Summoning an Ambassador: A Piece of Diplomatic Theatre

Published 16 March 2023 Author: Stefan Talmon

The ‘summoning’ of an ambassador is an age-old diplomatic tool. It means that the receiving State sends a note verbale to the relevant country’s embassy requesting the ambassador to attend a meeting at the foreign ministry usually to express displeasure over actions or a policy of the sending State. The modality of the meeting may vary. It has been said that ‘sometimes it can be a casual conversation in comfortable chairs. Other times, a formal encounter across a table. If the row is serious, it can even be what’s called “a meeting without coffee” when chairs are removed from the room, the ambassador is forced to remain standing, and a formal diplomatic reprimand is read out and handed over in text form, known in the trade as a “note verbale”.’ While Germany generally does not summon foreign ambassadors, but ‘invites’ or ‘calls’ them for talks at the Federal Foreign Office, German ambassadors are from time to time summoned to the foreign ministry of the receiving State. Over the years, especially Turkey and Iran made it a habit to summon the German ambassador. Between March 2016 and July 2019, the German ambassador was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry twenty-five times.

In response to a parliamentary question on how many times German ambassadors were summoned to the foreign ministries of the receiving States and how many times the Federal Foreign Office had summoned foreign ambassadors, the Secretary of State at the Federal Foreign Office Antje Leendertse stated:

There is no generally accepted, internationally recognized definition of summoning and it is also not included in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations. The instrument of summoning is handled differently by States. It is therefore not always clear whether a representative of a German mission abroad is invited or summoned to an interview by the Foreign Ministry of the receiving State. The reason for a conversation or a summoning can also vary greatly and range, for example, from information about traffic offenses to a sharp political protest.

In German practice, there are various degrees of summoning. At its most mild, the ambassador is requested to attend a meeting with the director or a representative of the relevant department in the Federal Foreign Office. To escalate things, the conversation is conducted by a State Secretary. If things are really serious, the ambassador may be hauled before the Federal Foreign Minister. For example, in October 2013, Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle summoned the US ambassador to Germany over allegations that the United States has been tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.

Often the media reports about the ‘summoning’ of an ambassador which is not really a summoning properly speaking. For example, in October 2022 it was widely reported in the media that the German ambassador to Qatar had been summoned to the foreign ministry in Doha. However, when asked in parliament about the incident, the Federal Government stated:

Neither during the visit of the Federal Minister of the Interior and Community in Doha nor afterwards was the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany summoned by the Foreign Ministry of the Emirate of Qatar.

A British ambassador once told the anecdote that he was called by the foreign ministry of the receiving State and was told ‘We need to see you immediately.’ He continued: ‘The first thing he said was, “We are not summoning you, but we are going to tell the press we are summoning you. If it had been a summoning, we would have sent a formal diplomatic note summoning you.”’ The summoning of an ambassador is often a piece of diplomatic theatre, and everybody understands their role and acts their role. The German ambassador to Turkey reported that often he had not yet left the ministry when the State news agency already reported about the summoning. The summoning of an ambassador is often intended to send a message not just to the sending State but also to a wider audience both at home and abroad. It is also a means for the government to deflect demands for more serious action which may damage long-term bilateral relations if the political opposition or the general public in the receiving State demands a strong response to actions or a policy of the sending State.


Category: Diplomatic and Consular Relations

DOI: 10.17176/20230316-185225-0

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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