The firing-squad execution of two Australian citizens (and others) by the Indonesian authorities following their conviction on drags smuggling charges has caused official dismay and anger in Australia. And Australia has responded by recalling (withdrawing?) its Ambassador.

Here is an account of some differing views on how far this makes sense in such circumstances:

TONY ABBOTT: Not only does there appear to have been a form of double punishment here, but these two individuals are as rehabilitated – they were as rehabilitated and reformed as two people can possibly be.

JULIE BISHOP: Our concern centres on the fact that the apparent rehabilitation of Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran was not taken into account.

TOM IGGULDEN: In protest, ambassador Paul Grigson will be recalled from Jakarta.

TONY ABBOTT: It is very unusual, indeed unprecedented, for an ambassador to be withdrawn, so, I don’t wanna minimise the gravity of what we’ve done.

TOM IGGULDEN: But others in the Government are minimising the gravity.

BARNABY JOYCE, AGRICULTURE MINISTER: I don’t think it’s a case of withdraw. It’s – I think the technical term is coming home for consultations.

TOM IGGULDEN: So perhaps it’s not quite the step that it’s been made out to be, you think?

BARNABY JOYCE: Well it’s coming home for consultations, which means that we’re looking forward to the resumption of negotiated settlements…

But a similar move years ago in response to executions in Malaysia did not work out so well?

REPORTER (archive footage, 1986): Senator Evans carrying what amounted to an apology from Prime Minister Hawke on behalf of the Australian people. Dr Mahathir meeting Australians who he had at times characterised as arrogant and patronising.

GARETH EVANS, LABOR SENATOR: Everything that has been asked of us, everything that was expected of us has really been done.

REPORTER: Advisors had told the Australian Government that without the comprehensive backdown by them, the consequences would be serious. It seems certain that a number of large Australian companies were going to be shut out of the market. Amongst them, BHP.

TOM IGGULDEN: In the leadup to last night’s executions, one former ambassador tried to warn the current government off pulling the diplomatic trigger on Indonesia.

BILL FARMER, FMR AMBASSADOR TO INDONESIA: It’s a gesture that makes some people feel good for a day, but then it’s a real headache, a serious headache in a most important relationship for us for a long time.

Exactly. The professional nails it. The hapless recalled ambassador wanders glumly into his/her home Foreign Ministry. Then what?

Does Indonesia care that the Australian Ambassador is not adding Oz lustre to diplomatic receptions in Jakarta for a while? Maybe not. It might even be a relief not to have to him for a while, after his no doubt energetic and annoyingly persistent if not insulting representations on behalf of the doomed prisoners.

Plus, of course, the one person you need in post when things get sticky bilaterally is the Ambassador. Why have him moping round Canberra?

The real problem with withdrawing an ambassador ‘in protest’ is that it actually is a gesture of weakness, of faux toughness  You don’t want to do anything that actually hurts you or the other side, so you stamp your dainty diplomatic foot. Boo! Hiss! Now you’ve done it! We won’t talk to you! So there

Yes, that sends a public signal of your severe annoyance. But both sides know that, sooner or later, the top-level diplomatic dialogue will start again, with the returning ambassador not looking forward to walking back into the host Foreign Ministry to meet the smirking locals: Have a nice break? We thought you’d come back fast enough when we threatened to cancel those fat defence contracts! You people do have such lofty principles, don’t you?

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As the Internet appears to have devoured without trace a piece I wrote back in 2010 for DIPLOMAT magazine on this general subject of Diplomatic Withdrawals, here it is again:

Who does not remember the famous Monty Python Fish-Slapping Dance?

Two Pythons in safari outfits and pith helmets face each other beside a canal lock. One dances merrily towards the other, lightly slapping him on the face with two small pilchards, and returning to his starting spot. After doing this four times he stands stiffly to attention. In a traditional folk dance the other dancer would repeat these steps. But instead he produces a very large halibut – and clobbers his partner on the head, knocking him into the water below.

This sums up the diplomatic gesture of withdrawing Ambassadors as a sign of disapproval. A courtly ritual with no intrinsic significance, but capable of going wrong.

