,” Olivier Arifon, Influence et communication dans l’environnement international : le cas de la diplomatie non gouvernementale (2008).

[3]“It has been acknowledged that traditional (track I) diplomacy is sometimes assisted by, interspersed with, or even supplanted by informal (track II) diplomacy, which is itself cultivated by multiple networks designed to influence the course of war or peace.  The history of the 20th century offers countless examples of individuals, groups, and associations of all kinds (including the Red Cross, Quakers and the Community of Sant’Egidio) which have attempted to influence governmental decision-making in favor of peace,”  Pierre Journoud, Les relations franco-américaines à l’épreuve du Vietnam entre 1954 et 1975. De la défiance dans la guerre à la coopération pour la paix (doctoral thesis, 2007).

[4]Auguste Leman, Richelieu et Olivarès, Leurs négociations secrètes de 1636 à 1642 pour le rétablissement de la paix, (Lille: Facultés catholiques, 1938). In-8°, XV.

[5]André Corvisier, Louvois, (Paris: Fayard, 1983).

[6] Alfred de Broglie, “La diplomatie secrète de Louis XV : III, l’armée russe en Pologne”, Revue des Deux Mondes (1829-1971), séconde période (Vol. 88, N°2, 15 July 1870), pp. 257-293.

[7]Albert de Broglie, “La diplomatie secrète de Louis XV”, Revue des Deux Mondes (1829-1971), seconde période (Vol. 87, N° 2, 15 May 1870), pp. 257-311.

[8]Jens Petersen, “La Wilhelmstrasse”, Opinion publique et politique extérieure en Europe.1870-1915. Actes du Colloque de Rome (École Française de Rome, 1981), pp. 127-138.

[9] Angelo Romano and Valeria Zanier, Circumventing the Cold War: The Parallel Diplomacy of Economic and Cultural Exchanges Between Western Europe and Socialist China in the 1950s and 1960s (Volume 51, Special Issue 1, January 2017), pp. 1-16.

[10]Laurent Gayer, Le Pakistan, un Etat en formation dans un contexte de turbulences internes et externes.

[11] Ronald J. Fischer, “Coordination entre les diplomaties de type 1 (officielle) et de type 2 (parallèle) dans les cas réussis de pré-négociation”, Négociations, (2006 N°5), pp. 5-33.

[12]Jean Aubin, Bruno Neveu, Michel Lesure, Histoire des relations entre l’Europe et l’Orient du XVIe au XVIIIe siècles (École pratique des hautes études, section 4, historical and philological sciences, Folio 2, Conference reports 1981-1982 and 1982-1983. 1985), pp. 161-162.

[13]Aurélien Ruellet, “Stéphane Haffemayer, les lumières radicales de la révolution anglaise. Samuel Hartlib et les réseaux de l’intelligence (1600-1660)”, Revue d’histoire moderne & contemporaine, (2019, n° 66) pp. 178-181.

[14]Jean-Joël Governatori, “Le rôle de l’épouse du Président de la République en Droit français”, Revue juridique de l’Ouest, (2009), pp. 419-442.

[15] This was the case in Spain for Don Juan Nepocumeno de Vial (1783-1835), who entered Cadiz naval college as a gentleman officer before later launching a diplomatic career. In 1830, he became the ambassadorial minister to Constantinople and presented his diplomatic credentials to Sultan Mahmud II.

[16]Claude Moisy, L’Amérique sous les armes, (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971).

[17]Philippe Droz-Vincent, “Du 11 septembre aux révolutions Arabes, les États-Unis et le Moyen-Orient”, Politique étrangère (March 2011), pp. 495-506.

[18]Guillaume Tronchet, L’État en miettes : la fabrique de l’impérialisme universitaire français: “The Third Republic is often presented as the golden age of French cultural Messianism. To compensate for their country’s lack of economic and military prowess, the intellectual elites designed a plan to promote their language and culture around the world. Global in scope, this project was widely assented to not long after the French defeat at the Battle of Sedan as a counter to their German adversaries’ attractive universities and culture.”

[19]Guillaume Tronchet, Diplomatie universitaire ou diplomatie culturelle ? La Cité internationale universitaire de Paris entre deux rives (1920-1940) (Presses universitaires de Rennes) pp. 58-88.

[20] Johannes Grossmann, “L’international des conservateurs, cercles d’élites transnationaux, diplomatie informelle et biographies croisées en Europe Occidentale depuis 1945”, Histoire, économie & société (Armand Colin, 2016), pp. 32-44.

[21] Victor Fernandez Soriano, La Communauté de Sant’Egidio et le Mozambique (1980-1990) Une diplomatie parallèle à la fin de la guerre froide ?, (Forum Romanum Belgicum, 2015).

[22] Philippe Ryfman, L’action humanitaire non gouvernementale : une diplomatie alternative ?, Politique étrangère (Autumn 2010), pp. 565-578.

[23] José Calvet de Magalhaes, “A diplomacia pura”, Politique étrangère (n°3, 1983), pp. 719-720.

[24] Bernard de Montferrand, La France et l’étranger (Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1987).

[25] Alfred de Broglie, “La diplomatie secrète de Louis XV : III, l’armée russe en Pologne, Revue des Deux Mondes (1829-1971), seconde période (Vol. 88, N°. 2, 15 July 1870), pp. 257-293.

[26]Sylvain Lloret, Entre princes et marchands : les agents généraux de France à Madrid dans les interstices de la diplomatie (1702-1793), (doctoral thesis, 2018).

[27]Fabrice Micallef, “Les nobles français dans les relations internationales. Formes, légitimations et perceptions d’une action politique non étatique (XVIe-XVIIe siècles),” Cahiers de la Méditerranée, February 2018.

[28] Stéphane Paquin and Annie Chaloux, “La diplomatie parallèle des États américains,” Bulletin d’histoire politique, 17-1 (2008).

[29] Samy Cohen, “La politique étrangère entre l’Elysée et Matignon,” Politique étrangère, Institut Français des Relations internationales (1989, 54), pp. 487-503.

[30] Samy Cohen, “La politique étrangère entre l’Elysée et Matignon,” Politique étrangère, Institut Français des Relations internationales (1989, 54), pp. 487-503.

[31] Jean-Louis Esambo-Kangashe, “Le Président Mobutu et le Premier Ministre sous l’acte constitutionnel de la transition : duel ou duo ?”, Afrika Focus (Vol. 14, No. 2, 1998), pp. 161-178.

[32] Ramtane Lamamra was Minister of State and Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Abdelkader Messahel was Minister for North African Affairs, the African Union and the Arab League.

[33]“The danger of two-pronged diplomacy should be avoided at all costs as it risks becoming incoherent and contradictory,” Robert Schuman, “Aspects de la tâche d’un ministre des Affaires étrangères” (Conference of 28 July 1958, Nice).