My piece on the withdrawing by Australia of its ambassador to Indonesia following the execution in Indonesia of two Australian citizens described this move in rather uncharitable terms:

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! 

What are the negotiating dynamics here?

As I always say in my wildly acclaimed Negotiation masterclasses, negotiation is like Shrek is like an onion. It has layers. Skilled negotiators trade both within layers and and between layers.

Here as in most diplomatic stand-offs over a high-profile problem there are lots of layers:

  • drugs policies and punishment
  • public opinion in Indonesia
  • public opinion in Australia
  • global pressure groups
  • wider Oz/Indonesia relations
  • Reputation/Face
  • Justice

Others could easily be added. The point is that once the issue takes off and starts to become a subject for diplomatic representations and public pressure, it quickly escalates to Reputation. See also Assange. In this absurd case the British government’s maladroit handling of its diplomatic message to Ecuador contained an unwise hint of menace, and so allowed Ecuador to hoist the issue far up the flagpole of Heroically Defying NeoColonialism.

There it forlornly flutters still. Ecuador and London have not found a way to save face together and get things back to normal while also evicting Assange from the Ecuador Embassy.

In this latest Oz/Indonesia case, the Indonesians will have been pleased to crack a serious drug-smuggling case. Like many other countries they give the death penalty to people convicted in such circumstances, both to try to deter others and to set what they see as a high moral standard. If you are Australia (or Brazil) and your citizens get such a sentence in Indonesia, how best to respond? There are no good answers.

Let’s look at the options.

Doing Nothing

Oddly enough this might be as effective as anything else in getting a reprieve. If the Australian government quietly assures the Indonesians that it will simply wash its hands of the matter in public and leave it to Indonesian justice to prevail, that gives the Indonesians some flexibility to show magnanimity if they feel inclined to do so. But just as Doing Nothing is maybe the best chance to get the result you want, it (probably) is politically impossible in Australia as social media and other campaigners whip up a storm of protest. Politicians come under withering pressure to show that they are Doing Something – to show that they care!

Increasing Pressure

This can take many forms, but they each are obvious both to the pressurisers and the pressee. That’s the point of pressure. And no country wants to look as if it is acting under pressure. That sets a ruinous precedent for weakness, effectively outsourcing national policy to whichever foreigners make the biggest noise. That amounts to direct interference in our internal affairs. Impermissible in itself, and unsustainable in our own public opinion terms. Hop it!


The most explicit form of pressure is threats. Hopeless. Any threat worth making (eg to cancel some huge trade deal or block something Indonesia wants in a key international forum) risks having consequences and ramifications that far outweigh the lives of the wretched death row inmates. Or, at least, do not easily fit with the case in hand. It’s not an accident that governments are wary of linking X to Y for fear of things running out of control or setting a bad precedent for future dealings (“nothing is linked – but everything is linked“). And if you threaten X, are you in fact prepared to carry through with that threat even if it damages your own interests? Not easy in a democracy. The Russians are good at Threats because they have an almost masochistic glee in showing that they can withstand pain and self-denial far better than anyone else. Other countries? Not so much.

Making the Moral Case for a Reprieve

Again, almost impossible to do well unless you’re the Pope (and even then it’s hard to be effective when you are talking outside your own religious space). It usually comes with unmistakeable tones of condescension, and arouses all sorts of instincts against external (colonial/racist) paternalism and bossiness: We (naturally) have the vision and rectitude to see that you are in the wrong here – just do what we want and you’ll bask in the glory of agreeing with us!

In short, the key grim feature of this situation is that the more you do, the less chance you have that it will work.

Above all it is totally counter-productive to make strong public noises of pressure and protest, as that merely allows if not compels the object of your pressure to stand firm and/or otherwise plays into their hands with their own public opinion: We want to publicise the fact that we shoot evil drug smugglers. Thanks for doing that so energetically for us!


  1. Don’t smuggle drugs into countries where they shoot you for such crimes.
  2. If you are the government representing a citizen who has been foolish enough to get into such a mess, make all representations in small potent doses in strict bilateral confidentiality with NO PUBLICITY. Do what you can to get the families of the accused on board for such an approach. Not a guarantee of success, but in a weak position you need to give yourself the best chances for success.
  3. And, once all appeals have failed and the bullets have cut down the prisoners, don’t withdraw your ambassador. It adds nothing. The word is a tough place. You knew that this could happen. It’s happened. Senior channels of communication now need to be at their most flexible and efficient.