Garvan Walshe: In the classic British political show Yes, Prime Minister, the cabinet secretary fumes during a diplomatic crisis that would involve Britain sending troops to snuff out a communist coup in Yemen: “Diplomacy is about surviving until the next century—politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon!”
Absent from The Diplomat is any serious discussion of foreign policy. There are no policy papers or acerbically written memos, and the scene where Ambassador Kate Wyler briefs the president in the Oval Office only makes sense through a prism of magical realism: reflecting the still relatively junior ambassador being thrown into the jungle that a top-of-the-line crisis briefing can appear to be.
Jason Pack: You know what I consider good entertainment? Pointing out the joy and despair, the humor and irony of the world in a playful or profound way. You know what I consider bad entertainment? Stilted yet predictable dialogue, set to an unbelievable yet not even vaguely exciting plotline.
Sadly, The Diplomat is certainly representative of the latter. It is neither escapist nor realistic.
Ellie Geranmayeh: Come on, you guys, let them have some artistic license! For Hollywood standards of realism, the show did a pretty fine job. The Diplomat had me hooked. Which came as a surprise given that I usually avoid using my escape time to binge-watch shows that too closely reflect my work world. I found The Diplomat to be fun entertainment that dipped into my world of foreign policy (especially on Iran) without being too real-life.
GW: Perhaps aware of the limitations, the show has been written more as a lighthearted spy-caper rom-com focused on Kate and Hal’s delightfully dysfunctional marriage, held together by affection and intellectual respect as well as mutual ambition. It’s all too predictable that lust for power will put that political friendship back on the marriage track after the predictable affair between the U.S. ambassador and British foreign secretary that would require adamantine discipline for Season 2’s scriptwriters to eschew.
JP: The Diplomat seems to think of itself as some kind of cross between a murder mystery, a period drama, and The West Wing. But its failings are in both execution and conception. There were opportunities to make it sufficiently believable that a fully grown adult could suspend her disbelief long enough to enjoy the devastating one-liners and cunning plot twists.
EG: Well, at least it gets things mostly right on Iran.
JP: Really? Pray tell?
EG: The show clearly drew from real and very recent events that have unfolded between the West and Iran. To start with, let’s take the opening scene of the British naval ship being attacked off the coast of Iran. Iran and the United Kingdom did get locked into a very heated summer in 2019, when the two sides seized each other’s tankers. This kicked off with British Royal Marines detaining an Iranian-flagged tanker in Gibraltar, alleged to be carrying oil destined for sanctioned Syria. Iran viewed this as the U.K. doing America’s dirty work to pressure Iran at the behest of the Trump administration, which had taken the disastrous decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement. In retaliation, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard captured a British-flagged vessel in the Strait of Hormuz. This led to a flurry of diplomatic exchanges between Iran and the U.K., which in the end resulted in both tankers and crew being released.
In the real world, the bombing of a Western naval ship would be a huge escalation on Iran’s part. And it would most likely happen as a counterresponse to a similarly escalatory move from the West. For example, when the United States assassinated Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani in Iraq in January 2020, Iran openly retaliated by firing missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq. While this was an unprecedented move from Iran, there were widespread reports that Iran gave advance warning to the United States (via third parties) to try to minimize casualties and send a clear message to Washington that this was intended to end the immediate escalation cycle.
So it is plausible that in a scenario where Iran was framed by Russia for the attack against the U.K., as in The Diplomat, that Tehran would find ways to communicate this to London so as to prevent an unnecessary military crisis at a time when Iran is grappling with a devastated economy. While Iran and Russia have forged a very deep partnership since the start of the latter’s war in Ukraine, there are segments within both the political and military elite in Tehran that are weary of Russia using Iran as a pawn in its global power competition.
[Editor: Wait, we have a real-life Kate Wyler joining us to settle all these disagreements.]
Barbara Stephenson: Foreign Policy has asked me to comment based on my experience as the first female foreign service officer to be, as acting U.S. ambassador in London, cast in the big role at Winfield House [where the U.S. ambassador resides]. Rather than regale you with stories of hosting Robert Redford for a Sundance event or John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov for a G-8 foreign ministers bilateral, I want to weigh in with kudos for the Iran plotline.
