Why do states formally sever diplomatic relations with other states, when there is no recent history of military conflict or threat thereof between them? In this paper, I argue that before the 1960’s diplomatic sanctions were a prelude to war, but have since then changed in meaning and use. They are now often used as a way for countries to publicly show disapproval of other states’ actions. The closing of an embassy or downscaling of relations can be categorized as speech acts that send a signal to another country with the world watching. Countries can do this in different ways, which I have organized on a “Ladder of Disapproval” (see picture).
The study uses speech act theory to analyze Armenia’s decision to cut ties with Hungary in 2012 after Hungary’s extradition of the prisoner Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan. The performative declaration of disengagement redefined the nature of the relationship between the two countries then and there, creating a new institutional fact. Diplomatic sanctions are being used to send fine-tuned costly signals of disapproval to other countries and to a domestic as well as an international audience. Cutting diplomatic ties can be placed in the middle of the Ladder of Disapproval, being more severe than a public expression of concern or a condemnation, but less severe than non- recognition or military intervention.