Back when diplomacy started, envoys were the personal representatives of leaders sent to convey private messages to other leaders. Recalling such an envoy was a sign of marked disapproval that the host rulers had gone beyond acceptable limits of courtesy or appropriate behaviour.

Back in 1661 French King Louis XIV was in no mood to participate in Pope Alexander VII’s plans for a Catholic crusade against the Ottomans, whom the king saw as a strategic ally in curbing the Habsburgs. He took advantage of a fight between papal and French guards near the residence of the French ambassador which caused the death of a French page. The papal government apologized for the incident, but King Louis XIV recalled his ambassador and seized Avignon and other papal possessions in France.

Rather later the French king blundered in proclaiming the son of James II (now in exile) to be King James III of England. King William III of England was unimpressed by that powerplay and recalled the English Ambassador. This and other machinations between Europe’s royal families led to the thirteen-year War of Spanish Succession.

Sometimes an Ambassador is recalled when the host government points out to his or her government that he or she has overstepped the mark, and invites that government to do the honourable thing. This is one step down from an open expulsion or even a full breaking of relations.

In 1915 this fate befell Ambassador Constantin Dumba, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to the United States. Washington found out that the Ambassador had been sending to Vienna plans to instigate strikes in US arms factories, using an American citizen protected by an American passport to carry such messages, “in flagrant violation of diplomatic propriety”. In vain did Ambassador Dumba seek to explain in a long letter to the US Secretary of State that he merely had been proposing to Austro-Hungarian subjects in the United States helpful ways in which they might contribute to defeating their enemies in the then War in Europe. Home he went.

In modern times the practice of recalling an Ambassador to make a firm point of protest seems to be getting more common. In 1972 the Irish Government withdrew its Ambassador in London in protest at the ‘Bloody Sunday’ shootings in Londonderry.

The former Yugoslavia offers a number of lively examples.

In 2003 the maritime dispute between Slovenia and Croatia deteriorated after Croatia announced an intention to proclaim an ‘exclusive economic zone’ in the Adriatic Sea. The Slovenes recalled their Ambassador to Zagreb for consultations and threatened to block Croatia’s EU membership application. It all got sorted out in 2009, when the two sides agreed to arbitration.

More recently Serbia has showed displeasure at countries which have recognised Kosovo as an independent state. Belgrade recalled its Ambassadors from Washington, Croatia, Canada, Norway and thirteen EU member states, and Ambassadors from Macedonia and Malaysia were asked to leave Belgrade. The subsequent election of a new government in Belgrade was a handy opportunity for the Serb Ambassadors to get back to post without too much loss of face. But on it went. Serbia recalled its Ambassador from Montenegro in January this year for a similar reason

These Serbian examples are instructive. A government recalls its Ambassador as a sign of protest. But … then what? It’s an oddly self-defeating gesture, since the only practical result of that Ambassador not being at post is that the Ambassador’s unique access and influence disappear too. No Charge d’Affaires can be as effective. The more so since the government to which the Ambassador had been accredited will want to make the point that if that Ambassador’s government want to downgrade relations, let them do it and carry the consequences.

Moreover, as we professionals all know it is a pain in the neck to have an Ambassador back at HQ for any length of time. An Ambassador in such circumstances has nothing to do but mope around the corridors of power, talking tough but wistfully wondering aloud when relations will be normalised again. This annoys people, second-guessing policy decisions being taken by the usual team of Ministry experts, and (worst of all) creates unwelcome extra work for the HR people dealing with Ambassadorial allowances. In short, a proud public gesture degenerates into being a private nuisance.

Yes,” muses the system after this has gone on for a while, “There’s no doubt about it. The best place for Ambassadors is at post, not here. Time to turn a new page!

Which no doubt explains why only a few weeks after Serbia recalled its Ambassador from Montenegro, the Ambassador returned to post proclaiming with faux loftiness (as if to make the best of a bad job) that Serbia was ready to ‘turn a new page in its relations with Montenegro’.