The show’s reference to the assassination of Suleimani made me ponder the plausibility of this attack on a British warship being part of an Iranian long game of retaliation. The real-life drone strike on Saudi Aramco’s refinery—for which Iran retains plausible deniability and to which the Trump administration’s response was a shoulder shrug—contributed to the deterioration of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which Iran of course welcomes.
The idea that the Iranians might pull off a deniable attack on a U.K. warship with the intent of causing discord and mistrust between the United States and the U.K. was just plausible enough to draw me into the intrigue. I actually discussed this theory with fellow foreign service officers. I say the Iran plotline actually works well and truly passes the plausibility test and arguably does a public service by reminding Americans that we are not sure we have heard the last of the ramifications of the assassination of Suleimani.
JP: OK, you’ve convinced me. The script successfully dramatized specific dynamics related to Iran. But once they randomly insert Libya into the story, any semblance of coherence vanishes.
Seemingly out of nowhere, they concoct a scheme to bomb Russian mercenaries in Libya—known in the show as the Lenkov Group but meant to represent the real-life Wagner Group—in retaliation for the discovery that Lenkov was behind the attack on the British vessel in the Persian Gulf. This twist comes after the ill-fated Iranian ambassador collapses and dies just after revealing that Lenkov had framed Iran for the attack.
GW: But the British characters are so great. And true to life in some cases! Prime Minister Nicol Trowbridge’s crisis of masculinity is a stroke of genius. Rory Kinnear’s performance as an overgrown boy desperate to reenact Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands War, which must have been his first political memory, reminds me of more than one Conservative member of Parliament I’ve known.
Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison fills the character of just-metrosexual-enough Black Tory: a fusion of William Hague with Kwasi Kwarteng’s self-image.
JP: So I take it you wouldn’t kiss the ring and serve in a Kwarteng cabinet?
JP: Ha. Clearly, you’re just another member of the anti-growth coalition. Fun fact: Kwarteng actually visited Libya in 2017, actively legitimized the rogue Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and wrote a truly bizarre think tank paper replete with quasi-Qaddafian ideas about how to solve the conflict.
GW: Thank god Kamikwasi didn’t get a shot at ruining British foreign policy along with the economy.
JP: Westminster inside baseball aside, the explicit premise of The Diplomat is that it is set in the real-world geopolitical dynamics of the post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-Ukraine war world. But the plan to bomb Libya makes no sense on its face and even less sense if you think about how the main characters present it.
1) Explicit references are made to the fighting continuing in Ukraine and high energy prices. Yet there are also references to Lenkov forces are “raping their way through Libya.” This makes no sense. There are no major active hostilities in Libya at present, and Wagner likely hasn’t killed anyone in the country in over two years.
These days, Wagner mercenaries are simply embedded with Haftar’s forces to protect oil installations and airfields. Their primary aims are to maintain Haftar’s capacity to impose oil blockades and to move materiel at Russia’s behest to Sudan.
2) If the United States bombed them, that would also cause a major crude price shock, which would significantly help Russia in Ukraine and would hurt the West. It would also likely cause an environmental disaster.
3) Wagner mercenaries in Libya have never played a decisive role in any fighting. It is worth remembering that they were on the losing side of the 2019-20 war for Tripoli and did not meaningfully confer extra firepower or manpower to Haftar’s forces.
4) There have never been more than a few hundred Wagner forces in Libya, and they are quite spread out. And they liaise frequently with Anglo-American allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—as well as possibly France. If they were readily bombable and someone had actionable intel, Turkish drones would have hit them already.
BS: Jason is right that the Libya plotline is all wrong. And given the U.S.-U.K. history on Libya—Prime Minister David Cameron convinced President Barack Obama to take military action over strong reservations on the president’s part and then did not deliver on the promised nation (re)building, souring their relationship—getting Libya dynamics all wrong is a serious flaw in the script writing.
