Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 6th ed.  –  Online updating pages

Chapter 7: Embassies

p. 102, the VCDR: It is worth adding here that another corollary of the functional theory is Article 21(1): The receiving State shall either facilitate the acquisition on its territory, in accordance with its laws, by the sending State of premises necessary for its mission or assist the latter in obtaining accommodation in some other way. This article has been publicly as well as privately drawn to the attention of the British government by China in an attempt to gain its assistance in going ahead with its plan for a new embassy in London adjacent to Tower Bridge in the politically awkward borough of Tower Hamlets, as at 5 September 2023 with no success (see Wintour in Further reading below).

p. 103, middle para., corps diplomatique: The diplomatic corps has not always confined itself to defending its common professional interests. For example, in the early nineteenth century the Lisbon diplomatic body – whipped on by the French ambassador, Hyde de Neuville – acted decisively to protect the King of Portugal, John VI, from a coup led by his son. This clearly political act is told in revealing detail and with great gusto in volume 2 of the English translation of Hyde de Neuville’s memoirs (see Further reading below, begins p. 156 and continues in the following chapter).

p. 103, 3rd bullet point: the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran was not the only instance of this sort in which the theocratic (and internally divided) governing system of Iran was responsible for attacks on embassies and even individual diplomats outside their compounds. In 1987,  Edward Chaplin, the head of chancery in the British Interests Section of the Swedish Embassy, driving in Tehran with his wife and two small children, was forced to stop by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, hooded and handcuffed and held for 24 hours, probably in retaliation for the brief arrest of an Iranian consular officer in Manchester who had been caught shop-lifting. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) is evidently not compulsory reading for the Basij, the notorious paramilitary wing of the Revolutionary Guards, and in 2011, unhindered by the police, its thugs stormed and then ransacked both of Britain’s two compounds in Tehran. In 2016, Saudi Arabia’s embassy in the capital and its consulate in Mashhad received similar treatment. Jack Straw, British foreign secretary (2001– 2006), who has long sought to promote good diplomatic relations with Iran and greatly admires its people, nevertheless concludes in The English Job (see Further reading below) that its record for ignoring diplomatic law is ‘one of the worst in the world.’

p. 104, lines -7 up: Note that the EU is ‘the only international organization that insists its representatives are treated in the same way as ambassadors from sovereign countries, presenting credentials to heads of state’ (McDonald, Beyond Britannia, p. 52)

p. 105, last para, locally engaged staff: According to an article in The Washington Post of 3 December 2021 (see Further reading), Russian embassies and consulates are an exception: they employ no LE staff at all, relying exclusively on Russians.

p. 106, first line below box, ‘the embassy’s premises’: McDonald, recently permanent under-secretary at the British foreign ministry, notes a recent trend (at least in British embassies) of returning to the older (and cheaper) custom  of ambassador’s ‘living over the shop’ (my phrase),  Beyond Britannia, p. 246 (see Further reading below).

p. 106, lines 10–11 up, branch offices: Caution! Consular posts are often described as embassy ‘branch offices’, and in a general sense they are. However, this is misleading usage since consular posts are regulated by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963, whereas embassy branch offices formally so described (or as embassy ‘annexes’) are regulated by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 and possibly by special bilateral agreements as well, as in the case of US Embassy London’s Croughton Annex in Northamptonshire.

p. 106, embassy sections: Whether the Iranian Embassy in Beijing has a whole ‘technology section’ or not I do not know. However, it is confidently reported (see Karnitschnig in Further reading below) that it certainly has a ‘technology counsellor’, who in early 2023 has a leading role in negotiations to obtain  a key ingredient for the solid fuel that propels ballistic missiles. Via Russia, some of those made in Iran will end up, nose-first, in Ukraine.

p. 107, Box 7.2, last three lines: The charge against Anne Sacoolas was eventually dropped to causing death by careless, rather than dangerous, driving. To this she pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to eight months in prison suspended for one year. On the reason for her immunity and the implications of this affair for embassy branch offices and diplomacy in general, see my revised blog, ‘The diplomatic consequences of Mrs Sacoolas’.

pp.108-9, Box 7.4, The Health Attaché: Dr Edmond Fernandes of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center (see Further reading below) has advanced the view that health attachés should not be embassy attachés in the normal sense. Instead, they should be nationals of the receiving state with the legal status and limited privileges of honorary consuls. They should have a medical background, could be given short-course training in the broader diplomatic context (in addition to initial embassy briefings), and be appointed for five years in the first instance. On the face of it, this seems an excellent idea, at least for those states that have great difficulty in finding suitable candidates among their own people for this important work.
In connection with the same box, a few other points: (1) ’embassy doctors’ are now sometimes known as ‘medical attachés’, as in the case of the Saudi Embassy in Washington and the Qatar Embassy in London, where in both cases their chief function also appears to be arranging hospital treatment for rich health tourists from home (see Edelheit in Further reading below); (2) not all diplomatic officers with a ‘health’ focus have the rank of ‘attaché’. For example, in the UK permanent mission in Geneva (where the World Health Organization is headquartered) at the time of writing (July 2023), 4 of the 55-strong diplomatic staff were attachés bracketed ‘Global Health’ but so too was one second secretary, one first secretary, and one minister; see here.

