The Nicolson Gap

Until a couple of months ago I’d never read Harold Nicolson’s Diplomacy.  I’ve had a copy on my shelf for years but it just didn’t seem like a priority. Having read it I’ve started to notice how much Nicolson is cited in discussions of diplomacy  but I’ve also noticed a phenomenon that I’ve come to think of as the Nicolson Gap.

The gap works like this.  An author wants to make a point about contemporary diplomacy and how much it has changed  in recent years or across the author’s experience, alternatively it can be a point about the need to change.   This is underlined by a reference to Nicolson which implies that Diplomacy is a description of relatively recent diplomatic practice.


The gap is period between Nicolson and the present.  It  can be calculated in different ways


1968 Nicolson dies: Gap is 48 years


1963 Publishes 3rd edition of Diplomacy .  Same as second edition but includes an article published in 1961 as postscript: Gap is 53 years


1950 Publishes 2nd edition of Diplomacy. Slightly updates first edition to take account of new recruitment practices at the Foreign Office:  Gap is 66 years.


1939 Publishes 1st edition of Diplomacy: Gap is 77 years


1929 Nicolson leaves the Foreign Office: Gap is 87 years.


The problem is that by using Diplomacy as a marker of recency the author has created a space of multiple decades within which nothing of any note has happened to change diplomacy.  The implication is that diplomacy is the way that it is today because it’s always been this way not because of,  for example, 27 years of post-Cold War, extended periods of new public management derived change, or 15 years of the War on Terror.   The gap comes from the unexamined effects of everything that has happened since Nicolson.


The irony is that in reading Diplomacy I was struck by how much of it is not about the unchanging essence of diplomacy but about how much diplomacy had changed in the decades either side of the First World War.

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