October 22, 2021No Comments

Opening and Evacuating Embassies: A European perspective on recent events

By: Isabelle Despicht, Rosa Maria Torraco.

Embassies are much more than just a mere foreign praesidium; their openings, closings, evacuations have a strong potential effect on world politics. Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/tI_DEyjWOkY

What role do embassies play in major events nowadays? When do countries consider opening, evacuating or temporarily closing embassies? These are some of the questions that arise when we consider global events such as the U.S. moving the capital of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and also when analysing the recent crisis in Afghanistan.

In order to answer them, we met with Boy Frank, a former diplomat with 34 years of experience in the Dutch foreign service, during which he worked in the opening of three embassies and the evacuation of the same number.

Embassies in a nutshell 

Generally, we think of embassies as mere foreign praesidiums in a country. However, they play a much more significant role, as they help us communicate, find refuge, and especially establish a medium between two countries.

But opening an embassy in a specific country or even city is much more than just opening a new access point. An embassy is used as a base for economic relationships, and is a necessary instrument to waive a country’s presence on the ground. Mr Frank explains that ‘’when determining where to open an embassy all factors are carefully weighted’’. Embassies will be opened in those countries that are the most relevant economically, politically or culturally. 

Just as embassies can be opened, they can be closed, evacuated, and their personnel can be called back for consultation. This was recently the case with the French president Emmanuel Macron, who called back his Ambassadors to the United States (US) and Australia after the latter cancelled its purchase of French submarinesand  announced a new contract with the US. 

Such moves have a political weight, and rightly so. The act of recalling Ambassadors was a way for France to underline its discontent with Australia’s move. By the same token, Trump's decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem through which he took sides in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Also in times of pandemic, embassies come to play an important role. While most of those we know were functioning on high alert, tasked to inform the public about the situation surrounding Covid-19, many embassies situated in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang were temporarily closed due to restricted access to essential goods. European countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom temporarily closed their missions, as opposed to Russia: proof that although closing an embassy or calling back its personnel can be a political move, it can also be the result of a humanitarian emergency.

Trump’s controversial move: from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

International custom dictates that a country has to place a diplomatic representation in a country's capital. However, as the status of Jerusalem is considered one of the greatest disputes in International Law as both Israelis and Palestinians claim sovereignty over the city. Nevertheless, on the 6 of December 2017, Trump announced that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus changing de facto Israel’s capital city.

During the opening ceremony of Jerusalem’s embassy, Trump said: “Our greatest hope is for peace”. Still, as Mr Frank states, it appears evident that this was a unilateral move by which the U.S. took sides in favour of Israel. Pro Israeli politicians in the U.S  had long been pressuring Washington to move the Embassy to Jerusalem. In 2017 Trump maintained the promise he made during his 2016 presidential campaign, where he used the argument of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as one of the main points in his race for the White House.

The major European powers did not take long to distance themselves from Trump’s decision. Indeed, the European Union (EU)’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP) reiterated that the EU would continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem's status. The European Parliament has always favoured the two-states solution, in which Jerusalem would serve as the capital of both Israel and Palestine.

In spite thereof, European institutions did not seem to reflect the position of every European country: recently, Hungary and the Czech Republic have opened a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, underlining the friendly relationship with Israel, destined to change the political dynamics of the region. 

As Mr Frank suggests, this case demonstrates that the U.S. has the ability to affect and influence the development of international geopolitics, just as it recently happened with the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. This resulted in the arrival of the Taliban and the evacuation of its capital, which Joe Biden called “the largest airlift in U.S. history”.

Evacuation of Kabul’s Embassies: what went wrong?

When in April, the U.S. announced that it would be withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan by 11 of September 2021, many feared the arrival of the Taliban, although no one was prepared for what was about to happen.

In mid-August, the capital of Kabul was taken over by the Taliban, creating immense chaos that led to the evacuation of both civilians and diplomats, who desperately tried to reach the airport in an attempt to flee the country.

More than a month after this international incident, we asked Mr Frank what went wrong in Kabul’s evacuation and what could have been done better from a European perspective. He explains that: ‘’people waited too long to evacuate. They let the crisis unfold, and it got too intense to plan for a proper evacuation.’’

Indeed, the time at which the Taliban arrived in Kabul was highly underestimated, which only contributed to the emergency of the situation. So this bears the question: are European embassies sufficiently prepared for these types of circumstances? 

How could they not be prepared? In the interview, the former diplomat points out that, in theory, each embassy has an evacuation plan. Still, because there are always-changing scenarios, the circumstances remain unpredictable, and embassy evacuation plans are thus limited to the most likely scenarios.

One could ask, why a plan if they cannot apply it? Embassies do so to ensure the highest chances of safety, which is what they come down to in times of hardship. But while many of those located in Kabul and their staff warned their home countries about the situation and the arrival of the Taliban, EU countries were scrambling to send rescue

Today the respective Foreign Affairs departments of each state have audit teams, which are in turn responsible for identifying gaps and proposing improvements for incidents such as the one in Kabul. We can only hope that the international community will learn from this political and humanitarian disaster.

Conclusion

As we have seen, it seems that most of the major events of our time, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Afghan Crisis, can be read in the key of embassies’ openings and movements. Today embassies are not just a medium between two states; they play a leading role in developing economic, political and cultural relations and are symbolic in acknowledging and recognizing a state. 

If you are interested in learning more about opening and closing embassies, our interviewee, Mr Frank, provides Masterclasses on the topic. He has also recently published his first book, ‘’The adventures of Boy Frank’’ where he talks about his diplomatic experience in several countries, including Pakistan, Algeria, Eritrea, Angola and many others. 

