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Book VIII Envoi, 36 Advice To Diplomats

Ivor Roberts, Emyr Jones Parry

From: Satow's Diplomatic Practice (7th Edition)

Edited By: Sir Ivor Roberts

From: Oxford Public International Law (http://opil.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 08 June 2023

Consular relations — Consulates — Diplomatic relations — Diplomatic protection — Governments

(p. 677) 36  Advice To Diplomats

36.1  François de Callières’s (1645–1717) classic work De la manière de négocier avec les souverains,1 including his observations on the qualities necessary for the profession of a diplomat, though made exactly 300 years ago, still has a good deal to commend it. A brief summary of the main points is given here. In modern days, methods of diplomacy are certainly less subtle and tortuous than were those of the past; while the rapidity of communication now enables a negotiator to remain in constant touch with his government throughout. But national character and human nature have not changed to any appreciable extent. Callières’s advice is summarized as hints that should prove useful to younger diplomats and as a suitable introduction to the present chapter:

A good negotiator should have enough self-control not to speak without having asked himself what he has to say. He shouldn’t fall into the error of a famous ambassador of our times who was so intemperate in debate that he revealed secrets in order to support his arguments.

He shouldn’t err in the other direction by making a secret out of nothing and by being incapable of distinguishing between matters of importance and trifles.

One calls an ambassador an honourable spy as he tries to discover the secrets of the Court where he is accredited and he should spend what is necessary to pay those who can tell him.

(p. 678) A good negotiator should never base a successful negotiation on false promises or bad faith. Craftiness is an illustration of smallness of mind and an indication that the person hasn’t enough intellectual breadth to achieve his aims by fair and reasonable means.

A man who displays self-possession and calmness under pressure has a great advantage in negotiation over a man who is lively and fiery. To succeed in this profession, you need to speak much less than to listen: you need phlegm, reserve, plenty of discretion and patience.

A wise and capable negotiator needs to adjust himself to the habits and customs of the country where he lives without showing repugnance or contempt for them. He shouldn’t publicly criticize the form of government he finds [Ed. unless that is a clear instruction from his own government]; indeed he should praise what is good about the country’s form of government as no country’s governance has a monopoly of good points.

He should know or learn the history of the country where he is resident and so recount the great deeds of the ancestors of the country’s leaders or indeed their own deeds which will incline them to look kindly on the negotiator.

It’s more of an advantage for a negotiator to carry out his business orally. This way he has more opportunity to discover the feelings and aims of his interlocutors and to put over his own arguments more forcefully.

One of the greatest secrets of negotiating is knowing how to distil drop by drop into the mind of interlocutors the matter of which one wants to persuade them [Ed. so that the interlocutor himself comes to a different view].

There is hardly anyone who wants to admit to being wrong or having made a mistake or who will give up his opinions in favour of yours if all you ever do is contradict him, however good your reasons. There are however many who will give up some of their opinions where you can find arguments which flatter their amour propre and advance their own interests thus justifying their change of view … one should avoid bitter and obstinate discussions with Princes and their ministers but reason with them without passion and without always wanting to have the last word.

36.2  A century later the first Earl of Malmesbury2 wrote to Lord Camden, at the latter’s request, on his nephew, Mr James, being destined for the foreign service:

Park Place, April 11, 1813.

My Dear Lord,

It is not an easy matter in times like these, to write anything on the subject of a Foreign Minister’s conduct that might not be rendered inapplicable to the purpose by daily events.3 Mr. James’ best school will be the advantage he will derive from the abilities of his Principal, and from his own observations.

The first and best advice I can give a young man on entering this career, is to listen, not to talk—at least, not more than is necessary to induce others to talk. I have in (p. 679) the course of my life, by endeavouring to follow this method, drawn from my opponents much information, and concealed from them my own views, much more than by the employment of spies or money.

To be very cautious in any country, or at any court, of such as, on your first arrival, appear the most eager to make your acquaintance and communicate their ideas to you. I have ever found their professions insincere, and their intelligence false. They have been the first I have wished to shake off, whenever I have been so imprudent as to give them credit for sincerity. They are either persons who are not considered or respected in their own country, or are put about you to entrap and circumvent you as newly arrived.

We should be most particularly on their guard against such men, for we have none such on our side of the water, and are ourselves so little coming towards foreigners, that we are astonished and gratified when we find a different treatment from that which strangers experience here; but our reserve and ill manners are infinitely less dangerous to the stranger than these premature and hollow civilities.

To avoid what is termed abroad an attachement. If the other party concerned should happen to be sincere, it absorbs too much time, occupies too much your thoughts; if insincere, it leaves you at the mercy of a profligate and probably interested character.

