Outposts of Diplomacy: A History of the Embassy
(Reaktion Books: London, 2024)

Outposts of Diplomacy - A history of the embassy

This is my swan song. It’s 110,000 words long (excluding the index) and has 60 black and white illustrations. It was published on 1 March 2024 in the UK and 1 May 2024 in the USA. I have blogged about the book on the publisher’s website here and replied to questions about it in the ‘Honest truth’ column of the long-established Scottish weekly, The Sunday Post, where it appeared under the title ‘Spies, smugglers and trade experts: the tangled history of the embassy’ on 12 May 2024.

This is the contents list:


1 Fifteenth-Century Beginnings

2 Expanding Duties

3 Household and Buildings

4 Pre-Telegraphic Communications

5 Nineteenth-Century Highpoint

6 Enter the Americas

7 The Middle East and Africa

8 Far Eastern Compounds

9 Backseat after the First World War

10 Stubborn Institution

Note on Sources
Photo Acknowledgements


These have just begun to appear and, as will be seen by comparing the first two below, reveal contrasting reactions.

Steve Donoghue, 29 May 2024, in Open Letters Review – An Arts & Literature Review [USA]

A fierce and forceful man named David Jayne Hill was asked by a friend, “Honestly, isn’t this all simply showmanship? If Germany declares war on Washington, you’ll be on a fast train headed to the border just the same as everybody else.” Hill, who’d just recently been appointed US ambassador to Germany, answered urbanely: “Not at all, not at all. If my German counterpart is second cousin to the Kaiser, the possibility of war is no longer a theoretical thing – it has a face. At the very least, it has my face. That in itself makes your declaration of war less likely.”

Hill made his comment in 1908 and was therefore just about as wrong as a human being could possibly be. But the basic sentiment he was expressing has twined like a stubborn weed through international relations for centuries if not millennia, and that sentiment is at the heart of Outposts of Diplomacy, the surprisingly captivating new book by GR Berridge, Emeritus Professor of International Politics at the University of Leicester. He studies the nature and evolution of the resident embassy, which took root in the fifteenth century and began to institutionalize in the mid-sixteenth century, when increasingly prosperous city-states wanted any marginal advantage they could reap from having representatives of their rivals just down the street in their own town.

In these pages, Berridge gives readers not only a smoothly-paced and quietly eloquent account of that embassy evolution but also a marvellous gallery of the people who led those embassies. In most cases, these people had an unenviable task: they were dealing with duplicitous hosts, warring street factions, capricious rulers, and, sometimes worst of all, each other (Berridge of course relates the story of “devious and hot-tempered” Elizabethan diplomat Nicholas Throckmorton pulling a knife on a colleague). On top of which, the whole undertaking could be quite expensive, as illustrated by the case of Sir Benjamin Keene, British ambassador to the court of Ferdinand VI of Spain. Keene was feted at his post in the 1720s, but as Berridge points out, friendship is one thing, but confidence is very different – and usually more costly. “It was a further six months,” Berridge writes, “before Keene, who was no fool, felt able to tell his close friend, Abraham Castres, in one of [his] letters, that he felt he had obtained this, and it had cost him ‘some pains to thaw the ice.’”

Of course, some of this ice-thawing was a bit less voluntary. As Berridge points out, in the wake of the Treaties of Tientsin in 1858 and the Conventions of 1860, China seemed to have no choice but to allow foreign legations in Peking. “The uncomfortable but unavoidable corollary of this,” Berridge writes, “was the formation for the first time of a Chinese foreign ministry, the Tsungli Yamen, to deal with the barbarians.”

The right sort of ambassador, one capable of navigating these tricky shoals, could sometimes become close to a ruler, flattering him, providing him with news and gossip, and “at a rocky moment setting his heart aglow by whispering in his ear the word ‘pension.’” This kind of intensely personal element was an important and often under-chronicled aspect of the job, and Berridge’s decision to fill his book so delightfully with personalities brings it right into the spotlight where it belongs. And against the charge that diplomatic embassies have been rendered obsolete in an age where national leaders can pick up an encrypted cell phone and talk with each other directly (and even conduct illicit deals by dismissing all of their countrymen from the conversation ahead of time), Berridge is predictably bullish, noting that embassies still have plenty of their elusive interpersonal work to do, smoothing out official negotiations, gently lobbying for official counterparts to listen to the better angels of their natures, putting a whispered word of advice in just the right ear.

“Diplomacy,” Berridge wonderfully sums up, “is the art of conducting business between states without resort to force, propaganda or law,” and Outposts of Diplomacy so entertainingly dramatizes this shop-talk world that readers will be wishing the book were three times its length.

Anonymous, Publisher’s Weekly, April 2024

Political scientist Berridge (Diplomacy) provides a broad overview of diplomacy’s cornerstone—the resident embassy. Noting that the first embassies appeared during the Renaissance as “Italy’s five great powers”—Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples, and the papacy—sought to end years of fighting, Berridge describes the original career ambassadors as gentry-born lawyers and ecclesiastics who lived abroad without family. In the 16th century, envoys began bringing their wives to foreign posts, where they became “indispensable” as household managers and casual spies. Berridge’s approach is mostly categorical, highlighting various aspects of the institution, such as the importance of “plate” (the ambassador’s tableware) and different embassy styles, from the walled fortress (examples of which include the British “Legation Quarter” built in Beijing after the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and the U.S. “Green Zone” established in Baghdad following the 2003 invasion) to today’s makeshift mini-embassies (basically just an envoy working on a laptop). The narrative also traces a somewhat vague yet informative trajectory of modern diplomacy’s highs and lows, from Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, through “unsavory” Cold War affairs like the U.S. embassy’s role hosting the CIA station that orchestrated the 1973 overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende, to the current rise of “transnational repression” via embassies, like Saudi Arabia’s in London, that surveil and harass dissidents abroad. Crammed with trivia, this will appeal to political history buffs. Illus.