Not all absences end quite so quickly and smoothly. An example of a more sustained absence came in 2005, when Egypt restored relations with Israel at Ambassador level a full four years after withdrawing its Ambassador in protest over Israel’s handling of Palestinian issues.

Sometimes the threat of recalling an Ambassador is enough to get the point across. Israel this year was involved in an embarrassing diplomatic spat with Turkey, when the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister summoned the Turkish Ambassador to express official dissatisfaction with a TV series in Turkey which portrayed Israeli agents kidnapping a child. The Minister deliberately gave the Ambassador a lower chair and removed the Turkish flag from the table, pointing out these banal slights to the Israeli media who duly publicised them

Turkey furiously threatened to recall its Ambassador if Israel did not apologise. After some fast and furious public and private exchanges, Israel backed down gracefully enough.

Another vivid example setting all sets of precedents for diplomatic theory and practice came in Honduras last year, following President Zelaya’s ouster from power. A flurry of Latin American countries proclaimed that they were recalling their Ambassadors in protest, leading the European Union in July (to its eternal shame) to do the same. As it happened, the British Government have no Embassy in Honduras, covering the country instead from neighbouring Guatemala, so our Ambassador was spared participation in this indignity.

As most European Ambassadors based in Honduras were heading for their summer holidays anyway, this banal gesture meant next to nothing. And lo, they returned to Honduras again in September, their absence having achieved precisely nothing.

Of course it’s easy enough to withdraw EU Ambassadors when nothing too big is at stake. While the modest Honduras drama was unfolding, the European Union was notably more circumspect when the Iranian regime was violently suppressing demonstrations and arrested some British Embassy local staff. After airing the possibility of a mass recall of EU Ambassadors as a sign of protest against Iran’s behaviour, the EU concluded (rightly) that it was better to keep senior European diplomats in play within Tehran in such a volatile situation.

Other examples flow thick and fast, some more dramatic (and serious) than others:

In 2004 Mexico and Peru withdrew their respective Ambassadors from Cuba in protest at Fidel Castro’s public attack on them for voting for a UN resolution critical of Cuba’s human rights record. Mexico’s Foreign Minister said that “an act of the magnitude of the one by President Castro and of his officials in Mexico cannot be ignore.”

In 2005 Mexico also recalled its ambassador from Venezuela when Caracas said it would withdraw its top diplomat instead of apologizing after President Hugo Chavez warned Mexican leader Vicente Fox: “Don’t mess with me, sir, because you’ll get stung

In late 2009 Thailand recalled its Ambassador from Cambodia after Cambodia appointed former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic adviser, suggesting that his trial in Thailand had been politically motivated and unfair

Earlier this year Botswana recalled two senior defence and intelligence attaches from Zimbabwe, after three Botswana wildlife officials were arrested in Zimbabwe for crossing the border unlawfully in hot pursuit of lions which had attacked cattle in Botswana

In March this year Nigeria recalled its Ambassador from Libya after Libyan leader Gaddafi suggested that the time had come for Nigeria to be split into two new countries, one Christian and the other Muslim. The Nigerian Foreign Ministry put out a blunt statement of its own, denouncing what it described as Colonel Gadaffi’s “irresponsible utterances”: “his theatrics and grandstanding at every auspicious occasion have become too numerous to recount”.

Two final noteworthy examples show that sometimes the Human Factor is uppermost in these situations.

What happens when an Ambassador is recalled by his government but refuses to leave post? Indian diplomat Harish Dogra answered that question for us in 2006, when he refused to return home from New Zealand to face disciplinary charges and instead applied for political asylum in New Zealand, accusing the Indian Foreign Minister of abusing his human rights. After a few months’ eccentric to-ing and fro-ing, it was sorted out. He returned to Delhi.

Last but not least, in 1968 Britain’s Ambassador to Moscow Sir Geoffrey Harrison had an affair with his amply proportioned Russian maid, a KGB agent. She managed secretly to take photographs of him in bed with her. “I let down my defences ,” he wittily admitted, after being recalled.

Diplomatic Withdrawals can be fishy business indeed.

Diplomacy. The art of finding something wise to do when all good options are gone.