Never to attempt to export our own habits and manners, but to conform as far as possible to those of the country where you reside—to do this even in the most trivial things—to learn to speak their language, and never to sneer at what may strike you as singular and absurd. Nothing goes to conciliate so much, or to amalgamate you more cordially with its inhabitants, as this very easy sacrifice of your national prejudices to theirs.

To keep your cypher and all your official papers under a very secure lock and key; but not to boast of your precautions, as Mr Drake did to Mehée de la Touche.

Not to allow any opponent to carry away any official document, under the pretext that he wishes ‘to study it more carefully;’ let him read it as often as he wishes, and, if it is necessary, allow him to take minutes of it, but both in your presence.

Not to be carried away by any real or supposed distinctions from the sovereign at whose Court you reside, or to imagine, because he may say a few more commonplace sentences to you than to your colleagues, that he entertains a special personal predilection for you, or is more disposed to favour the views and interests of your Court than if he did not notice you at all. This is a species of royal stage-trick, often practised, and for which it is right to be prepared.

Whenever you receive discretionary instructions (this is, when authority is given you) in order to obtain any very desirable end, to decrease your demands or increase your concessions according as you find the temper and disposition of the Court where you are employed and to be extremely careful not to let it be supposed that you have any such authority; to make a firm, resolute stand on the first offer you are instructed to make, and, if you find ‘this nail will not drive,’ to bring forward your others most gradually, and not, either from an apprehension of not succeeding at all, or from an over-eagerness to succeed too rapidly, injure essentially the interests of your Court.

It is scarcely necessary to say that no occasion, no provocation, no anxiety to rebut an unjust accusation, no idea, however tempting, of promoting the object you have in view, can need, much less justify, a falsehood. Success obtained by one is a precarious (p. 680) and baseless success. Detection would ruin, not only your own reputation for ever, but deeply wound the honour of your Court. If, as frequently happens, an indiscreet question, which seems to require a distinct answer, is put to you abruptly by an artful minister, parry it either by treating it as an indiscreet question, or get rid of it by a grave and serious look: but on no account contradict the assertion flatly if it be true, or admit it as true, if false and of a dangerous tendency.

In ministerial conferences, to exert every effort of memory to carry away faithfully and correctly what you hear (what you say in them yourself you will not forget); and, in drawing your report, to be most careful it should be faithful and correct. I dwell the more on this (seemingly a useless hint) because it is a most seducing temptation, and one to which we often give way almost unconsciously, in order to give a better turn to a phrase, or to enhance our skill in negotiation; but we must remember we mislead and deceive our Government by it.

I am, etc.4

36.3  These antique examples clearly need adapting to modern times and supplementing.5 Diplomats need to know their own country; it is that country which diplomats represent and whose interests they are sent abroad to advance. Diplomats do not represent NGOs however laudable a particular NGO’s aims might seem. As diplomats abroad representing their country, it is assumed that the views they express are those of their government. Care should be taken to avoid personal views which can be wrongly interpreted as official views.

36.4  A diplomat must be on guard against the notion that his or her own post is the centre of international politics, and against an exaggerated estimate of the part assigned to that post and its staff. Diplomats should aim to understand how their work contributes to national objectives in the general scheme of things. (In this respect it is invaluable to have experience of working in one’s own ministry even in a different area.) While ministers and senior officials at home have the responsibility to decide what should be the main direction of foreign policy, and to gauge the relative value of political friendships and alliances, they should appreciate well-argued and proportionate advice. Conciseness and an ability to simplify knowledge will always be appreciated. It is of overriding importance to retain the confidence of one’s own capital while being willing to ‘speak truth to power’.6

36.5  Diplomats need to be conscious of the responsibility of representing their country. They should never give in to the temptation of a negative comment about (p. 681) their own government. Diplomats are there to represent it and their country’s values and to provide an accurate picture of their government’s views to the government to which the diplomat is accredited (the host government). The diplomat’s government will, however, even when there are sharp differences between governments, want to see them retain productive working relationships with the host government. If that breaks down, the diplomat’s value is much diminished.

