No one knows better about the relations between two countries than their diplomats. Instructed, educated women and men, they have represented their countries in times of peace and war, assuming some of the most difficult negotiations with some of the world’s most powerful leaders throughout history. Malcolm Toon for instance, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Cold War was the person who negotiated SALT II with Leonid Breshnev, an agreement about arm control between the two most powerful countries of the planet.
Being a diplomat is not an easy task
Historically speaking, diplomats existed way before 1945 and although I know nobody is particularly interested in the history of diplomats let me just say that in Ancient times the professional diplomats enjoyed far more privileges than they do now. History textbooks disregard the history of diplomats and the negotiations that happened all throughout mankind history, but they always existed and some of them might have implications that we do not even remotely suspect. If we were to trace the beginnings of modern diplomacy, that would be with the peace treaty of Westphalia of 1648. Since the work would be too laborious and the argument would lose its essence, I decided to set my orientation point to 1945.
Throughout modern history, when a country decided to go at war with another country, it did not express the beginning of war via radio, journals or tweets – the official announcement was made through a letter where the ambassador or the consul of the state targeted was being informed that the relations between the two countries has been suspended. Next, the ambassadors or consuls were asked to immediately leave the host country. Of course, today as opposed to pre-1945 world system, we no longer have all-out wars in Europe. The great award for this belongs to the European Union, NATO and the United Nations.
The world did not always look like today
In 1945 when the Second World War ended, the world looked significantly different than it does now. States were the only global actors back then and whatever state had power, it had the leverage. Nowadays the world sure looks a lot more different. Besides state actors, we have managed to build strong international organizations for various purposes – the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on. States are no longer the only actors on the international stage. The world is a system that operates within a far more complex environment than it did several decades ago.
From the Second World War onwards we were successful in modifying a whole lot of the way state actors operate on the international stage – we did a lot to limit capabilities of states to act on their own. We aimed to achieve a world of peace and prosperity where the biggest goal was to prevent a new World War from ever happening again. We wrote rules, conceived a system of sanctions and perhaps the biggest success of them wall was that we actually created one organism to which the overwhelming majority of world states adhered to – the United Nations. And when we had everybody on board we created a little magic book called the UN Charter, to which everybody agreed with. The great minds that envisaged the system at Breton Woods and Yalta created a piece of art whose strongest point is the way the Security Council works.
However, the great minds of Breton Woods could not foresee that the Second World War would end with the a very bizarre one between US and USSR– the Cold War. There was a moment during the Cold War that international relations scholars refer to as the ‘hot Cold War’ when confrontation seemed inevitable. As relations between Washington and Moscow were rapidly deteriorating, the fear of MAD was lurking around everywhere. Mistrust and lack of communication between the two administrations had led the entire planet on the brink of despair. One year before the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 the United Nations was working very hard to make the West and the East come together in an open dialogue. It was the moment of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a text whose legitimacy was built on the UN Charter and on its goals to maintaining international peace and security and “the promotion of friendly relations among states.”
In 1963 when the world was just gathering its thoughts on the imminent threat of nuclear armament, a second Holy Grail of international relations was authored by the UN: the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The texts of 1961 and 1963 catch between them the moment that we as human species and astrological presence got the closest to destruction we could ever be. Although at first sight, the correlation between the Convention and the Cuban missile crisis might escape the eye, there is a deep underlying significance carried by them.
Where to from here?
I started this article with the recent UK-Russia situation in mind. As I tried to historicize the event (to ascribe significance to place, time and culture) I observed that this expulsion of diplomats is happening for the first time after 1945. What significance can we ascribe to it? Does it mean that we are headed towards a new cold war? Many titles were asking the same question. Most certainly the answer is no, or at least not on European territory and not like the Cold War was. European states have figured out in the meanwhile that wars are not profitable and if there is one thing everyone can agree on it’s the benefits of trade in an open market system. Although wars create jobs in the armament manufacturing industry, they are no mean of sustainable economic growth on the long run. The last wars we had in the 20th century here in Europe were a complete disaster for the economies of all states involved.
However, we should expect an escalation of conflicts in the proxies. There are places in the world where we find ourselves on different barricades than Russia; Syria is one of the cases. We should also expect growing dissensions within the Security Council. China will play an important part here and it has the chance to play some cards really well in the equation. It could negotiate with Russia some support for some of its dossiers of interest or it could play the role of mediator between US-UK-France and Russia. The European Union could also play an important role in negotiating with China some deals that Beijing wants to see through and attract the Chinese on European side. At the end of the day, we need not worry, the diplomats will handle everything.
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Here is a short list of other relevant articles to the topic and book references that I used as an inspiration:
Linda S. Frey and Marsha L. Frey – The History of Diplomatic Immunity, Ohio State University Press, 1998
Robert F. Kennedy – Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999
Jimmy Carter – “United States Ambassador to the Soviet Socialist Republics” in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United states: Jimmy Carter, 1977
Marvin Kalb – Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War, Bookings Institution Press, Washington, 2015
Joel Wuthnow – Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council. Beyond the veto, Routledge, 2013
Paul J. Bolt and Sharyl N. Cross – China, Russia and Twenty-First Century Global Geopolitics, Oxford University Press, 2018
Cover: Rene Burri – SWITZERLAND. Zürich-Kloten airport. LE CORBUSIER has just flown in from from Chandigarh with an Air India Superconstellation. 1960.
In-text image: Rene Burri – SWITZERLAND. Glaris County. During the “Landsgemeinde” consultative County assembly. 1955.