NEAL CONAN, host:
The ambassadorial ideal might include a talent for languages, a solid understanding of current affairs, a degree of eloquence, discretion and charm, or in a set of more modest requirements established by one Renaissance authority, an ambassador should be neither deaf nor blind, not a ravisher of sacred virgins nor a despoiler of churches. And all authorities agree that he or she needs a strong stomach and the ability to keep a clear head after endless rounds of toasts.
Historian Jonathan Wright's new book examines diplomacy and diplomats from antiquity to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It's called The Ambassadors: the Men Who Introduced the World to Itself. We've posted an excerpt from the book at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org, if you'd like to take a look at it.
The author joins us now from the studios of the BBC in Newcastle, England. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. JONATHAN WRIGHT (Author, The Ambassadors: From Ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe, the Men Who Introduced the World to Itself): Great to be here. Thanks.
CONAN: Earlier today, we saw diplomats from 15 countries, the United Nations and the EU gather in Rome in an attempt to resolve the crisis in the Middle East. And after reading your book, I couldn't help but reflect on just how long ambassadors have been working in that part of the world with at least one record going back to pharaonic Egypt.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well the earliest thing in my book is, yes, it's the Amarna tablets, these clay tablets that someone happened upon at the end of the 19th century. And it's odd. One assumes that, you know, long ago it was much simpler, much more straightforward, but actually all of the petulance and all of the wrangling and all of the upmanship exists. It's - the sentences are very spare, but you can sense bits of pique and people trying to outdo one another. It's a constant part of diplomacy, I think.
CONAN: And one of the themes of your book is, indeed, that we tend to think of our modern problems as so much more complicated and sophisticated than those of years gone by. Not so much, if you take a look at it.
Mr. WRIGHT: Not at all. It's the modern disease, I think. Isn't it?
Mr. WRIGHT: To suppose that we are living at the crescendo of human history, that diplomacy obviously has become much more sophisticated in our age, that the problems are much more insoluble. I'm afraid not. Obviously, the present situation in the Middle East is impossible, but there have been impossible situations in the Middle East, and everywhere else around the world, frankly, for millennia. And diplomats, I suppose their job is to try and stitch these things, but frankly they do their best and they've always done their best, and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail.
CONAN: One of the most interesting parts of the book, I found, was a description of the Eastern Roman Empire, that of course based in what was then known as Constantinople - the Byzantine Empire - and their dealings with the person who may have been the most awkward neighbor in history, Attila the Hun.
Mr. WRIGHT: Attila the Hun you'd think would be a bad neighbor, and indeed he was. You know, he ran roughshod over Byzantine territories. But the Byzantines had a, you know, perfectly good solution. Rather than using diplomacy to solve problems, they thought they might as well try and sneak in an assassination plot against him. So they sent an ambassador off to Attila's camp just to the north of the Danube.
The surprising thing was they went expecting barbarians, unwashed heathen, et cetera. And this is a theme in ambassadorial encounter. They did go. They tried their assassination thing. It didn't work. But they came back with reports of the Huns that were simply not what Byzantium was expecting. The ambassador saw this feast. Attila, he was expecting this ruthless, horrible man, but in fact he was very sedate, he was modestly dressed. And there was this lovely moment at the ambassadorial feast where Attila's son comes in and he pinches his son's cheeks, laughs and smiles at him with serene eyes, the ambassador said.
And this completely destroys the Byzantine assumption that these people are barbarians. In fact, the Huns were a sophisticated civilization. And it happens time and time again that ambassadors going these ludicrous distances to these ludicrously out of the way places confound preconceived ideas. We could use some of that now.
CONAN: I suspect you're right. We're talking with Jonathan Wright, whose book is The Ambassadors. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
As you suggest in the title of your book, the function of diplomats is to introduce one culture to another, to send back reports. And this cultural understanding, at the same time, comes with a layer of duplicity and espionage, and of course commercial dealing as well.
Mr. WRIGHT: There are two things you've got to do, aren't there? If you're going to go these long distances, you have to, well, A, going that far to introduce yourself is a sign of respect. But also, once you get there, you have to make sure that you are respected. It's - the ambassador has this impossible juggling act to do, then and now. They have to be the representatives of their nation's interests. They have to bang policy drums, and they always have done that. But also, they have to go through these processes of what I would call ritual humiliation.