36.6  Good diplomats will know how to target the right people. There is little use in cultivating someone on the way out or expected to be moved in a reshuffle. It is important instead to anticipate the more promising in the upcoming generation and cultivate them. While diplomatic colleagues from other missions should always be treated with courtesy and respect, it is often too easy to fall into the trap of reporting diplomatic corps tittle-tattle as though it were gospel. Direct local contacts will usually prove a much better source of information. And it is important to keep one’s network of contacts broad. Too much reliance on the institutional elites and insufficient attention to the views on the street and in the souk can blind even an experienced diplomat to political trends and even to impending major changes of régime.7

36.7  As the lesson of the Iranian revolution demonstrates, while it is a constant and invigorating challenge for any diplomat to analyse the country to which they are posted, the traps are numerous. In particular, it is essential to differentiate between the desirable from the diplomat’s government’s perspective and what is objectively likely. Hence the importance of getting outside the capital, listening to the concerns and interests of those outside of the establishment elites, and approaching official news sources with appropriate scepticism. In a relatively closed society, the diplomat may be engaged in an updated form of Kremlinology, scanning the papers for who is standing next to whom at national events. In other countries the challenge may instead be one more of selection: cutting through the noise to decide which economic measures, civil society leaders, or social media users are most insightful and influential. And if the diplomat has a resident spouse or partner with an individual life, and quite possibly employment outside the embassy, there might be few readier sources for out-of-the-ordinary local contacts.

(p. 682) 36.8  Spotting potential political upheavals is famously difficult. No capital likes an embassy that constantly cries wolf. But nor does any embassy want to miss a revolution in the offing. Particular care should be taken to recognize a deteriorating security situation. Foreign ministries will, or perhaps should, be focused on the security of their staff at post. And an embassy that is perceived to gloss over security concerns may be considered a boiling frog—that, is an observer unaware about how hot the water around it is becoming until it is too late. The surest and best way to understand a country is to get to know its language and in so doing to understand the feelings of the people; getting to know a country’s economy and energy relationships and dependence on its neighbours, its geographic diversity, even the background and context of the national anthem can all be a valuable part of pre-posting preparation. Once in post, it should be a priority to maintain a lively interest in the topics which are likely to be uppermost in the minds of one’s contacts; they are likely to enjoy conversation with a well-informed diplomat far more and be more confident in sharing information.

36.9  In negotiating with the host government, diplomats should always try to put themselves in the position of the person with whom they are negotiating, to understand their interlocutors’ psychology, objectives, and needs, and try to imagine what they would wish, do, and say, under those circumstances and consider their own assets in making a case: convening power and particularly soft power. Simple lobbying may well be appropriate but in terms of influencing public opinion, the modern diplomat may well choose to make use of social media to engage the local media and the civil society (see Chapter 27). Being aware of major themes trending in social media, like opinion polls, can be a help to understand local politics.

36.10  A diplomat should always take care to protect the dignity of the State which he or she represents. However, it is not always easy to avoid making mistakes in precedence and protocol in a foreign country and it’s generally unwise, if the victim of such a mistake, to attempt to make a fuss. Such mistakes are seldom made maliciously or deliberately. A sense of humour is often the best solution. (See also paragraphs 36.27–36.31.)

36.11  Diplomats should not hold commercial real estate, engage in trade or hold directorships, or speculate on the stock exchange in the territory of the host State. Such activity may well have a significant effect on privileges and immunities to the detriment of the mission. There is, moreover, the risk of judgement as to the financial stability of the State or of local commercial undertakings being clouded by personal interest (see Chapter 13, paragraphs 13.4 and 13.6). Diplomatic service regulations of some States (e.g. the US) prohibit investment by their own diplomats in companies or enterprises in countries where they are posted.

(p. 683) 36.12  In earlier times ambassadors enjoyed a wide discretion in the interpretation of their instructions, in case it became necessary to take a sudden decision, but in these days, when communication is virtually instantaneous, if heads of mission think that their instructions are not best expressed to secure the government’s objectives, they can easily ask for them to be modified. In doing this it will be important to explain the reasoning and suggest alternative wording.

36.13  Occasionally, a diplomat may wish to pass a copy of the instructions received to his or her host government. This requires considerable trust, and in doing so, great care should be taken to ensure that there is nothing in the instructions which is best left uncommunicated in writing or indeed orally. On the other hand, there will be occasions when it is advisable to leave a written copy of instructions so that no ambiguity can remain. The interview of the US ambassador with Saddam Hussein shortly before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 is a case in point. According to one school, Saddam Hussein would have inferred from his exchange with the ambassador that an invasion of Kuwait by Iraq would be regarded as undesirable by the US but would certainly not be regarded as a casus belli by that government.8 This was later contradicted by Tariq Aziz, who was present at the meeting as the Foreign Minister, and who claimed that there were no mixed messages and that the ambassador was there to receive a message from Saddam Hussein, not deliver one.9 Whatever the truth of the matter, misunderstandings can prove fatal. In critical circumstances it is not the job of the diplomat to make his message more palatable to the recipient. Any message, even if tactfully worded and tailored to the recipient, must always retain clarity so that it is unambiguously understood.

