There is no greater harm to two countries’ relations than the severing of diplomatic ties. Who will be there to mediate? Who will argue for the diplomatic approach when the diplomats have been taken away? As of late, there has been a spat of these disconnects between the strong-as-ever Western states and Russia. At a time when communication is more crucial than ever, recent developments cast a dim prospect for reconciliation between these two powerful groups.
The pretext for recent diplomatic expulsions looks good on paper: the attempted assassination of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal on March 4. Many in the West suspect the order for the attempted assassination — which was carried out at the Skripal residence in England — came straight from the high command of President Vladimir Putin. Evidence for this claim is shaky. Still, the attack provides the opportunity for Russia’s current rivals — namely the U.S., the U.K. and European nations allied with the two — to make a stand against Vladimir Putin at a very convenient time. He just won another election.
Following the attack, the U.K. expelled 23 diplomats alleged to be Russian spies. Russia followed suit, matching the number. More countries got involved to show resilience, and the U.S. and NATO nations have expelled over 100 diplomats in total.
The plan may seem positive, but in reality, the expulsions by both states are harmful on both sides.
Consider the purpose of diplomats. On one important level, they serve to spread the influence of a nation and its policy. This could take the form of gathering intelligence, but far more often it is through what political scientists call “soft power” — the use of constructive, relationship building events, institutions and other means of interaction. When diplomats go, so does this arm of influence and presence in a country.
Another crucial component of a diplomat’s job is to make sure citizens of their country are safe abroad. They can issue emergency visas, facilitate evacuations in the event of a disaster, or simply serve as a point of contact outside of the homeland. They are security for citizens.
In both cases, we can’t just yank the rug out from under these functions. In America’s case, the loss of diplomats directly contradicts the belief that our power can reach across the globe and permeate all corners. We lose power when we are not visible. Additionally, Americans out of country are not able to rely on the support system of a strong embassy and consulate, making travel more tedious, dangerous and undesirable to U.S. citizens.
This aspect should not be understated. It is one thing when governmental influence is lessened abroad, but when people stop interacting with people — that is when relations really deteriorate. When I say relations, I mean the feelings of understanding, knowledge and comfort with those of a different culture. Alienation or misunderstanding of another culture has provoked some of the worst disasters in history. America and Russia did their part contributing to the rise of violent Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Historic conquest and imperialism stems from complete cultural isolation and, for that, a lack of caring about others from a foreign nation.
Current events were not necessarily the result of lacking diplomatic communications between countries, but they were indicative of a certain arrogance that said these places could be controlled and exist under outside control. They were wrong.
When talking about expelling diplomats, we must consider the ramifications. There is great harm found in losing political influence abroad, but more so in losing human-to-human connection that sows the bed of international understanding and peace. When the world stops communicating, without other means, we express ourselves with violence.