Political theater: Summoning an ambassador

When one government does something that displeases another, the latter government usually publicly signals its displeasure by announcing that it had ‘summoned for consultation the ambassador’ of the former country. This is a staple of reporting of international relations and gives the impression that the ambassador is given a stern talking to and is sent away with their tail between their legs.

But this article says that the whole thing is political theater.

In August 2015, three journalists from the al-Jazeera network were sentenced to jail in Egypt for “spreading false news”. Outside court, [UK ambassador John] Casson spoke on Egyptian television in Arabic to condemn the sentence.

Soon after, Egypt’s foreign ministry said it had summoned him to attend its offices. In doing so, it used one of the few diplomatic tools a host country has when it wants to make its anger felt to another country.

“I was called by the foreign ministry and was told ‘We need to see you immediately,'” Mr Casson tells the BBC. “The first thing they said was, ‘We are not summoning you, but we are going to tell the press we are summoning you. If it had been a summoning, we would have sent a formal diplomatic note summoning you.'”

This is the way things normally work in a summoning – a formal, polite, diplomatic note is sent to the relevant country’s embassy asking – but not really demanding – its representative to attend a meeting at the foreign ministry, or its equivalent. The medium of the summoning is the message, Mr Casson says.

“The main thing is that it is a piece of diplomatic theatre and everybody understands their role, and acts their role,” Mr Casson, who was in Cairo between 2014 and 2018, says. In London, the drama can involve being made to wait in the grand surroundings of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to understand the seriousness of the occasion.

Strange are the ways of diplomacy.


  1. machintelligence says

    Somehow, the science fiction novels by Keith Laumer: “Retief, Galactic Diplomat” come to mind.

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