36.14  The negotiation of agreements with the host State requires particular care. In very many cases a delegation will be sent out from the home State to do the negotiating (p. 684) with the support of the local mission. But where the negotiation is left to the mission on the spot, the diplomat should take time to study not only the substance, but also the form and the drafting. If the proposal comes from the host State, the substance will obviously need careful checking to ensure that it meets policy instructions, but the diplomat will also be expected to try to avoid ambiguity or lack of clarity in the terms used, especially when the agreement is to be in the local language as well as that of the home State. And particular care may also be needed over the form if the intention is not to conclude a binding treaty. Other than in the most exceptional circumstances, the final text of any written agreement should always be vetted by the legal adviser to the mission, if there is one, before being sent back for formal clearance by one’s own capital and authority for signature. Further particulars about treaty form and substance can be found in Chapters 3132.

36.15  Reporting to the ministry at home is a key requirement. This covers the range of activities, negotiations, opinions on developments and political/economic prospects and much more. Brevity, clarity, and an indication of the importance of the report are necessary elements. Accounts should be accurate and avoid self-praise, while bringing out truthfully the role of the writer. If asked to advocate a particular policy, the account should summarize the positive points made, set out the reaction, and if opposed or criticized, bring out the arguments which the advocate used so as to make clear that instructions were robustly followed. This can be very helpful in the home capital. Senior staff in embassies should aim to encourage junior colleagues, help those learning the basics of the profession, and try to mentor by example. That should include pointing out pitfalls which may await a young diplomat. However, responsibility for more formal training invariably lies with the ministry’s central administration who will generally organize courses in such skills as drafting, negotiating with professional trainers, languages, consular practice, and international law.

36.16  The duties of the head of a mission and consuls in particular include also the giving of advice to their own country’s citizens when in difficulties, attending the scene of any major incident or disaster and, for example, intervention on their behalf when they are arrested and detained in custody, where they are the subject of rape and sexual assault, when there is a death overseas, forced marriage, child abduction, mental health cases, etc. Because diplomatic and consular staff cannot interfere in another country’s processes, the guidance to British diplomats and consuls is that they should not interfere in the legal processes that may be brought against their nationals. Representations could be made where proper legal procedures have not been followed or where the sentence imposed on them is excessive by international norms (e.g. death sentence, floggings) or there are concerns about prisoner welfare or medical provisions.

(p. 685) 36.17  It used to be the rule that without specific authorization from their government in high-profile cases (e.g. those of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi), diplomats did not occupy themselves with the interests of individual citizens of their host country.10 Now, however, interest in the human rights of the citizens of a country, and the behaviour of a government towards its citizens, is increasingly important for the diplomat and many Western embassies encourage their staff to engage with and support local human rights activists and defenders. An important adage, however, is to do no harm. Where prominent public engagement with a human rights group is likely to prove damaging to that group, it will be essential to ensure that no action is taken against their wishes. Heads of mission will be best placed to offer their staff advice on how public their support for NGOs and human rights defenders should be. Diplomats whose active and public support for NGOs and other human rights activists is deemed too provocative by the host government may find themselves expelled, declared persona non grata, which is neither to their mission’s advantage nor usually to the human rights group concerned.

36.18  The reader will by now appreciate that the art of negotiation is not new and that wisdom from the past is every bit as valid today as it was in the times of Callières and Malmesbury. The twenty-first-century psychologist may analyse what the skilled practitioner has always known instinctively. Negotiation is a dialogue made up of give and take, and diplomats will be poor performers if they are so full of their own ideas that they can only think about getting themselves listened to, and can barely bring themselves to listen in their turn. It is worth noting that this insistence on the virtue of listening is common to both Callières and Malmesbury. Perhaps the advice of the latter to a young man ‘to listen, not to talk’—at least not more than is necessary to induce others to talk—is a touch cynical, or at least too sweeping. Sometimes there is a long or complex message to deliver which may need clarifying. Sometimes, maybe, the other interlocutor has a legitimate wish to listen. Everyone knows the colleague who asks everything and gives nothing; and Callières warned against this too. Malmesbury has a good point for beginners; but Callières, aware of the strength of suggestion, recommends learning the secret of distilling ‘drop by drop’ into the mind of the listener the substance of which one wishes to persuade him.11 And it may happen that the advice to listen becomes more rather than less important with experience; the more one has to say, the greater the temptation to say it, whether appropriate or not.

