A British ambassador to Venice in the 17th century observed that “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” But for centuries, diplomats did more than lie. They bribed, they stole, they intercepted dispatches. Perhaps this will come as some consolation to the many American diplomats whose faces have been reddened by the trove of diplomatic cables released this week by WikiLeaks: whatever they’ve done cannot compare in underhandedness with what ambassadors did in the past.
In 16th-century London, for instance, a French ambassador paid another diplomat’s secretary 60 crowns a month to read the dispatches to which the secretary had access. By the 1700s, a large part of the British Foreign Office’s annual expenses of £67,000 was allocated for bribery.
But as a scene of diplomatic misbehavior, London could hardly measure up to Vienna. Prince Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, an 18th-century Austrian foreign minister, took no monetary bribes, but he accepted expensive presents like horses, paintings and fine wines from people who wanted to influence him. Viennese prostitutes also enjoyed unusual access to the diplomatic corps; one such woman, during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, received a salary from an adjutant of Czar Alexander I, and provided him with information she learned during her visits with other envoys.
These practices had begun in the Middle Ages, when negotiators of treaties would gather information about the host nation. They continued in the Renaissance with the advent of permanent embassies. And the belief that the ambassador was a legalized spy never left the hosts’ minds.
Accordingly, governments intercepted the correspondence of diplomats accredited to them. Specialists in curtained, candle-lighted “black chambers” slid hot wires under wax seals to open letters. Those in foreign languages were translated; those in code, decrypted. Their contents were then passed along to kings and ministers.
The black chamber of Vienna was the most efficient. It received the bags of mail going to and from the embassies at 7 a.m.; letters were opened, copied and returned to the post office by 9:30. When the British ambassador complained that he had gotten British letters sealed not with his seal but with that of another country — clear evidence that they had been opened — Kaunitz calmly replied, “How clumsy these people are.”
When the French ambassador to Russia, the Marquis de La Chétardie, in 1744 protested an order for him to leave, an official began reading him his intercepted letters, showing his meddling in Russian affairs. “That’s enough!” the marquis said — and began packing.
The mores of diplomacy began to change in the 19th century, pushed first by the spread of democracy and republican government. Public opinion came to regard it as wrong and unbecoming to a democracy to do anything illegal — in particular when representing itself abroad. Other factors in that change, according to the British diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson, lay in the emerging sense of the community of nations and of the importance of public opinion. As Lord Palmerston, the mid-19th-century British prime minister, maintained, opinions are stronger than armies.
This shift was exemplified by a growing belief that mail shouldn’t be tampered with. In Britain in the 1840s, there was a huge public outcry over the post office’s opening of the mail of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini; at the time, the English historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay declared that it was as wrong to take his letter from the mail as to take it from his desk. And when the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was passed in 1961, among its prescriptions was that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.”
Ambassadors now regard themselves as ladies and gentlemen. They do not lie. They do not steal. But in some ways, diplomacy has not advanced beyond the old ways. And diplomatic cables can always be intercepted or revealed — as WikiLeaks has demonstrated.
David Kahn, the author of The Codebreakers and The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail.