For several centuries, the Ottoman Empire had a fairly peculiar custom. Each time the Sublime Porte had a falling out with another country, and war became imminent, the hostile state’s envoy would be thrown into the Ambassador’s Tower of Yedikule Fortress, or the Dungeons of the Seven Towers, which had the sinister reputation of being Istanbul’s Bastille. The envoy would be kept in the tower for months, if not years, until hostilities ended and a truce was signed. The level of comfort ambassadors received varied greatly, depending on their personal relations with the sultan and his retinue. Such escapades provided absolutely no benefit to Istanbul: a totally isolated ambassador could do nothing to help resolve the crisis and reach a peace settlement. Nevertheless, the Topkapi Palace would rejoice enthusiastically at another shaming of the Ottoman dynasty’s nefarious adversary.
No foreign envoys get locked up anymore in our more humane times. However, the recent massive campaign in the West to expel Russian diplomats is fairly in line with the controversial tradition of the Sublime Porte. Dozens of diplomatic officers overseas have found themselves hostage to a problem they have nothing to do with. Furthermore, the very presence of Russian diplomats in Western countries is increasingly perceived not as something normal but as some sort of privilege temporarily granted to Moscow, one that can be denied at any moment.
There is no denying the obvious fact that in times of crisis, when the cost of any error grows exponentially, it is particularly crucial to preserve and even expand the existing diplomatic channels. Each and every diplomat, irrespective of their rank and post, is, inter alia, a communications channel, a source of information, and a party in a dialogue that can help understand the opponent’s logic, fears, intentions, and expectations. Niccolo Machiavelli’s “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” remains just as pertinent five centuries later.
In fact, how can diplomats, even those representing a state that is not entirely friendly, be labelled as enemies? Having worked in an embassy or consulate for a number of years, learned the local language and familiarized themselves with the host country’s culture, traditions, and customs, and having made numerous friends and acquaintances, diplomats normally grow to be active sympathizers of said country, if not outright lobbyists. Take, for example, the UK and US envoys to Russia of the past decades: Roderic Lyne and Tony Brenton, John Beyrle and John Tefft. None of them could be described as an inveterate Russophobe. All of them, with rare exception, are currently advocating the most moderate and constructive approach to Russia. It appears that the majority of Russian diplomats of various ranks, those who have worked in London or Washington for a long time, are equally unlikely to side with unbridled anti-Western hawks.
Expulsions of diplomats are normally explained away by these diplomats not actually being diplomats at all. They are alleged intelligence officers who undermine the host country’s national security. However, these allegations appear to be extremely dubious. First, if the host country has hard evidence, or at the very least a reasonable suspicion that a diplomatic mission serves as a front for intelligence officers, and if their operations are causing serious harm to that country’s security, why wait for the latest political crisis to expel them? Second, you don’t have to possess the deductive faculties of Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller (as portrayed by the actor Leonid Bronevoy [in the Soviet TV series Seventeen Moments of Spring) to realize that any exposed foreign intelligence officer would be a generous gift for the host country’s counter-intelligence service, ideal material for cultivation, and that expelling that person would not be a very wise move, to put it mildly.
Some may argue that the expulsions of Russian diplomats are no big deal, as, apart from embassies and consulates, Russia and the West have a plethora of other communications channels, from summits and meetings between foreign ministers to an assortment of contacts between military and intelligence services and “track II” mechanisms involving experts. This is, of course, true. Having Russian diplomats expelled from the US is not going to negate the capabilities of US-Russian cooperation in south-western Syria; nor will it scrap the prospects of a future new START treaty. However, it is consulates, embassies, and trade missions that invigorate bilateral relations and help develop contacts between societies, from student exchange programs to multi-billion dollar commercial contracts. Were it not so, then the pragmatic and thrifty Americans would not currently be building an enormous new embassy building in London with a price tag in excess of $1 billion.
It is understandable that expelling diplomats is a simple and effective knee-jerk reaction which sits well with the general public. Such actions are an inexpensive way of expressing the host country’s dissatisfaction while not jeopardizing its own vested interests. The decision to expel diplomats does not require parliamentary clearance and, as a rule, does not result in domestic political arguments. In addition, there is this misconception that expulsion can be easily revised or cancelled altogether should the two countries’ relations start to improve again. Finally, expulsions of diplomats are an established ritual, one consecrated by the decades of the Cold War, something that is believed to be an acceptable part of international practice.
Nevertheless, the Cold War demonstrated that expulsions of diplomats produce no positive results whatsoever. In fact, there can be no possible positive results because diplomatic service is just one of a number of technical instruments used in foreign politics. If your computer stops working it would be senselessto try to fix it by slamming your fist on the keyboard.