p. 108, Box 7.4, line 4 up, ‘what used to be called “embassy doctors”’: This was careless of me. I should have added ‘… and still are.’ The need for this correction was prompted by my reading of Harald Lipman’s self-published Memories of Moscow (see Further reading below), on which I stumbled only recently. Lipman was formally 1st Secretary, Medical Adviser, at the British Embassy in Moscow from the mid-1980s until 1991. He was a general practitioner in his early fifties with a ‘smallish’ NHS practice and a separate private practice in Harley Street in London when he applied for and accepted the offer of this position, which had been publicly advertised; despite his formal title, he usually described himself as the ‘Medical Attaché’ or the embassy’s ‘doctor’. His role at the embassy was primarily to look after the health and welfare – and thus also the morale – chiefly of British Embassy staff but also of Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders; diplomats from other friendly embassies; some UK language students; the small UK business community; and important visitors. To this end, he had a dedicated surgery in the British Embassy with basic lab facilities and later a small dental surgery, together with the help of a nurse and secretary/receptionist recruited from the wives of diplomats. He was on call 24 hours a day but a weekend rota was arranged with the American and French Embassy doctors. Serious cases were usually medivacced to Helsinki and sometimes to London. By means of periodic visits, he also had medical responsibility for British embassy staff in Sofia and Bucharest, and by private arrangement cared for British Airways staff in Moscow. More generally, Lipman was also required to view and establish relations with Soviet hospitals and medical facilities. Notable in this connection – with the support of the US, French, Italian, German, Indian and Japanese Embassy doctors and the consent of the Soviet Ministry of Health – was his successful launching of the Moscow Medical Association, which met every six to eight weeks in an embassy or Soviet medical institute to discuss matters of common interest.

p. 109, line 4 down, ‘Supply, however, might be a problem’: I refer here to health attachés but it might have been at least as difficult – if not more so – to find doctors willing to serve in embassies. Evidence of this in the case of France is that, according to Lipman (p. 36), it was offered as an alternative to compulsory military service. (In France, military service had been compulsory for 2 years until 1962. In 1970 this was reduced to 18 months, to ten months after 1992 and abolished altogether in 1996.) Lipman himself was attracted to the post in Moscow in part because of his parentage (his mother was born in Russia and his paternal grandfather was Lithuaian) and his adventurous spirit, and it was relatively easy for him to take it up because his children were settled at university. On leaving Moscow in 1991 he resumed private practice in Harley Street while also serving as a Senior Medical Adviser in the Health and Welfare Department of the Foreign Office.

p. 113, line 8 down, advice on policy: It is significant that the importance of this function of the embassy is given considerable emphasis in the recent memoirs of Bill Burns, the outstanding American diplomat who in his retirement from the Foreign Service was made Director of the CIA by Joe Biden. He served chiefly in the State Department but also in two embassies, in each case in a relatively junior capacity before returning as ambassador: Jordan (1982–4, 1998–2001) and Russia (1994–6, 2005–8). He was himself prominent among those in the Moscow Embassy during the Yeltsin years who warned of the Russian anger certain to be provoked by the prospect of continuing NATO enlargement (particularly were it to include Ukraine), intensified as it was by a feeling in Moscow that it broke the promise of Secretary of State James Baker (1989–92) that there would be no extension ‘one inch to the east’ beyond the borders of reunified Germany. The Embassy in Moscow advised the consideration, albeit with only limited success, of ‘other forms of cooperation with former Warsaw Pact members, and perhaps a new “treaty relationship” between NATO and Russia’ (p. 92, see Burns in Further reading below).

p. 114, intervention in the political affairs of receiving states: A flagrant example of this is provided by the actions of Yevgeny Migunov, second secretary of the Russian Embassy in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, in early March 2022. The constitution of the country, already more or less a Russian vassal state courtesy of the mercenary thugs of the Wagner Group, should be amended, he informed the head of its highest court, so that the pro-Kremlin president could remain in office for life. Preparations for a ‘referendum’ to achieve this end were duly begun. See the long, detailed article on this by Cohen in ‘Further reading’ below, which also records how the embassy in Bangui of France, the former colonial power, is now seriously embattled.

p. 114, Box 7.5, line 10 up, Interpol Red Notices: It is curious that Major General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, a high-ranking police officer of the UAE, was elected President of Interpol in 2021 and will remain in office until 2025. I also see with interest from the London Diplomatic List (February 2024) that the UAE Embassy in the British capital has a Police Attaché and two Assistant Police Attachés declared on its diplomatic staff, although declared police attachés or liaison officers are no longer that rare in embassies and other diplomatic officers will certainly have similar functions but be publicly undeclared.

