What Happens When Ambassadors Get Summoned?
They get an earful.
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Last week, China "summoned" U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman over President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. This week, Ireland and Britain "summoned" their respective Israeli ambassadors due to the recent revelation that Israel might have forged their countries’ passports for its agents to travel to Dubai to assassinate a leader of Hamas.
But what happens during a diplomatic summons, anyway? In short, a country’s ambassador gets an earful from a foreign ministry, in a kind of high-level, public show of disapproval.
Normally, foreign ministries (or, in the United States, the State Department) conduct diplomatic business through their bureaucracies. To resolve a disagreement, for instance, China might invite staffers from the Canadian embassy to meet with diplomats at Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But for big, public disputes, a foreign ministry will publicly summon another country’s ambassador — the head of the embassy — to telegraph its displeasure.
These summonses tend to be highly choreographed affairs. Imagine that one country — say, China — is angry at the United States for selling arms to, say, Taiwan. China’s foreign minister decides to summon the U.S. envoy in Beijing, releasing a statement detailing why the sale is unacceptable. When the ambassador shows up at the Foreign Ministry, a delegation of Chinese officials meets him and explains the country’s grievances, reading from a prepared statement. Then, the U.S. ambassador responds by stating his government’s views. Depending on the circumstance, he might apologize, request further dialogue on the issue, or even reject China’s position outright.
Stagecraft is paramount. Generally, a summons will include two to four diplomats on either side. But if an ambassador comes in to meet with a cabinet minister or a massive delegation, she knows she is in real diplomatic hot water. Ministries also carefully engineer the tone of the meeting, from the conciliatory to the very frosty. They decide how strong to make the language they use with the ambassador — sometimes, even, using condescending or discourteous terms. In a rancorous summons in a French-speaking country, for instance, a diplomat might use the "tu" rather than the "vous" form of address as a not-so-subtle slight. (Such lack of decorum, though, is very rare.) Responding ambassadors — who are coached on how best to respond to summonses by their foreign ministries and embassy staff — engineer careful responses in turn.
The Soviet Union was notorious for its chilly meetings — literally. U.S. Embassy staffers would show up to find themselves facing a contingent of unsmiling diplomatic officials in a freezing-cold room. Of course, relations between Washington and Moscow weren’t so good back then — and the warmth of the relationship between two countries determines how often, if ever, an ambassador is summoned. (The U.S. ambassador to Switzerland virtually never gets summoned.)
The U.S. State Department tends to use summons very sparingly — only to telegraph high-level diplomatic concern. In December 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called in the Japanese ambassador, Ichiro Fujisaki, over the moving of a U.S. military base in Okinawa. State also reportedly called in Israeli Amb. Michael Oren over the eviction of Arab residents of Jerusalem, though U.S. officials later described the meeting as a planned meet-and-greet. China, on the other hand, uses summons more freely. This is at least the third time it has called in Ambassador Huntsman, who has only been in his job for six months.
Thanks to the U.S. State Department and several former ambassadors.