(p. 686) The Nicolson Definition

36.19  There is one more classic statement on what a diplomat ought to be, say, and do, ‘the Nicolson test’:

These, then, are the qualities of my ideal diplomatist. Truth, accuracy, calm, patience, good temper, modesty, loyalty. They are also the qualities of an ideal diplomacy.

‘But,’ the reader may object, ‘you have forgotten intelligence, knowledge, discernment, prudence, hospitality, charm, industry, courage and even tact.’ I have not forgotten them. I have taken them for granted.12

36.20  It’s worth reflecting on ‘truth’. When a Soviet Foreign Minister told the president of the United States in 1962 that there were no Soviet missile launchers in Cuba, President Kennedy happened to have in his desk drawer a photograph of just such weapons. What could be his view of the Foreign Minister? Perhaps that of Aristotle who when asked what a person could gain by telling a lie, replied, ‘Not to be believed when he speaks the truth’. The incident did not change the power position in the world. It merely undermined one politician’s trust in the word of another.

36.21  The same comment could be applied to relations with the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein whose lies and deception both over his plans to invade Kuwait and his weapons programme meant that when he claimed in 2002 that he had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD), there was widespread scepticism. This scepticism led directly to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Similarly, Bismarck earned a dubious reputation when it became known that, by sending in 1870 the famous Ems telegram,13 a message deliberately economical with the truth, (p. 687) he had made sure that war between Prussia and France, a war he sought as the means to unify Germany, could not be prevented. As Bismarck himself put it, ‘The Ems Telegram should have the desired effect of waving a red cape in front of the face of the Gallic Bull.’14

Multilateral Diplomacy

36.22  For the practitioner of multilateral diplomacy, particular skills are involved. Unlike the classic bilateral diplomat, the individual representing his or her country in a multilateral organization will spend much of the time with diplomats from other States. Essential background is to know the rules, provisions of a charter or treaty which govern the organization, as well as much of the acquis of previous decisions. Familiarity with the rules of procedure which determine the conduct of meetings is also invaluable. Getting to know colleagues and where possible establishing a relationship of trust is also important. Obviously some key members are priorities, but it is best to have the widest range of relationships. No one likes being acknowledged only when a favour is being sought. These links are vital when it comes to identifying the bases for eventual agreement and securing coalitions to get the necessary votes. Understanding the position, interests, and aims of others is essential. In most negotiations, each of the participants will usually expect to derive some benefit from the final outcome. It is also wise to seek the advice of permanent officials of the organization, especially on matters of procedure. A simpatico member of a secretariat can be of considerable help as a source of knowledge and advice. While it is wise to be on good terms with the secretariat, diplomats, dealing with members of the secretariat of their own nationality, need to respect their independence and their responsibilities to the organization (see Chapter 16, paragraph 16.4).

36.23  In meetings, individuals represent their State and are assumed to be setting out formally the position of that State on the issue or proposal under discussion. It is therefore important to have clear instructions from the capital and agreement on how much flexibility the representative is to enjoy. As necessary, communication with the capital on developments in negotiations permits instructions to be updated or revised. Instructions can, of course, be interpreted in different ways. Positive constructive approaches always encourage a good atmosphere and help foster agreements. Perversely positive instructions deliberately presented in a negative manner can have the opposite effect.

(p. 688) 36.24  On the basis of instructions, knowledge of the issue, and appreciation of the views of others, the representative will set out a position. This should be done clearly, without polemics and remembering that jokes seldom travel well. It is useful to indicate in the introduction the points to be made, then to set out those points in some detail, and in conclusion summarize succinctly the arguments made. In this way note-takers will catch the points. It is often a tactical decision when to speak in a debate, and if there are interpreters involved, they appreciate having a written text where it exists, or a speed of oral delivery which permits a good interpretation. The role of the chair is important, as are relations with the chair. Understanding in advance what the chair expects to achieve and the intended conduct of business is vital to deciding how and when to intervene in discussion. If a written text is being discussed it is always an advantage to have influenced the content of the draft. In discussion, as necessary, clear amendments, often discussed in advance with colleagues, are tabled to help secure outcomes compatible with instructions. It is best to avoid ambiguous language, particularly in legally binding texts—the only exception perhaps being when limited constructive ambiguity may be the price of securing an agreement.15

36.25  Negotiations can take place in a quiet formal way or at the other extreme in a heated emotional atmosphere. At all times, the negotiator will do well to remember his or her instructions and the objectives which have been set. It does not pay to get carried away by the search for agreement and by the satisfaction of producing acceptable texts to overcome objections, if the result does not achieve what is required by the instructions. It is also salutary to remember that when the chair asks if there is agreement, that is the moment of maximum attention and the occasion to object if the representative believes the text to be in some way unacceptable to his or her government. It is too late to say no after the chair has pronounced agreement without any objection. If there is any doubt that the chair’s proposal is acceptable, given the instructions, then the best course is to make a reservation before the chair concludes. It is much easier at the next meeting to lift a reservation than it is to renege on agreement unwisely given previously. After agreement, or indeed lack of agreement, there is often press interest. It is always a good idea to have two or three points ready to brief the press, whatever the outcome, after the meeting.

