Foreign Embassies and Host Country Politics

As the WikiLeaks embassy cable exposé continues to manifest itself, some interesting questions are beginning to arise in terms of how a foreign diplomatic post should function in a host country. Traditionally, diplomatic posts are supposed to be a conduit for governments to communicate between themselves and for its citizens to avail themselves of their country’s support while traveling abroad.

Recent diplomatic dispatches released into the public domain by WikiLeaks forces us to ask, is there a place for diplomats to inject themselves into their host country’s political affairs? For example, should the Russian Embassy write newspaper opinion pieces suggesting that the US is better off electing a Republican or Democrat president during the election season? Would the American public allow foreign governments to contribute financially or otherwise during elections? The WikiLeaks exposés gives us an insight into America’s foreign interludes into the local political affairs of countries where they are guests. The question that begs to be asked, is it appropriate for an Embassy to inject itself into the local political scene?

By injecting itself into the local political fray of its host country, is the American diplomatic body acting as an active participant in the political process of the country or are they fulfilling its function of being a passive conduit between the countries? And, is an embassy’s active political activity in the host country an appropriate foreign policy activity?

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 sets the framework by which most governments allow foreign embassies to operate within their borders. The United States is a party to this agreement. Article 41, paragraph one of the convention states that persons who make up the diplomatic body of the sending state “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State”, the state being the host country of the diplomatic mission. The argument can thus be made that the agreement states that an Embassy should not be used to affect the local political process of the country that hosts the embassy.

Two diplomatic cables recently made public show two distinct activities in the realm of America’s use of its foreign posts to mold America’s foreign policy in other countries. Are these examples the proper use of an American Embassy in another country? More importantly, does the United States have a right to interfere with the internal politics of another country? And if so, does that mean that other countries should be allowed to inject themselves into the American political scene, overtly or openly?

The first example came to light in the dispatch dated December 4th, 2009 from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed to the US Embassy in Mexico City. In this dispatch, Clinton asks the embassy for insight into the Mexican Government’s mindset, especially President Calderon’s.

The embassy cable notes that the embassy has been providing continuous assessments of Mexico’s leadership dynamics. Clinton directs the embassy to revisit the assessment of Calderon, specifically “on his leadership style”. The cable goes on to list four specific questions about Calderon that policy makers are interested in. It also asks four questions about Calderon’s cabinet. In relation to Calderon, the US government policy makers ask about Calderon’s personality while the last asks for information about his plans on security, the economy, and dealing with local intra-political intrigue. In regards to the cabinet, the four questions ask about the cabinet’s relationship among themselves and with their president. It also asks for insight into how the individual members feel about the United States.

If we are to accept the role of foreign posts as a conduit for government to government communication then understanding the personal dynamics of government personalities allows for clearer communications between the nations. Accepting the premise then the embassy is fulfilling a vital role. This action also seems to adhere to the diplomatic convention. On the other hand, should a country accept a foreign post as a guest in a host country when its actions go from passive information gathering to an active participant in the host country’s political process?

In a May 5th, 2006 diplomatic dispatch sent by the US Embassy in Managua, the foreign post’s actions clearly show an active participation by that embassy’s diplomatic body in Nicaragua’s political process.

The diplomatic cable, addressed to Washington, clearly states that “in preparation for the November 2006 national elections in Nicaragua”, the “diplomatic post has developed three ‘rap sheets’ on the records of Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista party (FSLN) and Arnoldo Aleman, highlighting their systematic crimes and abuses”.

According to this cable, the rap sheets contain “short summaries of the crimes and abuses committed” by Ortega. It goes on to state that the embassy “intends to use the information from these rap sheets in discussions with domestic and international interlocutors as a means of reminding Nicaraguan voters and others of the true character of Aleman, Ortega, and the Sandinistas”. The missive goes on to state that the summaries will be distributed to “appropriate contacts” both locally and in Washington.

Regardless of the veracity of the contents of the “rap sheets” the question that needs to be addressed, is it appropriate for an embassy to intercede in local political affairs thereby molding it’s country’s foreign policy by affecting a local electoral outcome by supporting favorable host country political figures rather than maintaining an open dialogue with its host country’s political apparatus through open and transparent communications, or is an embassy’s function now to become one of subterfuge in local politics?

To be sure, we must assume that other countries also use their diplomatic posts in this function – so the United States should not be singled out as the only one misusing its diplomatic posts, but unfortunately for America, it is the only one to have been caught going beyond their guest status of its diplomatic posts. Dialog begins with trust and respect. As a guest, a diplomatic post should not be allowed to manipulate the local political process of its host country.