Breaking Diplomatic Relations: A Hard Decision

By David D. Newsom. David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs, University of Virginia. | The Christian Science Monitor, August 26, 1992 | Go to article overview
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Breaking Diplomatic Relations: A Hard Decision


David D. Newsom. David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs, University of Virginia., The Christian Science Monitor


THE United States embassy in Belgrade remains open today, accredited to what remains of Yugoslavia, Serbia, and Montenegro. The ambassador has been withdrawn and the staff reduced, but the American flag still flies and the seal remains on the door, despite the world outcry against the actions of the Serbs in Bosnia.

One of the most difficult decisions governments face is whether to break diplomatic relations in a situation such as that in Yugoslavia. The presence of a diplomatic mission has come to be seen by both friends and adversaries of an offending government as implying approval of that government's actions. Concerned citizens and their elected representatives opposed to the actions of another state question why their government should keep diplomats in place.

The inclination of policymakers is to keep embassies open. Especially in significant areas of crisis, officials responsible for foreign relations wish to leave in place as long as possible personnel who can advise. They also want the secure communications that make effective reporting possible. Hope exists that, by direct intervention, diplomats can assist in resolving crises. Breaking relations is easier than finding the exact timing and rationale for resuming relations. The US maintained representation in such capitals as Warsaw, Managua, Beijing, and Baghdad, even when many people pressed for breaks in relations because of their disapproval of Polish, Nicaraguan, Chinese, and Iraqi actions.

Washington may seek to retain an embassy in areas where persecuted peoples seek protection and visas. One purpose in maintaining US diplomats in Tehran after the Iranian revolution was to provide access to US consular officers for minorities - Jews and Bahais - in particular jeopardy.

At one time, when nations went to war, relations were automatically broken. In an age of undeclared war this is less the case. The US embassy remained in Managua, Nicaragua, even when Washington was supporting the contra army fighting the Sandinistas.

The US and other countries seek measures short of a break in relations, including the withdrawal of the ambassador and a reduction in the size of staff.

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