October 19, 2021No Comments

Howard Anglin on China-Canadian Relations

Howard Anglin is a post-graduate researcher at Oxford University. He was previously Deputy Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Principal Secretary to the Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, and a lawyer in New York, London, and Washington, DC.

He discusses the recent developments in China-Canadian relations and furthers his thoughts he initially penned in his article he wrote for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute - Canada's national public policy think tank.

Interviewers: Carlotta Rinaudo and Sandra Watson Parcels.

This is ITSS Verona Member Series Video Podcast by the International System's China and Asia Team.

ITSS Verona - The International Team for the Study of Security Verona is a not-for-profit, apolitical, international cultural association dedicated to the study of international security, ranging from terrorism to climate change, from artificial intelligence to pandemics, from great power competition to energy security.

October 1, 2021No Comments

Iran and the International Community: A Frame

In this interview, the Ambassador Giulio di Sant’Agata, former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, tackles a complex issue: the International Community's response to the Iranian threat.

Interviewer: Martina Gambacorta

June 10, 2021No Comments

Winds of Change? Possible Transition from War to Peace in the Middle East

By: Omri Brinner, John Devine, Martina Gambacorta and Angelo Calianno.

The most significant development from the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas is the warming of relations between two rival camps in the Middle East, which is a hopeful sign of things to come. If developments such as the recent Saudi-Iranian negotiations and the seeming end of the civil war in Libya continue to characterize regional affairs, then the region might very well be on its way to rehabilitate from more than a decade of continued wars. 

The two countries representing the rival camps are Egypt and Qatar. Regionally, Egypt is in league with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Qatar is linked with Turkey and Iran. Egyptian-Qatari relations have significantly improved since the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire and the Qatari promise of increased financial support to the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Qatar are in a unique position to bridge geopolitical gaps through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Egypt as the only Arab country that borders the Gaza Strip and therefore controls the crossings to and fro Gaza; and Qatar as the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with the authorities in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Until recently, the two countries and their camps were on a head-on course of action, best characterized by the 2017 blockade on Qatar, which focused to a large extent on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and not by chance. Since its inception in 1928 the MB has challenged and at times terrorized the Egyptian state, with the rivalry climaxing in 2012 when the organization won the Egyptian elections and became the ruling party. However, the old regime soon retook power through a military coup and began persecuting, jailing and executing MB members. 

A notable portion of Qatar’s support to the MB has been delivered to its Palestinian branch, Hamas. As a MB affiliate, in recent years Hamas has challenged Egyptian sovereignty by building underground smuggling tunnels and connecting with Egyptian terrorists in the border area. Egypt’s fierce anti-MB policies, which include a joint Egyptian-Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, have resulted in Hamas’ dependency on Egypt for humanitarian support. Hamas is, therefore, willing to make concessions that will essentially, in light of its dire state, benefit both itself and Egypt. In other words, in coordination with Israel, Egypt decides when and what to give to the Gaza Strip. 

However, Egypt has competition for both peacemaking and patronage in the Gaza Strip by one of its regional foes, Qatar. Qatar is in a distinct position as it is the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with both Israel (albeit unofficial) and Hamas. Other regional countries have either relations with the two parties or funds to spare, but not both. Therefore, Qatar has two prominent roles in supporting the Gaza Strip. The first is financial. Since 2012 Qatar has transferred to Gaza around 1.5 billion USD with Israel’s approval, with Hamas directly receiving the lion’s share. Despite this fact, it is in Israel’s interest that the Gaza Strip will be politically and economically stable. Israel calculates that stability reduces the chances of a coup by more extreme local groups, such as the Islamic Jihad, and that Palestinians will want to maintain a relatively good lifestyle and low unemployment rates, as opposed to times of poverty and recurring clashes. The other Qatari role is providing Gaza with energy. With the electricity infrastructure all but functional, Hamas found in Qatar a patron for petrol - the latter being the world-leading exporter of liquefied natural gas

So far, it seems that the shared interest of Egypt, Qatar, Israel and Hamas to stabilize the Gaza Strip has strengthened relations between Egypt and Qatar. An indication for this state of affairs took place a day after the ceasefire agreement was reached, when the exiled Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke from Qatar, thanking Egyptfor its role in brokering the ceasefire. It should be noted that Haniyeh could not have congratulated Egypt on Qatari soil without the authorities’ blessing. However, while Qatar has been in the driving seat with regards to financing the Gaza Strip thus far, Egypt is now challenging the former by organizing a regional donors conference. It also recently announced the allocation of 500 million USD of its own funds for the reconstruction of the strip. That said, Egypt needs to carefully calculate its financing schemes to maintain the Qatari-Egyptian cooperation in Gaza. Otherwise, it will push Qatar to either transfer more funds directly to Hamas or to stop the flow of cash altogether, leaving itself as Gaza’s sole provider.

When examining Egyptian-Qatari relations in a wider geopolitical perspective, it can be stated that each country represents its camp in terms of competition, but also cooperation and diplomacy. The improved Egyptian-Qatari relations signify improved relations between the camps. Other developments include Egyptian-Turkish talks, in which the sides discussed various disagreeable issues (such as Turkey’s favourable policies towards the MB), the apparent end of the Libyan civil war, the Saudi-Iranian negotiations and, consequently and hopefully, the beginning of the end of the Yemenite civil war, the revival of the JCPOA and the end of the blockade on Qatar. 

Comparing today’s regional state of affairs to that of a year ago will show that calculated and mutually beneficial diplomacy is arguably a better ingredient for regional stability and peace than hardline and uncompromising policies.