chapter  8
15 Pages

Diplomacy transformed and transcended

The idea that travel agents might one day supplant diplomats has not been confined to works of fiction. Lewis Einstein, who served as United States minister in Prague during the 1920s, speculated in his memoirs ‘that an international tourist agency like Thomas Cook could, with great convenience to the general public and considerable economy in personnel, rent and time, carry out most of the routine work of diplomacy jointly for many nations’.3

Likewise, the authors of a BBC investigation into the FCO suggested in 1984 that much of the work done by embassies in supplying assistance and information to businessmen and politicians could be subcontracted to neutral states such as Sweden and Switzerland. The latter had already made a ‘minor industry’ out of providing consular services in countries with which for political reasons the major powers had no dealings, and might be persuaded to tender for extra duties.4 Such recommendations, like those made by previous advocates of reform, were based upon the presupposition that embassies are expensive appendages of the states system, whose functions, though far from superfluous to modern needs, could in many instances be performed more efficiently by other agencies. After all, presidents, government ministers, their assistants and advisers meet and negotiate with their foreign counterparts within a matter of hours; they and their senior functionaries confer and converse by telephone; in most missions electronic and satellite communications have long since superseded wireless radio and cable telegraphy; automatic computerized means of transmission have replaced the laborious cryptographic methods of the past; and information is stored, and dispatches

drafted, on computers. The internet permits near instant communication between government departments at home and abroad, and simultaneous televisual link-ups offer an alternative, if not altogether satisfactory, medium for inter-governmental discussion. The assertion made by Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1970, that if foreign ministries and embassies ‘did not already exist, they surely would not have to be invented’,5 appears more than ever appropriate. Yet, if traditional diplomatic practices have in some instances been transformed and in others transcended by the emergence of new global actors and new mechanisms of political discourse, they have nonetheless persisted.