These days in London, the U.S. ambassador, because of the congestion charge thing, is called a chiseling little crook by the mayor of London.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: Now I think - I'm not sure - I think he's a Texan at the moment, the U.S. ambassador. And ordinarily, presumably, he wouldn't take that too well. But he has to take it on the chin. But at the same time, he has to put his point across. He has to serve his nation's interests.
It used to be much worse. Talking of the Middle East. The Egyptians, when people used to come to them, people had to prostrate themselves seven times on their bellies, seven times on their backs, and call themselves the dust beneath the sandals of the pharaoh. So I guess, in some sense, things are not quite as embarrassing as they used to be.
CONAN: Your book suggests that ambassadors have been required - as soon as we organized nations, we needed ambassadors. Yet the first people to organize an actual department of state, if you will, were those same Byzantines who had the ham-fisted approach to Attila the Hun. Yet tellingly, I think their bureau was called the Bureau of Barbarian Affairs.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. The Barbarian Bureau. It's beautiful, isn't it? I think every modern chancellery ought to have one. But no. And in fact, even later than that - I mean the Romans the Greeks had no established, you know, foreign department. The Byzantines were slightly more sophisticated in that they had personnel, but not career people, et cetera, et cetera.
The modern notion of foreign offices of professional diplomatic personnel is really an invention of the 17th into 18th century. It's actually quite refreshing to realize that human relations went on quite well for millennia without the need for legions upon legions of professional bureaucrats. One might argue there are perhaps one or two too many ambassadors these days.
CONAN: Perhaps. The Roman Empire - and again today's meeting was in Rome -diplomacy was not their strong suit. Indeed, you describe a group of men whose job it was to announce to various countries that they were in deep trouble with Rome and war was coming unless they did something about it.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, the Fetiales. They're good, yeah. They're basically - I mean, Rome was actually very good at diplomacy; it's just that it's not a kind of diplomacy that we recognize. We assume that diplomacy is about creating peace. That's a false assumption. It doesn't have to be. You know, diplomacy can be just as well used to create a crisis. One might again look to current events.
But yeah, the Fetiales - Rome had a problem, they would send these envoys to the border and they'd throw spears over as a bit of a warning. The Aztecs did the same thing. They never used diplomacy to establish peace. They just sent people to, you know, to various tribes and so on around the Aztec Empire and they said put up a statue to us. If they said no, then fine, fair enough. They came back two weeks later, they said here are some weapons. We're not afraid of you at all. Do what you want. They came back two weeks later and said now it's war. And invariably the Aztecs, you know, won. And so did Rome.
CONAN: Yes, Rome didn't lose too often.
Mr. WRIGHT: Exactly.
CONAN: Which is why they could afford such straightforward policies, perhaps. Your book ends with an account of what I guess are some of the great diplomats of history, you know, Castlereagh and Metternich and people like that at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. And you say, in a way, that's the start of what we think of as modern diplomacy. Yet, at the same time, it hearkens back to an earlier age.
Mr. WRIGHT: It's the same - I mentioned at the start the Amarna letters, these things from 14th century B.C. Egypt and the client states. And it's exactly the same process. It's all about skullduggery, it's all about serving your nation's interest. My problem with modern diplomacy, as a historian, not as a citizen of the world, you understand, is that some of the daring-do has gone out of it.
You know, I look back at a time where people came from India in 20 B.C., didn't know where they were going, but they said they'd heard of Augustus of Rome so they traveled - no idea where they were going. And they took the trouble to bring the longest snakes in India, the partridges that were bigger than vultures, and exploitative as it was, a youth who could play the trumpet with his feet because he didn't have any arms.
Now I think there's a certain kind of splendor in that. And that sort of thing, sadly, doesn't happen any more.
CONAN: Jonathan Wright's book is The Ambassadors: From Ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe, the Men Who Introduced the World to Itself. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: My pleasure.
CONAN: Jonathan Wright joined us from the studios of the BBC in Newcastle in England. I'm Neal Conan, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.