The 10 most influential 20th century diplomats
The list below comprises of the ten most influential diplomats of the twentieth century. These people held positions and accomplished achievements which influenced the lives of millions, the fate of countries and peoples and eventually changed the history of the last century. This list of the most reputable, prominent, and well known diplomats of the 20th century contains additional information about their nationality, background, career and greatest achievements.
When creating this list, we intended to display here those ten diplomats whose advices, actions and decisions resulted in the biggest impact on diplomacy and international relations. The list does not reflect any political opinion of the authors.
- Henry Kissinger (1923-)
Henry Kissinger from the United States is certainly one of the most influential diplomats of the 20th century. As we look through his years as a National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, we find numerous significant events and situations which he played major role in. In the ‘détente’ period of Cold War (1969-1974) he believed that the tension between the two blocks must be eased. Guided by this strategy, the SALT I. and SALT II. treaties were signed. We can also link the trilateralization of Cold War to his name, where China was a new and strong participant. He worked on providing the foundations of president Nixon’s visit to China and tried to form economic and cultural relations between China and the USA. Kissinger received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in connection with the Vietnam War. He was famous for his shuttle diplomacy after the Yom Kippur War, which served the goal of a truce and later peace. Kissinger thought, that putting pressure on the Persian Gulf is necessary in order to avoid the excessive amount of Soviet influence. His geopolitical ideologies defined the 20th century’s diplomacy and they are taught all around the world. Nowadays, Kissinger is still active and shares his thoughts in current topics like the conflicts with North-Korea or the coronavirus pandemic.
- George F. Kennan (1904-2005)
Kennan is mostly known about his ‘Long Telegram’ from 1946, which drew attention to the importance of taking definite steps against the Soviet Union. He believed in the foreign policy called ‘containment’. According to the Truman doctrine, the containment of the spreading Soviet influence is the United States’ main goal. Later, Kennan thought that a positive dialogue could also be a successful way of achieving these goals. Besides that, he took part in the development of the Marshall Plan. From the 1950s, he was an Ambassador to the USSR and later to Yugoslavia. After Kennan left the Department of State, he became a realist critic of the foreign policy of the United States of America.
- Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935)
Thomas Edward Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, was a British archaeological scholar, military strategist, author and diplomat. Firstly, his main interest was medieval military architecture. With a travelling fellowship, Lawrence could join an expedition next to the Euphrates between 1911 and 1914. In the beginning, he worked under D.G. Hogarth, then under Sir Leonard Woolley. In 1914, Lawrence and Woolley explored the northern part of Sinai. Two years later, the Arabian revolt began, but after a few successes it bogged down. Lawrence was sent to Egypt, to cooperate with the Hashemite forces. In Aqaba, the forces lead by Auda ibu Tayi and Lawrence were victorious over the Ottoman defenders in 1917. A few months later, he was captured at Darʿā by the Turks, but after a month he took part in the victory parade in Jerusalem and lead even more successful actions. In 1918, the Arab forces liberated Damascus. In the same year, he realised the United Kingdom will not keep its original promises for the Arabs, therefore Lawrence refused the Order of the Bath and the DSO in his disappointment, leaving the King in shock. After the war, Lawrence wanted to secure justice for the Arabs and wrote a book. In 1919, at the suggestion of the Foreign Office, he attended the Versailles Conference as an adviser and translator. From 1920, he served as adviser to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office. In 1922, he was enlisted in the Royal Air Force under a false name.
- Robert Anthony Eden (1897-1977)
Anthony Eden was a British diplomat and Foreign Affairs Minister, but he also worked as a Prime Minister. In the 1920s, Eden wanted to strengthen the relationship between Great-Britain and Turkey, mostly because the Treaty of Lausanne was not ratified back then. In the same decade, he advocated admitting Germany into the League of Nations. Moreover, Eden met Adolf Hitler in 1935. The British diplomat raised a slight protest against Hitler, because he restored conscription contrary to the Versailles Treaty. Besides, Anthony Eden tried to convince Mussolini to avoid war in the case of Ethiopia and to contact the League of Nations. He also took part in the foundation of UN. Later, he was responsible for keeping up a good relationship with the French leader, Charles de Gaulle. However, Eden was not a committed supporter of maintaining relations actively with the United States, because he was disappointed by the treatment of its British allies. He opposed the Morgenthau plan and in 1954 he tried to persuade every major state in the Western part of Europe to let FRG become sovereign and join the Brussels Pact. Eden was afraid of Britain losing its influence in the Middle East and tried to avoid the ‘domino effect’ of losing its alliances. When Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and the situation escalated into a war in 1956, Eden resigned in 1957.
- Yakov Malik (1906-1980)
The Soviet diplomat, Yakov Malik is famous for signing the agreement of ending the Berlin Blockade with Philip Jessup in 1949. His name is also known for the U.N. Security Council Resolution 82. in 1950, when the Soviet diplomat did not attend at UNSC meetings, because the Soviet Union boycotted the presence of the Nationalist Chinese representative. The result of his absence was the adoption of the measure, which demanded to stop the North-Korean invasion in South-Korea. In 1951, he proposed truce in the case of the Korean war. Malik represented the Soviet opinion, which contained the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and vetoed almost every resolution in connection with that.
- Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1922-2016)
Boutros-Ghali’s political career particularly started to develop when he became a member of the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union between 1974 and 1977. He was a member of the International Law Commission from 1979 until 1991. Boutros-Ghali took part in the negotiations of the Camp David Accords in 1978. He also attended on the United Nations General Assembly sessions in 1979, 1982 and 1990. Besides that, he served as Egypt’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs until 1991. In 1992, Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali became the sixth Secretary-General of the United Nations. In the same year, he submitted ‘An Agenda for Peace’, which was a suggestion for how the UN could respond to violent conflict. He set three goals: for the UN to be more active in promoting democracy, to conduct preventative diplomacy to avert crises and to expand the UN’s role as peacekeeper. The name of Boutros-Ghali is mostly mentioned in connection with the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He received a lot of critics afterwards, because the UN seemed to be passive even when a lot of signs made it clear, that a genocide is happening in Rwanda against the Tutsi and Hutu population. He was involved into a similar situation in connection with the Somali Civil war, where the UN peacekeepers were not sent to the venue in time. He also had to deal with the Yugoslav wars after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, the UN was fairly ineffective, so a NATO intervention was needed in 1995. After these events, Boutros Boutros-Ghali run for a second term in 1996, but received an American veto. Finally, Boutros-Ghali suspended his candidacy and was succeeded by Kofi Annan from Ghana.
- Eduard Shevardnadze (1928-2014)
He was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union and later the leader of Georgia. His most active years were in the ‘détente’ period of Cold War. He did effective work in nuclear arms negotiations with the U.S. and helped to end war in Afghanistan. He also took part in the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe and the Chinese border. In 1990, Shevardnadze resigned, because of the ‘growing influence of hardliners under Gorbachev’. Later, he had to deal with separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. During his Georgian presidency, he signed a strategic partnership with NATO and declared that Georgia would be pleased to join the NATO as well as the European Union. However, at the same time, corruption became extremely significant in Georgia.
- Madeleine Albright (1937-)
Madeleine Albright was working as an Ambassador to the United Nations between 1993 and 1997. She was one of those, who did not agree with Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s practice in Rwanda. In 1996, she created a secret pact with Richard Clarke, Michael Sheehan and James Rubin. The common goal was to hinder Boutros Boutros-Ghali in filling the U.N. Secretary-General post for a second time. This plan was called the ‘Operation Orient Express’, because they hoped that other states will also join the pact. In 1997, she became the first female Secretary of State in the history of the U.S.. In the same year, Albright represented the United States at the handover of Hong Kong. The British contingents and Albright boycotted together the swearing-in ceremony of Hong Kong Legislative Council, which replaced the elected one. She had a major influence in the American foreign policy in connection with the Middle East and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2000, she met with Kim Jong-il.
- Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1920-2020)
In 1940, Pérez de Cuéllar started to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Peru. After that, he served as Secretary at Peru’s embassy in France, worked in the United Kingdom, Bolivia, and Brazil and was an ambassador to Switzerland, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Venezuela. In 1973 and 1974, he represented Peru in the security Council of the United Nations. Later, in 1979 he got the position of the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs. From 1981, he took part in negotiations as a Secretary-General’s Personal Representative regarding the situation in Afghanistan. He also led mediations in connection with the Falklands War and supported the peace in Central America. Pérez de Cuéllar attended on negotiations for the independence of Namibia, in connection with the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Cyprus issue and the war between the Croatian, Serb and Yugoslav forces. In 1983, he actively took part in the foundation of World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The main goal of this commission was to popularize sustainable development among the states of the world. He was the president of the international arbitration committee on the Rainbow Warrior incident in 1986.
- Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-2017)
The Polish-born Brzezinski is one of the famous realists of geopolitics and international relations. He was a critic of Nixon and Kissinger because he thought that they put too much emphasis on the détente. We can also link the Carter doctrine to his name, which committed the U.S. to use military force in defense of an important strategic point, the Persian Gulf. In the 1960s, he was a foreign affairs adviser in the United States during the presidency of Kennedy and Johnson. From 1977, Brzezinski served as a National Security Adviser to President Carter. In this period, he worked on the normalisation of the U.S.-Chinese relations, which lead to the opening of the first official American embassy in China since 1949. He took part in the negotiations of the SALT II. treaty. Carter and Brzezinski both had the same opinion: they wanted the USSR to radically limit the number of its intercontinental ballistic missiles. In exchange, the U.S. limits its cruise missiles. Later, in the 1970s, Brzezinski helped Carter to renegotiate the treaties in connection with the Panama Canal. In 1978, the Camp David Accords were signed at the White House, where Brzezinski played a brokering role. Afterwards, in 1979, he supported the shah of Iran in the name of the United States. Brzezinski convinced Carter about rejecting the revolutionaries’ demands. However, later the revolution was successful, so the relations between Iran and the U.S. deteriorated. The climax of the situation was the Iran hostage crisis between 1979 and 1981. After the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, the failure of the sanctions by America as a response and due to Brzezinski’s influence president Carter decided to boycott the Summer Olympics in 1980. In the same year, Carter didn’t win the elections and Brzezinski also left office.