Here’s my latest article in DIPLOMAT magazine, mulling over the subject of diplomatic loyalty:
… the Libya case has given rise to a spectacular number of high profile diplomatic changes of side, with one Libyan ambassador after another announcing support for the opposition forces struggling to bring down the Gaddafi regime.
Whereas host governments might or might not commend the high principle shown by such a defection, unwelcome problems quickly arise if some diplomats in an embassy switch sides but others don’t. Who is running the local Libyan embassy for the purpose of carrying on routine diplomatic business? Who gets invited to which functions? Does a Libyan diplomat who has announced a switch of loyalty still get diplomatic immunity? What about the official embassy car?
What if the uprising fails and Gaddafi wins – must we throw these people out of the Libyan Embassy? Who needs all these complications anyway?
How these questions and many others are answered will depend upon local circumstances and, perhaps, the personalities concerned. The worst outcome from a host government’s point of view is the outcome we have ended up with, the Libya crisis in particular, violently dragging on with no obvious end in sight. The Gaddafi elite are clinging on to power despite NATO forces blowing up significant quantities of military equipment.
Could a worst-case scenario unfold, namely a de facto or even de jure partition of Libya, with unfathomable complications for Libya’s diplomatic representation at the UN and around the world? In short, the Libya drama exemplifies the greatest challenge to any diplomat’s loyalty to his/her country: what to do if the country slumps into civil war or even disappears altogether?
This problem was faced in acute form by Soviet diplomats when the USSR disintegrated in 1991. They had represented one massive state – what to do when the 15 former Soviet republics had each become a new country? For most diplomats born and raised in Russia, the choice was simple: stick with the new Russian Foreign Ministry.
But those diplomats born and raised elsewhere in the Soviet Union had a painful choice. Better to stay on in powerful Moscow as a Russian diplomat, or return to one’s home republic and hope for a role in the nascent and disorganised Foreign Ministry there? If the latter, would they be trusted by the new leadership?
Many chose to stick with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Thus in 1995 when Russia and Ukraine were haggling over the fate of the Black Sea Fleet, the negotiating team representing Russia included plenty of ethnic Ukrainian expert diplomats.
It ends on another interesting question:
Could we see a tumultuous test of British diplomatic loyalties in the coming years if Scotland holds a referendum and opts for independence? Recent SNP gains show the country may well be heading in this direction.
Will the FCO’s sizeable tartan army of Scottish diplomats vote to stay in London representing a reduced UK or will they go north en masse to help Scotland set up its new diplomatic service?
In either case, who will trust them?