Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 5th ed.  –  Online updating pages

Chapter 8: Embassies

p. 117, agrément: Recent publicity (see Choe and McCurry in Further reading below) about the hostile reaction in South Korea to Harry Harris, appointed as US ambassador at Seoul by Donald Trump in June 2018, reminded me of a useful point to add here. To secure the ready agreement of receiving states to the appointment of new ambassadors and ensure they have a good chance of being successful, not least in their public diplomacy, it’s generally been thought expedient – unless there is some larger issue at stake and a rebuff can be shrugged off – to choose an individual whose background and personal characteristics are as much as possible in harmony with the political and religious reflexes of the governments and wider societies of their hosts; or at least not manifestly at odds with them. Hence Catholics to the Vatican, a man rather than a woman to Muslim states, Ottoman Christians from the Sultan to Britain in the nineteenth century, an African-American to South Africa when the writing was on the wall for apartheid, and so on. One is bound to ask, therefore, whether it was really a good idea for Donald Trump, at a time of serious tensions between Japan and South Korea, to send to Seoul as US ambassador not only a Japanese-American but also one with a moustache that made him resemble a Japanese governor-general of less than fond memory anywhere on the Korean peninsula. But, then, when did the Donald ever have a good idea?

pp. 117-18, localitis: a drastic way of making it unlikely that this ‘disease’ will be caught is to recruit diplomats from those with a highly developed sense of superiority relative to the people of the host state and then to curtail their contacts with them, methods readily assisted by the provision of staff housing as well as embassy buildings within walled compounds. A grim picture of this sort of arrangement at the Soviet mission in Rangoon in the late 1950s is vividly described by Aleksandr Kaznacheev (see Further reading below).

p. 119, line 12 up, ‘… the embassy’s premises’: With the permission of the receiving state, even the normal embassy is reluctantly allowed by Article 12 of the VCDR to have what are now usually called ‘branch offices’, even though the circumstances that produce them are often unusual. In principle, I believe that these should have the same privileges and immunities as the main part of the mission. Good examples at the time of writing December 2020) are provided by the branch office at Gaziantep (Turkey) of the US Embassy at Ankara, the branch office at Banja Luka (Bosnia Herzegovina) of the US Embassy at Sarajevo, and the branch office at Dubai (UAE) of the British Embassy at Abu Dhabi. Sometimes, however, a receiving state will only permit a branch office if the privileges and immunities of its staff are restricted to some degree; see my post here.

p. 120, the ‘country team’: The control of an ambassador over the embassy also tends to be weakened by the greater ease with which specialist attachés can now communicate directly with their home ministries by means of the new technology (discussed in the previous chapter; see esp. p. 112). The US ambassador to Mexico (1998-2002) expressed this point with great feeling in his ADST interview (Davidow: 127; see Further reading)

p. 120, LE staff: In drawing attention to the difficulties LE staff might face in a country with a hostile government, I should have said that, because of the even greater difficulties that home-based staff will themselves be likely to face in such a state – particularly in making new contacts and arranging travel plans in order to keep tabs on what is going on – local employees will on balance remain more important than ever in these circumstances. This point was emphasised by the 2012 OIG Report on US Embassy Caracas (p. 7)

p. 121, Having a resident embassy also enables a state to underline publicly its disapproval of a receiving state’s action by the relatively harmless expedient of temporarily withdrawing its ambassador ‘for consultations’, leaving a number two as chargé d’affaires. A recent example is provided by the announcement of the recall of the Australian Ambassador from Indonesia, Paul Grigson, at the end of April 2015 (he left on 3 May) in protest at the execution on Anzac Day by firing squad of two Australian citizens convicted many years earlier of drug offenses but whom Canberra maintained had since been completely rehabilitated. Predictably but probably unwisely making light of this, the Indonesian Attorney-General was quoted as saying that recently the Netherlands and Brazil had done the same sort of thing and that the affair would only be ‘momentary’. On Grigson’s return, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that in 2013 the Indonesian government had withdrawn its own ambassador from Australia (for six months) in anger at revelations of Australian espionage in its country, and that – although not unusually prone to use the device – Canberra had employed it against other countries five times since 1982.

