Are Diplomats Necessary?

Brian Urquhart reviews Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite by Carne Ross, in the New York Review of Books:


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.”

The establishment of the international rules of diplomacy, including the immunity of diplomats, 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.

More here.