Last week four of my erstwhile Foreign Service colleagues were murdered within a U.S. diplomatic post. While this shocking incident leaves me profoundly saddened for the victims and their families, it also leads me to despair over the state of diplomacy in general and over how we choose to conduct our own.
Let me explain: the institution of diplomacy dates back several thousand years, having started when one sovereign, wishing to treat with another, sent his emmisary to deliver messages and otherwise deal with the receiving king. In return, that monarch would send his own representative to the first king. The sanctity of the exchange of personnel was generally recognized and respected since to betray it could be to sacrifice both the bilateral relationship and perhaps the lives of the emmisaries exchanged.
Over the centuries the exchange of diplomats and the preservation of their safe stay and passage to and within the receiving country has been codified in various international treaties which most countries respect. Even when relations between the sovereigns are bad and reaching the breaking point the rules of diplomatic protection applies. Who could forget, for example, the 1941 photos of the Japanese Ambassador in Washington, having acknowledged the impossiblity of maintaining further relations with the U.S., saying his formal polite farewells to State Department officials -- this, only a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is no longer 1941! Post-Qadhafi Libya, with its ever-so-fragile government, appears both unwilling and unable to protect the diplomatic missions on its soil.
The situation we face in Libya is hardly new or unique. We know from experience that keeping communications open and exerting adequate influence in difficult and dicey situations such as we find in Libya can be done without creating the high profile we have in Tripoli and Benghazi. There have been times in the past when faced with establishing relations in a particularly dangerous setting, we have kept our diplomatic staffs to a few individuals and quartered then in a local hotel (preferably on the top floor) where they are difficult to reach and more likely to receive protection from the host government. We apparently forgot that rule in the euphoria of reestablishing relations with Libya.
In my Foreign Service career I was twice in embassy buildings under deadly attack by highly motivated mobs. In both cases I survived to help carry out the bodies of my less fortunate colleagues once the rioting stopped. In both cases Washington made the decision to reduce the staff of those missions severely and to relocate the embassy offices to less conspicuous quarters. (The decisions to do so, alas, came only AFTER the disastrous attacks.) Ironically, one of the riots I survived was in Libya! Perhaps I’m the only one still alive who remembers the lesson of that event.
So, to my point. In much of the world diplomacy today is not (and may never again be) that well-structured and formalized system which has prevailed for much of the past few millenia. Many of the world’s ‘sovereigns’ are not able or willing to play by those old rules. We must adapt to these new realities and not offer our diplomatic representation quite so quickly and with quite such abundance. Caution won’t cost us much and, in the end, provides the way to save the lives of our ‘messengers.’