Are Diplomats Necessary?


Diplomacy is one of the world’s oldest professions, although diplomatic practice as we know it is a relatively recent development. Using ambassadors and envoys, often distinguished personalities of the time (Dante, Machiavelli, Peter Paul Rubens), was an accepted practice throughout recorded history. It was also regarded, in Europe at least, as “a kind of activity morally somewhat suspect and incapable of being brought under any system.”1

The establishment of the international rules of diplomacy, including the immunity of diplomats,2 began with the Congresses of Vienna (1815) and Aix-la-Chapelle (1818). The rules were a European creation gradually adopted in the rest of the world. Further international conventions update them from time to time. Diplomats have enjoyed a surprising degree of immunity from criticism for the often violent and disorderly state of international affairs.

The history of diplomacy abounds with double-edged bons mots on the nature of ambassadors and diplomacy: “honorable spy”; “splendide mendax“; “a process of haggling, conducted with an utter disregard of the ordinary standards of morality, but with the most exquisite politeness”; and the sixteenth-century Sir Henry Wotton’s famous comment, allegedly in jest, that “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”In Independent Diplomat, Carne Ross has little patience with the qualified admiration and curiosity with which ambassadors have traditionally been regarded. He tells the story of the disillusionment and rebirth—also in diplomacy—of a fifteen-year veteran of one of the most internationally respected diplomatic establishments, the British Foreign Service.

Many Englishmen, particularly of my generation, have an ingrained distrust, mixed with reluctant admiration, for the British Foreign Office, now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We remember the disastrous 1930s, the failure to impose preventive sanctions on Mussolini’s Italy when it invaded Abyssinia, or to oppose Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland, and the nonintervention policy in Spain. We recall the lack of response to members of the German General Staff who desperately sought British and French support in deposing Hitler while he was still relatively weak. My lifelong dislike of the word “unrealistic,” often used to discredit bold ideas, dates from that time. Perhaps equally unfairly, we criticize the Foreign Office for failing to head off hopelessly misconceived plans like the 1956 Suez expedition or the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Carne Ross’s book has a firsthand quality that deserves attention. Many of his criticisms and suggestions are by no means new, but his growing disaffection with diplomacy and diplomats should stimulate serious critical thinking about the conduct of international affairs. On the other hand, his use of generalized stereotypes does not inspire confidence.

To take one small instance, describing a coldhearted, hierarchical desert of diplomats and Secretariat members at the UN headquarters in New York, he writes that “to meet…an Under-Secretary of the UN, you must yourself enjoy an equivalent rank in diplomacy or politics….” I strongly doubt this. During the time of my mentor and predecessor, Ralph Bunche, and in the fourteen years that I was a…

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