Requiem for Gunboat Diplomacy

We won't even protect our diplomats anymore.

Africa has been the world's leading source of bad news for so many years that it's difficult for any particular horror to cause any surprise.  Another famine?  Happens every year.  Women and children being slaughtered with machetes?  Been there a dozen times.  Kleptocrats that steal any scant pennies their miserable subjects may happen to have, to line the walls of their Swiss bank accounts?  We'd be more shocked by an African leader who didn't.

Recently, however, the death-throes of once-promising Zimbabwe has thrown up a most unusual event, one with dire portents for the future.

According to the BBC,

Police in Zimbabwe detained US and UK diplomats for several hours as they investigated political violence there, US ambassador James McGee has said... Mr McGee told the BBC that five US embassy officials, two local staff, and four officials from the UK High Commission had been in Bindura, 80km (50 miles) north of Harare, when they were stopped by police.  When they refused to go to a local police station and drove away, they were chased, he said. Later at a roadblock nearby, police slashed their tyres.  The ambassador said so-called war veterans allied to the government had tried to forcibly remove the diplomats from the vehicles and, when they refused, had stolen a camera and a satellite telephone.  "The war veterans threatened to burn the vehicles with the people inside unless they removed themselves from the vehicle," he said.  A Zimbabwean driver working with an US embassy security official was also beaten up by the group, he added.

International law has never been as concrete as lovers of the United Nations like to portray it, but there are certain principles that have held force for hundreds of years.  Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the rule: Do Not mess with diplomats.

If a nation does not wish to host diplomats from another nation, they are allowed to demand that any and all diplomats leave, rounding them up and putting them on a plane or ship if necessary to ensure speedy compliance with a declaration of persona non grata.  But under no circumstances may accredited diplomats be harmed, arrested, or restricted in any way.

The rules against harming diplomats are so strong that even the Nazis, generally considered to be Ultimate Evil, obeyed them; there are countless records of Jews escaping under the cover of diplomatic papers from neutral countries.  The USSR routinely deported our diplomats when they discovered they were actually spies, but other than an abrupt trip to the airport, no harm was ever done them or even seriously contemplated.

A moment's thought will provide the obvious reason for this essential immunity: The only way to end a war or other disagreement is by negotiation, and in order to negotiate you have to talk.  Even if the two sides don't trust each other enough to sit down together, they can write letters - but somebody has to deliver the mail.

Centuries of experience have convinced almost everybody that it is absolutely essential for the good of all, for diplomats to have complete confidence that they won't be harmed, no matter what, even if they are in the middle of a war.  Otherwise, who'd want to be a diplomat?  Almost by definition, diplomats can expect to be sent in harm's way, and their work is essential for all sides.

To underscore the importance of this principle, any attack on diplomats or an embassy is, by longstanding international law, an automatic act of war.  This doesn't mean a war automatically results, but whoever is behind the attack had better come up with some serious apologies and compensation.

That is why, when the United States bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1999, China demanded and received full formal apologies and a big bucket of money.

On the other hand, when Iranian Islamic students invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, precipitating a hostage crisis lasting over a year, and the Carter Administration did nothing much about it, Iran has not hesitated to tweak our tail ever since.  We can see in Osama bin Laden's writings how that decision emboldened him and countless other terrorists against the United States - if we weren't even willing to go to bat for our own diplomats, when all of international law and tradition stood on our side, why should be taken seriously?

This knowledge of American wimpiness has now extended to darkest Africa.  Is it possible to imagine such an event happening anywhere in the world fifty years ago?  A century and a half ago, no indignity could be done even to a British subject who wasn't a diplomat: in the Pacifico incident, the British navy threatened to shell Athens when the Greek government refused to reimburse damages done to the offices of one Don Pacifico, a Gibraltar-born British national, by a government-sponsored mob.  Lord Palmerston, the foreign minister at the time, based his actions on the principle that

A British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.

In the same speech, Palmerston discussed an incident where a boat full of British seamen on a lawful mission were detained and mistreated by local soldiers - but were quickly released as soon as higher local authorities realized what had taken place.  Even in that case, the British government demanded a formal apology.

We can't help but contrast this with the time last year when almost the same thing happened in the Persian Gulf, and Iran took into captivity British sailors in international waters.  In that case, it was England that wound up doing the apologizing in order to get its sailors back - because Iran knew full well that the British navy wasn't going to do anything about it.  How are the mighty fallen!  But even there, Iran captured British soldiers, not American - perhaps they weren't entirely sure whether, perhaps, America still had some spine.

Robert Mugabe, the tyrant who misrules Zimbabwe, has clearly made his decision: no, America and England won't actually do anything if you rough up their diplomats.  It looks like he's right.  The Associated Press reports:

Speaking later in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the detention of the U.S. diplomats "absolutely outrageous" and said it was indicative of the "repression and violence" Zimbabwe's government is willing to use against its own people.  McCormack said the U.S. plans to raise the issue with the U.N. Security Council and directly with Zimbabwean diplomats attending a U.N. food conference in Rome.

No doubt Mugabe is shaking in his boots at the thought of receiving a nasty letter.  Not!

Until the Western world remembers the importance of projecting power in defense of their own citizens, much less diplomats, we can expect this to become more and more common.  The days of Westerners traveling with safety, even in benighted lands, are over.  Teddy Roosevelt, he of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, would be aghast.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
The Torture Party seems to have a convenient answer for everything. Unfortunately, life doesn't work out quite the way the Torture Party likes to think it does.
June 13, 2008 7:56 AM
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