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Diplomatic Protocol Explained

Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford highlights the sensitive relationship between the Hosts and Guests

The bloodthirsty movie 300 has an instructive reinvention of diplomatic events almost exactly 2,500 years ago. King Leonidas of Sparta receives a senior messenger sent from King Xerxes of Persia. The messenger suggests that Sparta need do no more than politely offer a ‘token of submission’ to King Xerxes and his vast army. King Leonidas is unimpressed:

Messenger:             No man, Persian or Greek, no man threatens a messenger!

Leonidas:                 You insult my Queen. You threaten my people with slavery and death. Oh, I’ve chosen my words carefully, Persian. Perhaps you should have done the same!

Messenger:             This is blasphemy! This is madness!

Leonidas:                 Madness? … This is SPAR-TA

And into a deep Spartan well go the messenger with his assorted Second Secretaries, plus the cook and the driver.

This vivid if imagined example takes us to the tension right at the heart of diplomatic protocol: the uneasy relationship between Rules and Principles. In this case, the messenger assumed that the Rules of Diplomacy would enable him to deliver his unwelcome message and return safely to King Xerxes with Sparta’s answer. But he forgot the deeper principle in play. When you’re in someone else’s house, it’s their rules that count.

What most diplomats these days forget (if they ever in fact pondered it) is why the rules of protocol as primarily laid down in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations are what they are. That Convention in effect codified in one handy short text principles and practices variously dating back many centuries to those ancient Greeks. And the thematic idea running through the Convention’s key principles is about as simple as it might be: Hosts and Guests.

In much earlier times, Kings, Queens, Popes, Emperors and Sultans perforce communicated by trusted messengers who rode long and hard to deliver their messages and report back. In some 300BC Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi opined on how tricky this was:

Faithfully conveying such messages is the most difficult task under the heavens, for if the words are such as to evoke a positive response on both sides, there will be the temptation to exaggerate them with flattery and, if they are unpleasant, there will be a tendency to make them even more biting. In either case, the truth will be lost. If truth is lost, mutual trust will also be lost. If mutual trust is lost, the messenger himself may be imperilled.

Over the centuries, it became accepted that rulers would host permanent foreign legations to make the conduct of international business easier.

In either case (visiting or permanent ‘ambassadors’) courtly rules evolved based on two simple and largely universal norms of human hospitality. Hosts have responsibilities towards guests. Guests have responsibilities towards hosts.

Imagine that you invite your friend Alex to stay in your spare room for the weekend: “Make yourself at home!”

Think about what that in fact means. It doesn’t mean that Alex can have an afternoon nap on your bed, or peer into every drawer and cupboard, or open your letters, or drink your best wine, or doodle in the margins of your books, or listen in to your phone-calls, or use the spare room as a pop-up shop. And so on.

Some issues might be borderline cases. Might Alex raid the fridge for a sandwich when you’re out, or use a squeeze of toothpaste from the tube you left in the bathroom? But such details only go to illustrate the core point: there are unambiguous limits on what Alex might and might not do as a guest in your house, and woe betide your friendship if Alex ignores those limits. As a guest, Alex has responsibilities towards you not to be nosy or dirty or noisy or obnoxious or disruptive. Alex has to show you, your house and your privacy all due respect.

Usually, these limits are not exhaustively laid down in a document of Dos and Don’ts that you hand Alex on arrival, although if you have some special or unexpected requirements you might make them clear then: “Alex, I’d appreciate it if you stay out of the study this time – I have masses of sensitive work documents scattered there!”

But that’s not all. You in turn must respect Alex, Alex’s property and Alex’s privacy. You can’t read Alex’s letters or rummage through his/her suitcase, or listen to his/her phone-calls, or enter the guest room without knocking, or use Alex’s toothpaste without asking. If someone is throwing stones at Alex’s window, Alex can reasonably expect you to take action to stop it.

And lo! These elementary, homely, time-honoured principles reflecting ancient ideas of honour, respect, reciprocity and privacy are what the Vienna Convention lays down for modern diplomacy. Thus:

  • Guests can’t become guests unless hosts agree to host them (VC Article 2: the establishment of permanent diplomatic missions needs mutual consent)
  • Hosts don’t need to give reasons for not accepting guests or for asking guests to leave (VC Articles 4 and 9: diplomats are welcome on foreign territory only for as long as the host government is ready to welcome them)
  • Guests can’t use their guestroom for commercial or illegal activities (VC Article 41: diplomatic premises must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention)
  • Hosts should respect guests’ privacy and property (VC Articles 22 and 24: Diplomatic premises are inviolable and must not be entered by the receiving state’s agents except by permission of the head of mission. The receiving state must protect the mission from intrusion / damage and may not search or seize its documents or vehicles or other property)
  • Hosts must respect guests’ right to communicate privately, but guests in turn can’t hide behind this privacy to do illicit things (VC Article 27: the receiving state shall permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission for all official purposes; a diplomatic bag may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use)
  • A guest must not meddle in a host’s affairs (VC Article 41: diplomats have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of the receiving state) or run a private business while on the host’s property (VC Article 42)


Once these and other such core norms of hospitality are understood, most of the exotic diplomatic disputes we read about in the media make sense. Take the case of Julian Assange. The Ecuador Embassy in London was a guest in the UK’s house. Once Assange scuttled in there to avoid arrest, the UK authorities politely respected the privacy of the Embassy and waited for him to emerge. When after long years Assange himself started to abuse the hospitality of the Embassy, the Ambassador gave the UK permission to enter the premises to remove him. And removed he was.

Or the legendary example from 1984, when a bizarre attempt was made in London to kidnap former Nigerian Minister Umaru Dikko and smuggle him back to Nigeria hidden in a crate marked as Nigerian diplomatic freight. The paperwork for this crate was awry, and the British hosts opened the box to find a drugged Dikko inside. The Nigeria High Commissioner was asked to leave. Guests can get up to mischief now and then. But don’t overdo it.

My course on Diplomatic Protocol for colleagues at the United Nations drills down into all these ideas and more, to explain the simple logic of the subject. As part of the course, I interviewed two distinguished UK women diplomats.

One emphasised that behind the pomp, pride and flimflam of diplomatic protocol is predictability: people from widely different cultural traditions can know where they stand when dealing with each other. Her colleague put the emphasis rather differently: protocol is (she said) all about people: warm-hearted and good-natured basic respect helps overcome many disagreements.

They’re both mainly right. But above and beyond that, don’t ask Spartans to show a small token of submission. It usually does not end well.



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