13 January 2013

A lot was beginning to be heard about ‘expeditionary diplomacy’ before the disaster at US ‘Special Mission Benghazi’ on 11 September 2012, somewhat less since. It refers to the despatch to high threat, lawless environments (failed states or fragile new ones) of short-term diplomatic missions reliant for their security on local goodwill and their own resources. It has even been suggested by recently retired senior American diplomat Marc Grossman that ‘expeditionary diplomats’, with extra training provided by the Department of Defense and the CIA, might be ‘a new personnel speciality’. Sending in members of the diplomatic equivalent of the military’s ‘special forces’, or sending in more conventionally trained diplomats with such persons in close attendance, can, with luck and good judgement, pay high dividends. This is an important reason why there was a rush to send such missions into Benghazi, capital of the oil-rich Libyan province of Cyrenaica, in the early summer of 2011, even before Colonel Gaddafi was beaten. But it is very risky, not only because those on any ‘special’ mission (military or diplomatic) are plunged into relatively unknown and unpredictable environments but also because – not fitting into customary bureaucratic categories – they are likely to find themselves more poorly supported at home than they have a right to expect. This was the fate of US ‘Special Mission Benghazi’, about which I have written at some length in my latest article.

It is perhaps worth adding for the benefit of those who believe that expeditionary diplomats are something new (not Marc Grossman), that they are, of course, as old as diplomacy itself, which would never have got off the ground without them. They were also prominent in the nineteenth century, not least in what was then regarded in Europe as the most worrying of all supposedly failed states, the Ottoman Empire (‘the sick man of Europe’). From the wilds of Asiatic Turkey to the even wilder Balkans, expeditionary diplomats, who also resembled their contemporary counterparts in their zeal for administrative, financial, custom house, and police reform, were known as ‘political consuls’. They survived chiefly through first-class language skills, long service in the same region, and great reliance on loyal dragomans, what we would now call locally engaged staff.