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What was the formal purpose of the document? Formal statements of purpose can include the terms of an alliance, a declaration of war, a treaty of peace, a statement of diplomatic recognition, a trade agreement, or a communiqué of mutual understandings. Agreements also have instrumental purposes. These are underlying and often unstated agendas that are not immediately apparent. For example is the goal of an alliance to prepare for war or is it to make the allies appear powerful so they can avoid war? Is the goal of a treaty to create terms that will treat a defeated foe fairly or to insure that it cannot reestablish itself as a threat for decades to come?


Answers to these questions are based on an understanding of the document and its historical context. Often, an uncritical acceptance of the surface meaning of the source can lead you astray. Nevertheless, reading the entire document is an important place to start. What, on the surface, does the document actually say? Write down your initial speculations of what is involved. Note where the document fits in relation to other issues you are studying. Check the title and names of any people mentioned against other sources. Are you looking at a famous pronouncement or treaty? Was the decree reversed the following month? Then go back and read the document carefully. Make a list of unfamiliar terms and research their meanings. Write down the names of all countries involved as well as references to specific policies or issues. Note any statements that do not make sense.


The formal relations between nations—the work of diplomats—produce a unique kind of official documents. Diplomacy is largely based on the creation and dissemination of messages that are, themselves, based on established conventions. Basic diplomatic processes convey messages between governments, often through official spokespersons. Traditionally there have been debates over how accurately foreign policy reflects the ideas of government officials. Some argue that the need to protect national security means that diplomacy does not reflect shifts in leadership within nations.


Nations play for high stakes and need to assert their interests while avoiding inflammatory language that might disrupt diplomatic relations or insult other countries. Diplomatic documents, therefore, often use formulaic language stating concerns delicately. This language has emerged over several centuries and such communications tend to be both bland and precise. For example, a joint communiqué issued after a public meeting might assert that “a frank exchange of views” took place. Sometimes we also get the accompanying translation that “frank” means that there was a lot of shouting back and forth. The idea that a meeting resulted in “agreement in principle” actually means that neither nation plans to take any action in relation to the issue under discussion. These conventions help nations work toward solutions in moments of strong emotion and high stakes. Analyzing these documents means uncovering the decision-making processes and the stylized language of the governments involved.


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