IN 1604, SIR Henry Wotten – an English diplomat travelling through Augsburg – composed an epigram for the guest book of the house in which he was staying. Legatus est vir bonus peregre missus ad mentiendum rei publicae causa, he wrote. ‘An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ Wotten was King James I’s ambassador to Venice at the time, and his remark – now infamous – was made in jest. But when King James heard reports of the comment some years later, he cast Sir Henry into disgrace.
In later years, when asked for advice by another ambassador, a more circumspect Wotton suggested that ‘to be in safety…and serviceable to his country, [the ambassador] should always and upon all occasions speak the truth’. A masterful reframing. Yet, despite Wotten’s clever change of tone and the long passage of time, his original statement is today the one most frequently quoted. And it’s a sentiment often echoed elsewhere, such as in Ambrose Bierce’s satirical definition of diplomacy as ‘the patriotic art of lying for one’s country’.[i]
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