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Jul 22,2019 - Last updated at Jul 22,2019

Earlier this month, the world was treated to a glimpse of what happens behind the strict politeness of international diplomacy, when the reporting cables of Britain’s ambassador to the US were leaked to the press.

Regardless of the personalities involved and of the unidentified flying adjectives that went around, this episode raises important questions about international diplomacy and whether the practice of appointing ambassadors is still necessary.

Before the communication revolution, it was vital for a country to maintain diplomatic missions in countries whose actions may impact its vital interests. Diplomats were responsible for keeping their government aware of any policy statements or political developments that may affect bilateral relations, and for maintaining good relations with the host government to smooth over any difficulties that arise.

To enable diplomats to perform their duties, international conventions were developed that defined the activities which diplomats may perform, guaranteed their freedom to do so and defined the measures that may be taken against them by the host country should they violate these conventions. But today, the world appears to be systematically dismantling this conventions-based world order that underpinned global stability.

To be sure, international conventions on diplomacy and on everything else need to be reviewed and updated from time to time to keep them relevant; but perhaps they are not the only aspect of diplomacy that may benefit from a review.

Today, it is questionable whether a government needs to maintain a resident diplomatic mission in a country to stay aware of that country’s attitude towards it. Thanks to electronic media, monitors at home can observe and transcribe any public statement by officials of any foreign country in real time. 

Also, diplomats today have an increasingly short time lag in which to send their analysis of a situation before it is overtaken by events. Therefore, they have to rely more and more on electronic communications, which raises the threat of hacking. 

It is true that in the aforementioned high-profile case, the reporting cables were leaked not hacked; but this does not eliminate the threat of hacking. It adds another threat that may hinder diplomats as they try to do their work.

Perhaps most importantly, it is questionable whether ambassadors are still needed to maintain good relations with host governments. Today heads of state and governments can telephone each other, have teleconferences or meet as often as they need in order to manage any issues of common concern that arise.   

Of course, it is true that quiet diplomacy is far more effective than public posturing, but these conversations and meetings do not need to be publicised. Anyone who has followed Middle East politics knows to what extent meetings can be kept secret.

Seriously, diplomacy is bringing people together to deal with difficult issues. Today’s technology has made it possible to conduct international diplomacy without the added cost and logistical burdens of maintaining diplomatic missions in foreign countries. So the question presents itself whether embassies and ambassadors may have become a thing of the past. 


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