Diplomatic Chess or Checkers: What Is ‘Persona Non Grata’?

The reasons for applying the label include spying, tit-for-tat games, expressions of ideology and the whims of dictators.

The Russian government sent a plane to Washington on March 5, 2022, to collect 35 of its diplomats declared "personae non grata" by the United States. File photo by Reuters.

In John LeCarre’s world of spy fiction, a declaration of “persona non grata” that forces a diplomat to leave a foreign country is preceded by clandestine meetings, turned-up coat collars and a switch of identical briefcases. The reality can be strikingly different. Although spying is a valid and often-used reason for slapping the “PNG” label on someone who is no longer welcome in the country, sometimes the reason behind it is a tit-for-tat game, an expression of ideology or the whim of a dictator. “PNG” is even used as a verb.

More Russians officials than any others have been expelled for spying in recent years — from various more than 20 countries. One of the latest rounds took place four days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, when the United States PNGed 12 Russian “intelligence operatives” posted to Moscow’s mission to the United Nations in New York. The State Department said they had “abused their privileges of residency in the United States by engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security.” Although the department added that the U.S. “action” had been “in development for several months,” it was viewed as part of the West’s efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically for its aggression against Ukraine.

Having no illusions that the Kremlin would kick out the same number of American diplomats from Russia in response, Washington likely delayed the Russians’ expulsions at least in part to allow the Americans to remain in Russia as long as possible. The U.S. diplomatic presence there had already dwindled significantly as a result of previous tit-for-tat PNG rounds. As expected, Moscow ousted 12 Americans a day after the State Department announcement. Such reciprocal actions are standard practice. Sometimes declaring someone accredited as a diplomat a PNG resembles a chess move — to make a point or advance a certain policy — but more often it’s a game of checkers, or a way to show displeasure or anger for a perceived wrong.

Espionage can be a legitimate reason to send someone home because of the widely used practice of passing spies off as diplomats in foreign countries. It was much more common during the Cold War, when the West and the East developed an informal, but highly organized, set of rules governing this process. There were barely any such cases in the first two post-Cold War decades, but they have become more frequent in recent years, particularly since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

It was recognized early in diplomatic history that, for a country’s diplomatic missions abroad to operate effectively, they had to be largely free from host-government interference. That was codified in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which says that a receiving state may declare any member of a diplomatic mission a PNG “at any time and without having to explain its decision.” The convention also defines diplomatic immunity from the criminal and civil procedures of the receiving state — immunity lies with the sending state, rather than with individuals, and that state can waive or withdraw it in certain cases. Although all countries have signed the Vienna Convention, some have violated it. For example, in 1979, the Iranian government held 52 diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days.

Get the Diplomatic Diary

My first experience with the PNG process occurred while serving at the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela in the mid-2000s. In 2006, then-President Hugo Chavez announced that he would expel U.S. Navy Commander John Correa for allegedly encouraging Venezuelan officers to consider overthrowing his government. Chavez threatened to throw out all U.S. military attachés if the alleged activities continued. I knew Correa well. He was a good officer and only engaged in normal attaché activities. The State Department had run into significant difficulties trying to send personnel to Venezuela for some time. Chavez’s government greatly slowed the accreditation process for embassy staff, and the mission wasn’t able to function properly. In response to Correa’s ouster, the department decided to play chess and expelled a more senior Venezuelan diplomat from the United States, the chief of staff to the Venezuelan ambassador. That seemed to quiet things in Caracas for a while. 

During my time in the country, I served with two ambassadors, William Brownfield and Patrick Duddy. While Chavez repeatedly threatened to PNG Brownfield, he never did. Some speculated that it was because of Brownfield’s personality and ability to use humor to deflect Chavez’s rhetoric. For example, after one threat to kick him out, Brownfield told reporters: “My bags are always packed and ready.” In 2008, a year after Duddy became ambassador, Chavez PNGed him, but not for anything he had done in Venezuela. The checkers move was as a gesture of solidarity with Chavez’s friend, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had expelled the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg.

Chavez initially threatened to PNG Duddy over allegations made by senior Bush Administration officials that Venezuela was involved in cocaine smuggling, but he did not follow through on his threat. Yet a few weeks after I left Caracas in 2008, an odd thing happened. Bolivian President Evo Morales declared U.S. Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg persona non grata, accusing him of sanctioning spying on Bolivian nationals. He was only the eighth U.S. chief of mission to be expelled from a foreign mission. In response, the United States PNGed the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington.

Chavez, who died in 2013, wasn’t known for admitting mistakes. So he surprised many when, a year after expelling Duddy, he changed his mind and rescinded the PNG designation. The State Department responded in kind, allowing the Venezuelan ambassador back to Washington. Reciprocal expulsions of diplomats, however, continued and intensified under Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, culminating in the closure of both embassies in 2019.