Diplomatic Loyalties

Talyn Rahman-Figueroa, CEO of Grassroot Diplomat, comments on the role of national loyalty versus national identity for diplomatic agents.

Former British Ambassador Charles Crawford highlighted how "the double agent who did the most damage to British intelligence operations was George Blake, another person with ambiguous private loyalties: his mother was Dutch, his father a naturalised British subject of Turkish/Jewish origin. Blake ruthlessly betrayed dozens of agents who were working for the UK against the Soviet Union, many of whom were believed to have been executed. Sentenced to 42 years imprisonment for his treasonable activities, Blake famously escaped from prison in 1966 and made his way to Moscow where he lived in comfort and honour. He insisted that he had never felt British: 'To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged," he said.

"All this suggest that central to the idea of loyalty is self-identity. Few diplomats go through a career without having grave doubts at different points about the morality or wisdom of the instructions coming from HQ."

Yet Crawford notes that only a small number of diplomats resign from instructions coming from HQ. I instantly think of former British diplomat Carne Ross, who resigned during UN negotiations for the Iraq War and has since set up his own organisation, Independent Diplomat, to help territories and groups become formally recognised as states. 

Crawford goes on to say that - "Different reasons and rationalisations are found for staying loyal even under extreme circumstances (for example when the leadership of the state the diplomat represents is busy brutalising its own people)."

To this, Crawford brings up the fate of Danish diplomat Paul Bang-Jensen who took his own life in 1959. Accordingly, "Bang-Jensen refused to hand over to his superiors at the UN a list of names of Hungarians who in strict confidence had testified against communist atrocities in Hungary. Bang-Jensen feared (not without reason) that top UN processes had been infiltrated by communists who wanted to retaliate against the relatives of those who sought to publicise the truth. His unwavering loyalty to honesty rather than the demands of the UN hierarchy cost him his job and led to his tragic end."

The emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971/72 gives a striking of what happens when one state splits in two. As Bangladesh's struggle to break from Pakistan intensified, Pakistan's diplomat Abul Fateh faced a painful dilemma in deciding whether to stay on as Pakistan's Ambassador to Iraq, or choose an uncertain future with his native land. Fateh decided to join Bangladesh which caused the Pakistani government to furiously denounce his defection. However, in Fateh's decision, he went on to play a distinguished role in establishing Bangladesh's new diplomatic service and represented his country in Paris, London and Algiers. That said, the current Libya case has given rise to a spectacular number of high profile diplomatic changes of side, with one Libyan ambassador after another denouncing support for the opposition forces struggling to bring down the Gaddafi regime.

Crawford surmised, "...unwelcome problems quickly arise if some diplomats in an embassy switch sides but others don't. Who is running the local Libyan embassy for the purpose of carrying on routine diplomatic business? Who gets invited to which functions? Does a Libyan diplomat who has announced a switch of loyalty still get diplomatic immunity? What about the official embassy care? What if the uprising fails and Gaddafi wins - must we throw these people out of the Libyan embassy? How these questions and many others are answered will depend upon local circumstances and, perhaps, the personalities concerned."

Crawford notes that the worst outcome would be if the violence has no obvious end in sight, which makes us question the outcomes of the Arab Spring. Until now, the Middle East has yet to have its own revelation so there are bound to be political resistance. The Gaddafi elite are clinging on to power despite NATO forces blowing up significant quantities of military equipment. The Libya drama exemplifies the greatest challenge to any diplomat's loyalty to his/her country: what to do if the country slumps into civil war or even disappears altogether?

So, what would you do in such position? What would British diplomats do if Scotland holds a referendum and opts for independence? How do diplomats cope with the instructions of HQ if every nerve in their body rebels against it? Would you rather trust the government you work for, or the family that have always been by your side? It's not an easy question to answer, but it is one that diplomats of mixed nationalities must one day be prepared for.