Missives between countries are called diplomatic notes. (DipNote is the name of the U.S. State Department’s official blog.) In the early 1800s, the French sent diplomatic notes to England demanding that it censor cartoonists who drew caricatures of Napoleon Bonaparte. Woodrow Wilson produced his own diplomatic notes on a typewriter, often circumventing the State Department. More recently, accused Russian spy Maria Butina was the subject of a number of notes from Moscow to Foggy Bottom.
According to historian Gordon A. Craig, many people dismiss diplomatic notes as “a form of literature scarcely more exciting than seed catalogues.” Yet the exchanges, Craig argues, can in fact be riveting. Part of the pleasure comes from reading between the lines, or even counting the number of lines. “The shorter the note, the deeper the threat,” says Allan Gotlieb, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States.
They generally start with flowery language. A nation “presents its compliments” to another, has the “honor to state” something, and finally “avails itself of this opportunity to renew … the assurances of its highest consideration.” But embedded within this formula, blunt threats can emerge. Take a 1962 diplomatic note from China to India. Between the compliments and assurances of highest consideration, China’s foreign affairs minister noted to his Indian counterparts that their troops had attacked Chinese soldiers in Xinjiang. Then he cautioned New Delhi: “If the Indian Government should ignore the warning of the Chinese Government and continue to persist in its own way India must bear full responsibility for all the consequences that may arise therefrom.” Some three months later, the Sino-Indian War began.
In July, the United States sent a note to Iranian diplomats. “The United States Mission to the United Nations presents its compliments to the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations,” the note began — before informing members of the mission and their families that their movements inside the United States would henceforth be severely limited. Foreign Policy magazine called the move a “throwback”to the 25-mile limit the United States placed on Soviet diplomatic travel during the Cold War.
The elaborate, antiquated-sounding pleasantries can reach a point of absurdity, as they did in one note that Martin Weiss, Austria’s ambassador to Israel, shared on Twitter in June 2017. In it, Israel’s protocol chief “presents his compliments,” “has the honor to inform” and renews “the assurances of his highest consideration” — all to deliver the news that informal attire, sans jacket and tie, would be acceptable for meeting with Israeli officials from June until September. It’s a lot of words to say essentially: Business casual is cool with us.
Lately, diplomatic notes have had some competition from social media. There are, of course, public pronouncements by government leaders. (Exhibit A: any foreign-policy-related tweet by President Trump.) But diplomats, too, are increasingly calling people out by name in public ways on Twitter and Facebook. In 2013, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo temporarily deleted its Twitter account, which had controversially retweeted an attack on then-Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and had butted heads with the official Muslim Brotherhood account. And when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted last year that “Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated,” the Israeli Embassy in Washington responded with a GIF from “Mean Girls”: “Why are you so obsessed with me?”
In this atmosphere, one wonders whether overly polite pomp and circumstance ought to be dispensed with altogether. And yet, diplomatic notes still serve an important role. First, they come with a kind of no-backsies rule, according to Weiss. Ministers and presidents grant interviews, tweet and call each other on the phone, he says, “but how exactly does, let’s say, Austria officially communicate with the U.S.? Who speaks to whom? The presidents? The foreign ministers? That’s exactly where the diplomatic note comes in. There is no, ‘Gee, we really didn’t mean that’ possible. It’s in writing, from one country to another — and that’s that.”
Second, if Twitter seems designed to inflame people, diplomatic notes are engineered to do the opposite, even when they contain threats. Weiss says it’s especially important to be civil and proper when one country must say something that another won’t like: “There is no reason to drop good manners. Proper form is a bit like the use of humor: If you want to tell someone the truth, you’d at least better make them laugh.” He continues, “Politeness and a certain tone comes with diplomacy. Just think of the common definition of a diplomat: ‘a man who tells you to go to hell in such a way that you are looking forward to the trip.’ ”
When you look at it this way, all of the absurd verbal bowing and scraping is precisely the point. Indeed, maybe the best way to understand diplomatic notes is not as an antiquated relic, but rather as an antidote to incivility — that is, something from which we all can learn. As social media continues to bring out the worst in people, diplomatic language and its decorum are one of very few illuminated paths leading to a safe exit off a crashing jet. So next time someone disagrees combatively with your political opinion, consider availing yourself of the opportunity to renew to him or her assurances of your highest consideration. It would be your honor.
Menachem Wecker is a writer in Washington.