EG: I don’t know, Jason. They may have totally botched the Libya stuff for the sake of a plot twist, but I am going to double down on saying the show is pretty on point when it comes to how diplomacy works with Iran. Or maybe it’s just the fact that there are a lot more Iranians than Libyans in Hollywood and the Netflix scriptwriters got some good advice from their politically plugged-in buddies in Westwood.
JP: I do buy that. But it pains me. People think Iran is more central to Western interests than Libya because they eat more Persian food and the Shah’s granddaughter appears on their Instagram feeds. But Libya is arguably the geostrategically most important failed state, yet it is treated by real foreign-policy makers as peripheral to Western interests and by screenwriters as a basket case in deepest Africa that we can just bomb to help save the benighted natives from the mean mercenaries.
EG: I’ll defer to you, Jason, on Libya, but on Iran, the fact that there’s a ticking nuclear crisis on the horizon does make it a pretty strategic security dilemma. The show is fairly spot on about the way Iran and the United States have used back channels—created in the course of nuclear talks between the Obama and Rouhani administrations—to defuse tensions.
Over the months and years and endless coffee breaks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal, Iranian and U.S. officials at both high and technical levels were in direct negotiations, during which human relations that had been forbidden for decades were forged. For example, in 2016 John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had a string of direct phone calls to negotiate the swift release of U.S. sailors detained by the Revolutionary Guard after entering Iranian territorial waters. This avoided dragging Iran and the United States into conflict.
It is widely rumored that some degree of contact was maintained between Iranian officials and former U.S. officials who left office once Donald Trump took the White House. While it would be incredibly unlikely that these channels would be used directly, it is plausible that Iran would use a third-party diplomat—say, a Swiss diplomat (or, as in the case of The Diplomat, an Italian)—to relay messages to the United States.
GW: One observation from someone who worked with Cameron. (I was at party headquarters.) The show does capture well the way that officials and expertise are sidelined and lampooned entirely in keeping with British practice. I just wonder if more could have been done with the woke golf-club bore from the Iran desk?
EG: In real life, the foreign office Iran folks are actually not boring. I know I sound like a cheerleader for defending cinematic realism, but the show has also drawn from very recent tensions between Iran and the West concerning alleged foiled Iranian terrorism plots on U.K. soil (which MI5 says have sharply increased over the past year, targeting exiled dissidents following nationwide protests inside Iran). The United States has also alleged that Iran has actively plotted to assassinate former U.S. officials as part of its “revenge” for Suleimani’s killing.
JP: But the Iranian ambassador dropping dead in the foreign secretary’s office—what perfect timing! He has a secret meeting that even his would-be assassins couldn’t have known about, and he happens to just keel over right after revealing the geopolitically important information. Come on!
EG: OK, fair enough. The scene where an U.S. ambassador ambushes her Iranian counterpart at the U.K. foreign office, precipitating his sudden death, was a laugh-out-loud moment. Yet it is not unimaginable that U.S. and Iranian officials would meet secretly.
For example, since the Biden administration came into office, it has been reported that U.S. officials (who were part of the Obama nuclear negotiating team) reengaged in talks with Iranian officials as part of efforts to release Americans arbitrarily detained in Iran. But such meetings would require careful coordination and calibration (presumably in part to avoid any heart attacks for the Iranian diplomat who would fear reprisals for meeting with the “Great Satan” without clearance).
Oh, and based on my sources at the foreign office, there is no secret back door into the foreign secretary’s office.
BS: I have only been into the foreign secretary’s office through the front door myself, so I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a back door. We do have some escape routes in the State Department though—so I wouldn’t rule out a secret back door at the foreign office.
What I would rule out is that scene where Ambassador Wyler holds her meeting with the Russian ambassador at the foreign office, ostensibly to underscore solidarity with the Brits. That just wouldn’t happen. We’d host the Russian ambassador at either the embassy or Winfield House, not at the foreign office. On the question of whether career diplomats develop and retain relationships of trust—that absolutely happens and is one of the great advantages of having a strong diplomatic service. I love the way The Diplomat shows the value of those relationships and, by extension, the value of diplomacy.