pp. 122-3, Clarifying intentions: An interesting if unusual example of this is provided by the role of the British perm rep to the EU relative to prime minister Johnson’s unsigned letter to the EU of 19 October 2019 requesting a three month Brexit extension. I have written a post about this here.

p. 123, Reporting home (aka information gathering): ambassadors glean a great deal of their information by trading it with senior foreign ministry officials; see my April 2019 review of Zeki Kuneralp’s  Diplomatic Note books 1 on this page of my website (para. 3).
An interesting footnote on this function is the unusual challenge faced by embassies in Washington in gaining information on the thinking on likely future policy and priorities of Joe Biden and his closest advisers during the 2020 presidential election campaign. According to a report in The New York Times of 29 October 2020, so sensitive was the Biden team to the need to avoid the charge of allowing foreign influence to penetrate its ranks – especially because of the mileage obtained by Trump’s people from the links to Ukraine of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter – that its members were forbidden to have any contacts with foreign diplomats. This also made it difficult for them to forge or consolidate contacts with individuals likely to have important posts in the administration should Biden defeat Trump, as seemed very likely. The Biden team’s attitude was a backhanded compliment to embassy effectiveness.

p. 124, Intervention in the political affairs of the receiving state: While we are on the US Embassy in Caracas (see note on p. 120 above), its recent role in this regard should be regretfully noted, i.e. in supporting, even if only indirectly and by nods and winks, those seeking the removal of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela by coup d’état in April 2002 (their success was only short-lived). It seems that the chief US support for Chavez’s opponents on this occasion was provided directly from Washington, but it is striking that, as noted in the 2012 OIG Report on the embassy, its ‘first priority’ remains to meddle in Venezuelan affairs … sorry, ‘to preserve and strengthen democracy’ in the country; see also Falk and Friel in Further reading below. It is hardly surprising that in early 2015 the government of Chavez’s political heir, Nicolás Maduro, should have demanded a swingeing reduction in the size of this massive embassy, the staff numbers of which were redacted from the OIG report (see p. 19).

p. 124, subsidiary functions: a classified CIA report of 1983 noted that, in striving to acquire sensitive materials for its nuclear weapons programme, ‘Pakistan, for example, frequently deals through dummy firms set up by their procurement officers who operate under diplomatic cover out of Pakistani embassies in Western Europe’ (Directorate of Intelligence, ‘The “Gray Market” …’, p. 3; see Further reading below).
For some reason, in revising the 4th ed I deleted another unsavoury function of the embassies of some states: the surveillance and intimidation of exiled opposition groups (Testimony … See Further reading below).

I should add two further reasons for the survival of the normal embassy. First, there is the time-honoured value of the opportunity it provides to governments for rewarding with ambassadorships either political allies who seek such posts (a common American reflex, see Guardian and Sydney Morning Herald articles below) or rivals thought to be less of a risk if safely installed abroad under the watchful eye of other members of the mission – a form of honourable exile. A vintage example of this is provided by the appointment of Alexander Dubček as Czechoslovak ambassador to Turkey following the squashing by Soviet tanks in August 1968 of the reform movement – ‘the Prague Spring’ – of which he was the figurehead. Among an abundance of other examples is the rash of appointments of this sort made by the Sudanese government in the mid-1990s (Berridge, W. J.). Second, and probably more important, there is the embassy’s usefulness to corrupt politicians and officials (and their cronies); for example, in money laundering, smuggling via the diplomatic bag, and the selling of visas. This sort of abuse is particularly prevalent in the missions of states where corruption in government service is normal and the more so when missions are poorly administered and their staff are political appointees and/or demoralized (google “corrupt embassies”).

Further reading: additions and links