Shooting the messenger

Opinion by Gülin Ustabas
April 16, 2018, 2:25 a.m.

Following the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain, over 20 countries including the United States jointly expelled Russian diplomats in order to show unity. Britain is holding Moscow responsible for the poisoning, and its Western allies have been showing solidarity against this latest alleged act of aggression from Russia. In addition to expelling the largest number of diplomats, 60, the United States went further and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle.

Following its denial of Britain’s accusation, Russia has unhesitantly retaliated against these measures by expelling diplomats on its part. This collective dismissal of Russian diplomats and the retaliation mentality are escalating the tensions between two blocks, raising questions about whether it could reach a dangerous level for international peace. The expulsion of the diplomats, I hold, is not the ideal strategy to follow.

On one hand, expelling the diplomats and thus degrading the diplomacy is not the appropriate response to an unlawful event, as the British prime minister called it. Rather, the response should be through law, in this case international law. Cutting the ties and diplomatic channels between countries does not directly deal with the solution, but constitutes merely a show of unity against Russia — something Russia already knew about the NATO allies. If allies wish to demonstrate a strict response to Russia, what would be stricter than a legal punishment upheld by evidence and judicial bodies? One obvious problem with this solution is of course the limited jurisdiction of international law. However, perhaps such a case can invite the states to expand it.

Another problem with expelling the diplomats is that it is also unlikely to prevent future criminal activity from happening. Dismissing them does not drive Russia into a corner, as the diplomats were not their main intelligence anyway, especially in the era of cyber attacks and online interferences. In this sense, we can consider the diplomats mere scapegoats. Economic sanctions on the other hand, as some including the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Michael McFaul would argue, would be a better strategy for coercion against aggressions that would also leave the door open for more conversation. Such sanctions have more potential to incite Russia to comply.

Additionally, with the possibility of a military conflict appearing on the horizon in Syria that Russian and U.S. forces may encounter, and when allies are discussing response options, the expulsion of the diplomats does not give an incentive for Russia to back away from a confrontation with the Western states at all, since issues other than the spy-poisoning are rising where they might also need to retaliate.

Such a measure also cuts out more of the already problematic dialogue between Russia and the West. The attitude of dismissal and hostility, fueled by lack of productive diplomatic conversation, results in isolation of non-Western states. Although removing a country’s representatives from the soil “sends a message”, it is also no doubt encouraging adverse behaviour in the other party, putting them in a position where they would not want to seem impotent to their domestic base and therefore are likely to retaliate. Where would continuing to antagonize the other side of the world lead to?

Another — rather apparent — issue with degrading the diplomacy and cutting the ties is the escalation of the tensions. The dismissive behavior and the cutting of communication channels have the possibility to result in conflict. Having witnessed two world wars and hundreds of regional conflicts, the world should be aware of the potential implications of ultimatums, tit-for-tat policies aimed at showing power and gradually intensifying retaliations in order to seize the upper hand.

Instead of pursuing ill-intentioned expulsions of diplomats, politicians should try to reduce the amount and intensity of conflicts in international relations by engaging with the disagreements among countries and the clashes of their interests and strive to mitigate them. Sustaining a communications channel with countries would help more than alienating them, because even if coercion and sanction is used to promote and push countries to pursue constructive negotiations, such as in the case of North Korea where the country finally began seeking communication, we see that the end goal is still conversation, not unhelpful intimidation attempts. If we are to have any hope resolving conflicts without further escalating them, we should be wary of reactionary shows of power, and instead seek open dialogue. Any act not serving the end goal of dialogue is thus futile and harmful. The open dialogue does not even have to be completely positive: one can continue through with diplomacy even when seeking charges against one state or arguing for UN Security Council resolution, for example.  

On an important note concerning the initial reactions doubting these measures against Russia, criticizing expulsions does not mean that one considers Russia irresponsible. One can still believe Russia, and any other state executing such activity, should be held accountable and argue that expulsion of diplomats does not serve this goal. If Russia has indeed played the role Britain claims, this act would require an appropriate judicial process, or perhaps sanctions. For instance, Professor Vassilieva at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies condemns the hostile rhetoric and further isolation, claiming economic sanctions to be a better way of responding.

There are more effective and to-the-point ways of dealing with state criminal activity, and reducing diplomatic connections should not be considered one. A hostile international atmosphere helps no one, nor do conflict-like tensions. We should be able to respond to crises without escalating them. It is easier to go for an eye for an eye as a default policy, but not wiser.

Contact Gülin Ustabaş at gulinu ‘at’

Gülin Ustabas is a freshman from Istanbul, Turkey, studying Philosophy. Here on campus, Gülin works as an Associate Editor for SURJ and as a SARA Ambassador, and is a member of SWIP and SIG. When she is not writing for excessive amounts of time, she enjoys learning new languages, traveling, drawing and listening to any kind of music. She is passionate about political philosophy and human rights.

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