Problems of Protocol and Precedence

36.26  A sure way of making oneself look foolish is to ‘make a scene’ about matters of precedence and protocol. In 1508 Dr de Puebla, the Spanish ambassador in London (p. 689) (and incidentally the first resident ambassador there) informed his successor that ‘it was his custom to attend court ceremonies when he was invited and to sit or stand wherever he was placed, since his business was to maintain friendship between his master and the King of England and he thought it would be ill served by making a fuss over trifles’.16

36.27  One should never forget that protocol is a means to an end and not an end in itself. As Sir William Temple, British ambassador to the Viceregal Court at Brussels, put it, ‘ceremonies were made to facilitate business, not to hinder it’.17 If protocol goes beyond this, then the proper sense of proportion has been lost, and that frequent phrase, ‘It’s not for me, it’s for my country’ has lost its integrity.

36.28  In the more informal diplomatic society of the twenty-first century, younger diplomats may feel an impatience with protocol and ask whether it is really necessary. Put generally, if no rules governed diplomatic and other official occasions, the problem of seating would be solved by a free-for-all with unfair results. In this respect diplomats would behave neither better nor worse than other human beings. Obviously in public life some people are more powerful or more interesting than others, and a seat next to one (or two) of them is both a privilege and an advantage. If there were no rules there would be pushing and shoving, and unscrupulous characters would, with whatever pretence of politeness, position themselves more effectively than other more courteous and less pushy souls. This would inevitably lead to much bad blood and the host government would rightly be criticized for letting it happen. At least, if the rules are followed, there is no argument. No one has been able to improve on the wisdom of the Congress of Vienna in assigning precedence according to date of arrival in post.

36.29  When host at some diplomatic occasion if in any doubt about precedence or placement, rather than trusting to instinct or to an ostensibly knowledgeable colleague’s advice, it is safer to consult the host government’s protocol department. It is their job to know and to advise.

36.30  Protocol in the shape of placement should not, however, be rigid. Suppose that, as can quite possibly happen, the balance of acceptances and refusals for a sit-down luncheon leaves the host in a situation where all the diplomatic guests outrank all the guests from the host country. To seat them accordingly would probably defeat the whole purpose of the party. In which case, adjust the placement to suit common sense, by mixing diplomatic and host country guests. It is (p. 690) now regarded as perfectly acceptable to vary protocol requirements to ensure that all guests are seated next to one person at least they can speak to in a language with which they are comfortable. The welcome and good humour of the host, together with explanations in advance as to what is intended, can help prevent any misunderstandings. It is also essential to take account of gender balance and be sensitive to the position of partners accompanying diplomatic officers, many of whom are pursuing their own careers and interests.

36.31  Sir Mark Young, when the Governor of Hong Kong in 1946 was faced with a guest who was aggrieved to find herself on Sir Mark’s left instead of his right. In response to her acid remark: ‘I suppose it is really very difficult … always to put your guests in their right places?’ Sir Mark blandly replied ‘Not at all, for those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.’18

Public Occasions

36.32  The real difficulty occurs when on a public occasion, or an occasion which will be known about publicly, a mistake is made by the host government or by, say, a diplomatic colleague, which could legitimately be thought to cause embarrassment or give rise to misunderstanding. The situation is particularly difficult to handle when the person whose position is adversely affected has only a few seconds in which either to object at once or to let the matter pass. At the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, Prince Charles was put in an embarrassing position by being seated, by the Holy See, one place away from President Mugabe of Zimbabwe and being surprised into shaking hands with him when relations between the United Kingdom and the Mugabe régime had reached rock bottom. It is best to avoid public fuss and the drawing of attention to the problem but the press aspects are important; better not to be photographed in an embarrassing handshake.

36.33  Strange events such as these are the oddities affecting modern diplomacy. In authoritarian régimes, it is worth remembering that, as on public occasions in such countries every detail of speech and conduct may be planned and watched with an eye to its potential use in propaganda, a diplomat should refrain from applauding an official speech unless it is understood, even though applause might be intended merely as a courtesy to the host government. The elementary principle recurs that the diplomat arriving at a new post must try to develop a feel for the way in which the host country manages its external policy.

(p. 691) 36.34  Diplomats who serve in the United States, will be conscious of the important and active role played by the Congress, and particularly by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the supervision of policy and the confirmation of US ambassadors. This perspective is reflected in those Latin American countries which maintain democratic government on the United States model.

36.35  In countries with political organizations of the French type, diplomats will find that they have to learn to understand and work with the so-called cabinet system.19 The minister, as in all governments, derives information and support from his or her department. But there is also a personal supporting team, consisting partly of officials and partly of people from political, academic, and professional life who, while familiar with foreign policy issues, are the minister’s personal eyes and ears as to what the rest of the government is thinking and doing. Contact with such officials can be particularly helpful for the diplomat.

36.36  Since the institutions of the European Union are based very largely on a Latin rather than an Anglo-Saxon tradition, it is natural that a cabinet system should prevail there; and the diplomat in Brussels, whether representing a Member State or a non-member, will need to develop relations with the cabinet as well as the department of any Commissioners with whom the post is in contact.

Internal Differences

36.37  Diplomacy, like any other worldwide activity, enjoys and suffers its own peculiar rewards and deprivations: against absorbing interest must be set the disadvantages of family separation and/or the negative impact on a spouse’s or partner’s career; against exciting variety, periods of unexpected monotony. Despite the many challenges and pitfalls, the young diplomat should try to enjoy the experience and privilege of representing one’s country and appreciate the opportunity to study and understand the host country. It is more often, with hindsight, the failure to take opportunities which is the cause of subsequent regret. On the positive side, some of the contacts made, provided of course that they are kept up, will prove some of one’s best lifelong friends.

36.38  There are, of course, aspects of personal relationships which can, at least over short periods, make or mar the good functioning of the diplomatic machine One of these, while common enough in other walks of life, has particular dangers in diplomacy. It has been called the Us and Them complex; and it can still arise even in an age when instant communication links the post abroad with the ministry at (p. 692) home. Honest differences of view between different diplomatic missions serving the same government, or between a mission and the home department, are unavoidable and indeed essential to proper analysis of future policy. But there is a dangerous by-product if such disagreement proves corrosive. It is only too easy to build up in an embassy abroad a picture of Us as hardworking, conscientious, and prompt, battling with a disobliging foreign government and a disagreeable climate, while They are living comfortably at home, taking their bureaucratic time over correspondence and callous about Our physical afflictions. Or, in reverse. We are commuting uncomfortably, cramped bureaucratically, and (to Our way of thinking) financially disadvantaged; why is this not obvious to Them?

36.39  None of this is unreasonable; its only fault is that, if it is allowed to grow, it is fatal, first to personal relationships between post and ministry, and later to the conduct of the diplomatic machine. The main responsibility for avoiding this development of the Us and Them disease lies with the head of the post or the head of the department. But no one should be unaware of the possible danger, or too lazy, or too timid, to do something about it when its symptoms appear. The search for the right way is one of the challenges to diplomats and to a diplomatic service. Neither total complacency nor total officiousness is helpful, and tattle is apt to be worse still.20 Disagreement on policy and tactics at the formative stage is helpful to identifying the best course of action, but once there is agreement or Head Office has decided, all should support that policy.

36.40  Most advice to diplomats falls under the heading ‘organized common sense’. But among the traps that can be difficult to detect without advice is the following. An abnormally heavy responsibility may suddenly be imposed on a young diplomat when an unexpected crisis occurs in the absence of the head of mission or leader of delegation. The young diplomat performs brilliantly, possibly in a way that attracts public attention. But while it is clearly right that the more senior colleagues should recognize and reward good performance, it is wise for the young diplomat to acknowledge that experience is the best ally of true talent.

36.41  But that is enough precept. Shakespeare should have the last word. No one is quite sure whether Polonius’s advice to Laertes is to be taken as parody, irony, or high seriousness. But to say to a diplomat:

… to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man21

(p. 693) is to get as near to the kernel of truth as this guide can travel. And if the diplomat, aspiring or experienced, who has read so far should feel overloaded with instructions and exhortations, some consolation can be found in Warwick’s exclamation:

Alas! How should you govern any kingdom

That know not how to use ambassadors?22(p. 694)


1  H M A Keens-Soper and Karl W Schweizer (eds) (New York: University Press of America, 1993).

2  James Harris, first Earl of Malmesbury, British ambassador at St Petersburg, 1777–82.

3  At the beginning of the nineteenth century reference to a Foreign Minister was usually to a diplomat not a political figure.

