Roger writing the LAWmag
Oct 2007

Playing Turkey With World Peace

"Turkey Recalls Ambassador" runs the headline.

To the layman, the words convey merely an international flight of a diplomat, not the stuff of a New York Times headline.

But in the dramatic and esoteric world of international law and international politics, this is the equivalent to castling in chess; a lateral but nonetheless significant gesture of aggression.

Turkey took this bold move against its friend and NATO ally to protest against a formal suggestion of genocide by Turkey some 85 years ago, made on October 9, 2007 by a US Government political assembly.

What Turkey is saying to the US, by recalling its Ambassador is: "look, we’re so mad at you right now that we’re taking our top diplomat away."

In this age of webcam, cell-phones and Blackberry’s it means little on the ground as any contact the ambassador may have in Washington is only a button-press away.

But it’s the message that counts.
States live side-by-side and speak a different language, have different cultures etc.

Think of the annoying things your neighbor does and multiply that by four.

Between diplomats, even the basic ingredient for communication, language, is an issue. International lawyers can’t agree on what to call themselves, vacillating between state, nation, nation-state, country, etc.

After the conquest of 1066, the Normans were aghast to see the inhabitants of the English isle engage in blood feuds which slowly but surely killed off strong young men. So they imposed a detailed system for compensation based on harm done: so much for a cut off arm, another amount for the loss of an eye or a big toe.

In this way, there was a graduated response to aggression – progressive posturing - but one which usually, albeit not always, defused lethal violence.

Enter international law and the rule book between nations.

There has developed a graduated diplomatic response to all political or legal disagreements, from a démarche to war, and all points in between, often leading to brinkmanship or one-upmanship, but always to saber-rattling.

Here is the Dummies’ Guide to International Disputes.

First, the démarche, the ultimate demand letter; the first level of one state expressing its deep displeasure with another.

By correspondence, a state tries to persuade another of its position but more importantly, puts its position on the record and for other states to consider. Nonetheless, as a demand letter, it does draw a line in the sand for all to see.

Why did Turkey not park itself here in the first instance especially given the executive branch’s desperate efforts to disassociate itself from the legislative branch’s vote? It had to do with the size of the perceived bully.

"Yesterday some in Congress wanted to play hardball," Turkish foreign policy adviser Egemen Bagis told CNN adding. "I can assure you Turkey knows how to play hardball."

So, upping the ante as if playing poker, is the next step in the defcon scale of international diplomacy: the recall of an ambassador, as Turkey has done.

One peculiar but comforting aspect of recalling an ambassador is that the state who suffers the ignominy rarely retaliates by pulling their own ambassador. In any event, in most cases, time heals all wounds and the ambassador is sent back after the other state has had their "time-out".

It didn’t always used to be that way.

Before 1914, any diplomatic rebuke usually had a unstoppable domino effect and led to war. However, perhaps because of instant communication and the nuclear weapon option, demarches and recalling an ambassador are gestures which are not intended to be more than public announcements of disfavor.

The next step in the peculiar defcon scale of international relations is the expulsion of some or all diplomats up to and including the other’s state’s ambassador.

This public rebuke of another state seems to have started in 1720 when the Russian ambassador to Britain published and distributed documents alleging misdeeds on the part of the British against the Tsar. The British suggested to the Russian ambassador that he might want to leave England forthwith, which he promptly did. It was 11 years before a Russian ambassador returned to London.

In 2006, Rwanda expelled the ambassador from France and ordered that the French embassy in Kigali be closed in response to arrest warrants issued against Rwandan citizens by a French court.

The next step is the formal severing of diplomatic ties, reserved for sharp differences or imminent war.

Ironically, this is a time when diplomacy is most needed, so as to minimize misunderstandings at a time of mistrust.

India wisely declined to sever diplomatic relations with China during their dangerous international dispute in the early 1960.

On February 3, 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson responded to Germany’s announcement that they would not stop indiscriminate sinking of any ship in what they called a "war zone" (i.e. the sea around England), by severing diplomatic ties with Germany.

In 1967, Egypt severed diplomatic ties with the USA as a result of a false report from Jordan that US planes were attacking Jordan. Egypt did not immediately rescind its decision. In the result, as happens in these cases, a neutral state (in this case, Spain) had to serve as intermediary between diplomacy between the two states.

The step of diplomatic severance is considered a step of last resort given the next alternative.

As Churchill said: "jaw jaw is better than war war".

At all times, either party always has access to the United Nations where it can refer a dispute (Article 34 and 99 of the UN Charter).

After the severance of diplomatic ties, the dark, ominous landscape of silence as missiles and implements of war are discreetly redirected awaiting the next step: attack or formal declarations of war.

Turkey and US are nowhere near war this but what is interesting is that Turkey would engage the defcon scale, and even skip a step, forcing the US to eat crow or retaliate.

What they have publicly put on the line is their close relationship with the world’s most powerful state. "Armenia row threatens US-Turkish ties" ran one BBC headline. A diplomatic blunder or money in the bank? Too soon to tell.

But, as usual in international law and politics, there is more than meets the eye.

Turkey is a major airbase for the US in its activities in Iraq. And that is not going well either with Turkey hoping to make a cross-border raid into Iraq to strike at what it believes are Kurdish terrorists bases. The US wants no vigilante justice without consultation with US military commanders in Iraq.

If nothing else, it seems like Nabi Sensoy (the ambassador now on a flight from Washington to Ankara) will have lots to talk about, while NATO, the EU and the rest of the world takes a breath.

References or Further Reading:

Posted in International Law