JP: Sorry to harp on the Libya errors, but there are quite a few more reasons that the most daring secret plan of the whole series makes no sense and the dialogue about it is painful. There’s a reference to “trying to reopen a war that the U.N. settled” and talk of the Lenkov mercenaries disrupting what was otherwise a successful U.N. mission. If only.
The protagonists imply that the Libyan government is fighting Lenkov to regain the country and would be very grateful if Britain helped by bombing the Lenkov forces in Libya. Really? That is not how the real-life Libyan diplomats I work with would take it. And which of the rival pseudo-governments are they referring to? In reality, neither of them would be happy, and Wagner doesn’t control any territory outside its own bases in Libya anyhow.
All this smacks of a stereotyped American viewpoint that all imploded conflict states are essentially the same and most have hot civil wars unfolding in them at any moment.
GW: Let’s get back to backstabbing Brits. I mean, the final episode makes London seem like 1980s Beirut. Even if car bombs in central London circa 2023 are over the top, the show does nail one thing: Ruthless rivalry is routine at the top of British politics, where everyone wants to be prime minister. The incumbent prime minister depends on the support of a cabinet of professional plotters whose life ambition is to replace him or her and who, being elected MPs themselves, have just as much legitimacy as he or she does.
It gives the British system, when not dominated by a Thatcher or Tony Blair, the flexibility that Americans would only dream of, but it also turns politics into a knife fight between sociopaths where no smear is too unpleasant for a tabloid press that still commands sway in the Westminster bubble even greater than it holds over the country at large.
Having a career U.S. ambassador as the only person with both the clout to get things done and the knowledge to do it seems sadly all too necessary. In a parallel world, Brett McGurk or Richard Holbrooke could be given a time machine and sent back to 2016 to prevent Brexit—but better not give the showrunners any more outlandish ideas.
BS: The idea that the ambassador or deputy chief of mission might get deeply involved in a pressing foreign-policy issue, particularly one with a significant intelligence dimension, is entirely plausible, though.
And the idea that really good U.S. diplomats know just who to call to figure out what is really going on is also plausible, as good journalists who. As for Garvan’s time machine for an effective U.S. diplomat to head off Brexit: I did (as deputy chief of mission in London) manage to get the assistant secretary of state to come to London to give a press conference in 2012 making clear that the United States thought the U.K. was a more potent ally inside the European Union than outside—and saying we thought a referendum was a bad idea. It made my friends at No. 10 very cross with me, but I was and am good with that.
What haunts me to this day is whether what I did was too little, too late. If the U.S. government had spoken up early on, when Brexit was still a dumpster fire among the Tory back bench, might we have convinced Cameron that a referendum was not the easy way to manage a restive back bench but a gamble that risked far too much? I’m still losing sleep about that one. Maybe a few fantasy episodes in Season 2 could put this issue to rest for me.
JP: Yeah, maybe I need to look more on the bright side. Parts of the show were gripping and reflected genuinely interesting dynamics, especially on Iran. In retrospect, it was probably naively optimistic of me to want the unwashed masses who reside outside the Beltway or the M25 to learn through a Netflix show about various real issues preventing coherent Western foreign-policy formation—let alone about the actual situation in Libya.
I get that now. But was it also an immodest desire for me to want them to gain some humorous exposure to the real hilarities of working in foreign affairs? I mean, there is so much real stuff to dramatize and satirize, given the horrific inefficiencies of a broken international system. The Diplomat remains one massive missed opportunity.
GW: This show is just too whimsical to ever aspire to high art. Nor is it an earnest docu-pic, but diplomats, as the WikiLeaks cables revealed, are smart people with strong characters, even when the communiqués through which they speak have to be edited carefully to maximize blandness.
The show preserves the human element of diplomacy, and it is within artistic license to compress months of events into a single week. Nevertheless, Jason is right that it missed an opportunity to play the absurdity more for laughs, like the French series Au Service de La France, about a young intelligence recruit who had to deal with counterparts from the Quai D’Orsay, as France’s Foreign Ministry is known.
As for this show, with apologies to the French general who observed the Charge of the Light Brigade in a past Crimean War, c’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le Quai.