4  Diaries and Correspondence, Vol 4, 420.

5  A modern, comprehensive, and often entertaining account of what diplomats do and shouldn’t do is to be found in Brian Barder, What Diplomats Do: The Life and Work of Diplomats (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).

6  Variously attributed either to the African-American civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin (1912–87) or to a 1955 Quaker pamphlet of that name by Milton Mayer.

7  Sir Nick Browne’s influential report commissioned by the British Foreign Secretary on why Britain had failed to predict the fall of the Shah pulled no punches. ‘The conclusion that the embassy drew from their analysis [of the Shah’s position] consistently proved to be too optimistic.’ It had ‘overstated the personal popularity of the Shah … knew too little about the activities of Khomeini’s followers … saw no need to report on the financial activities of leading Iranians … [and] failed to foresee that the pace of events would become so fast.’ He went on to criticize Sir Anthony Parsons, the British ambassador to Iran from 1974 to 1979, as inadequately informed and had not sufficiently pursued contacts with the opposition to the Shah and in particular, supporters of Khomeini. As a result, he had ‘underestimated the attractions of [Khomeini’s] simple and consistent message that the Shah must be overthrown’.

8  According to an Iraqi transcript reprinted in the New York Times on 23 September 1990, Ambassador Glaspie said ‘we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late 60’s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via Klibi or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly.’

9  Frontline, January 2000, Interview with Tariq Aziz. ‘There were no mixed signals. We should not forget that the whole period before August 2 witnessed a negative American policy towards Iraq. So it would be quite foolish to think that, if we go to Kuwait, then America would like that… … So how could we imagine that such a step was going to be appreciated by the Americans? About the meeting with April Glaspie—it was a routine meeting. There was nothing extraordinary in it. She did not ask for an audience with the president. She was summoned by the president. He telephoned me and said, “Bring the American ambassador. I want to see her.”… … So, what she said were routine, classical comments on what the president was asking her to convey to President Bush. He wanted her to carry a message to George Bush——not to receive a message through her from Washington.’

10  See Chapter 17, paragraph 17.100.

11  Paragraph 36.2.

12  H Nicolson, Diplomacy (Oxford, 1939) 126.

13  ‘The Ems telegram was a report of an encounter between King William I of Prussia and the French ambassador; the telegram was sent from Ems (Bad Ems) in the Prussian Rhineland on July 13, 1870, to the Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Its publication in a version edited by Bismarck so as to purposely offend the French government precipitated the Franco-German War. Early in July, the candidacy of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a relative of the Prussian king, for the Spanish throne had alarmed the French, who feared that the extension of Prussian influence into Spain would threaten France. Leopold’s candidacy was withdrawn on July 12; the following day, the French ambassador to Prussia, Count Vincent Benedetti, approached King William at Ems to request an assurance that no member of his family would again be a candidate for the Spanish throne. The king politely refused Benedetti’s demand, and their discussion ended. A telegram describing the incident was sent to Bismarck. Bismarck’s edited version, which he published the next day, omitted the courtesies in the two men’s exchange and instead made it seem that each man had insulted the other. This touched off an intensified demand for war in Paris and Berlin, and France declared war on July 19. The incident provided the excuse for a trial of strength that was sought by both France and Prussia, but because of Bismarck’s dishonest editing of the Ems telegram, it was France that was the first to declare war. This circumstance helped enlist the southern German states to Prussia’s side in the ensuing war, which resulted in the unification of all the German states (except Austria) into modern Germany.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Edition.

14  A J P Taylor: Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (New York: Vintage Books. 1967) 121.

15  See E Denza, ‘Compromise and Clarity in International Drafting’, in C Stefanou and H Xanthaki (eds), Legislative Drafting: A Modern Approach (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

16  G Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (London: Jonathan Cape, 1955) ch 25.

17  Sir William Temple (1628–99), distinguished British diplomat and writer much involved in the succession of William III and Mary to the British throne in 1689. In 1669 he applied the principle quoted above in the brilliantly swift negotiation of an alliance to protect the Netherlands and Flanders against French pressure.

18  Empire Digest, February 1946.

19  In this context, the word ‘cabinet’ is always used with the French pronunciation.

20  For some comment on certain concrete cases, see P Gore-Booth, With Great Truth and Respect (London: Constable, 1974) 80–1.

21  Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3, 1. 78.

22  King Henry VI, Part III, Act IV, Scene 3, 1. 35.