p. 115, lines 6–7 down, ‘… the time-honored value ..’: an unusual example of missions abroad being used for the purpose of honorable exile is provided by Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, French minister and consul-general of France in the United States, 1816–22. He was such a passionate, ultra-royalist that even Louis XVIII found him an embarrassment, and John Quincy Adams, US Secretary of State at the time, wrote that ‘His ardor became troublesome to the King and the Bourbon party itself, and he was sent here into honorable and lucrative banishment to let overheated passions evaporate.’ Confirming this, in notes that became part of his memoirs, Hyde wrote this of his amicable leave-taking from the French king: ‘The King extended his hand to me. He knew, as well as I did, that my appointment had been attributed to the desire to get rid of a friend whose frankness was sometimes troublesome’ (pp. 72–3).

p.115, The Fortress Embassy: Burns (see Further reading below) gives a useful description of the US embassy in Amman, Jordan, when he became its chief of mission in August 1998. This includes the detail that ‘The compound was about the size of six or seven football fields, and was surrounded by a nine foot wall’ (p.  120).

Box 7.5: The Saudi Embassy in London is not, of course, the only one to devote considerable resources to keeping its students on the true path, among other targets in the higher education sector. The Chinese Embassy, for example, according to the London Diplomatic List for July 2023, has six diplomatic officers in its Cultural Section and eleven in its Educational Section, and the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament’s report on ‘China’ of today’s date (13 July 2023, see below) notes that this embassy actively supports and at least partly finances the more than 90-strong network of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations on British university campuses. It is an open secret, as the ISC report confirms, that – together with the many Confucius Institutes – in addition to their more legitimate duties these associations have the task of exerting influence over their students’ behaviour.

Further reading

Burns, W.J., The Back Channel: American diplomacy in a disordered world (Hurst, 2021), pp. 501, with index; first publ. by Random House in 2019 as The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal [I have reviewed this for Diplomacy & Statecraft.]

Cohen, Roger, ‘Putin wants fealty, and he’s found it in Africa’, The New York Times, 24 December 2022

Edelheit, Jonathan, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Inbound and Outbound Medical Tourism- Interview with Medical Attaché’, Medical Tourism Magazine, 2023 and on YouTube

Fernandes, Dr Edmond, ‘Health attachés are the missing link in global diplomacy’, Issue Brief, 5 December 2022, Atlantic Council South Asia Center

Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, ‘China’, HC1605, 13 July 2023 – search ’embassy’ for interesting detail on some aspects of the work of the Chinese Embassy in London

Karnitschnig, Matthew, ‘Iran in secret talks with China, Russia to acquire sanctioned missile fuel’, Politico, 12 April, 2023

Khurshudyan, Isabelle and John Hudson, ‘Amid heightened tensions, Russia and U.S. make quiet breakthrough on staffing at Moscow embassy’, The Washington Post, 3 December 2021

Lipman, Harald, Memories of Moscow: Memoirs of a medical diplomat (Pectopah Press, 2020) [‘Pectopah’ was the name of their cat in Moscow.]

McDonald, Simon, Beyond Britannia: Reshaping UK foreign policy (Haus, 2023)

Meacham, Sam, ‘Weaponizing the Police: Interpol as a Tool of Authoritarianism’, Harvard International Review, 11April 2022

Memoirs of Baron Hyde de Neuville: Outlaw, Exile, Ambassador, trsl. and abridged by Frances Jackson, vol. 2 (Sands, 1914)

Pastor-Castro, Rogelia and Martin Thomas (eds), Embassies in Crisis: Studies of Diplomatic Missions in Testing Situations (Routledge, 2021)

Straw, Jack, The English Job: Understanding Iran and why it distrusts Britain (Biteback, 2019)

Toosi, Nahal, ‘America’s Last Man standing in Moscow’, Politico, 20 February 2022
A very full article on the US Embassy in Russia during the Ukraine crisis, with good links to other articles.

Westmacott, Peter, They Call It Diplomacy: Forty years of representing Britain abroad (Head of Zeus, 2022). This is a valuable memoir. Westmacott was an outstanding diplomat who could have risen high in other spheres but believed in the importance of bilateral diplomacy. He was ambassador to Turkey, France and the USA. I have reviewed this book for Diplomacy & Statecraft.

Wilkinson, Tom, ‘Typology: Embassy’, The Architectural Review, 9 December 2019. A brilliant and beautifully illustrated piece on the tension in embassy design between the desires to project a national image, flatter the locals – and stay safe.

Wintour, Patrick, ‘China’s new London embassy on hold pending Westminster intervention’, The Guardian, 11 August 2023

Young, John W., David Bruce and Diplomatic Practice: An American ambassador in London, 1961–9 (Bloomsbury, 2014). It  was stupid of me to have forgotten to list this valuable book. It is focused precisely on this important ambassador’s various roles relative to other diplomatic channels, exhaustively researched, full of instructive examples, and very clearly written.

Yovanovitch, Marie, Lessons from the Edge (Mariner Books, 2022)