What happens when a small city in America stands up to those two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union?
The answer is -- a lot of trouble.
The small city is Glen Cove on Long Island outside New York City.
Glen Cove is the town where the Russians relax on the weekends after working all week at the Soviet mission to the United Nations in New York City. They swim at the local beach and play golf and tennis. At least they did until recently, when the city council of Glen Cove decided to take away these privileges. The Russians, of course, are upset and want the use of these sporting facilities again. In turn, the Russians have stopped American diplomats in Moscow from going to their beaches.
The people who run Glen Cove are not budging. They think the Russians are up to no good. They think that while the Russians are staying in their 46-room mansion at Glen Cove, they are spending a lot of their time spying. As a result the city council decided it was time to punish them. Nobody knows for sure, though, whether the Russians really are spying.
You would think the US government would be cheering the patriotic people of Glen Cove on, wouldn't you? Wrong.
The US government is very embarrassed and annoyed about the incident. For one thing, it doesn't want a small place like Glen Cove meddling in affairs that concern a foreign country. If spying is going on, then Washington feels it should handle the problem.
There is another important reason Washington is telling the mayor of Glen Cove to keep his hands off. And the reason has to do with the way all nations in the world are supposed to handle diplomats. Diplomats are the people who represent their governments on official business in foreign countries. The Russians who represent their government at the UN are diplomats.
Diplomats, whether they are American, Russian, or any other nationality, by international agreement are not subject to the laws of the land in which they are working in the way its citizens are.
Here are some examples of the special treatment diplomats get when they are serving their countries abroad:
They are not taxed. Their baggage cannot be searched when they arrive at the airport from a trip overseas. They cannot be brought to court if they have broken the law. They don't even have to pay for parking fines.
Because diplomats are shielded or covered from these rules or practices, they are said to be immune. This protection for diplomats is therefore called diplomatic immunity.
Unfortunately, some diplomats have taken advantage of these privileges. As a result a new federal law was introduced about four years ago which no longer shields lower-level workers of an embassy from some of these protections. Ambassadors and other senior diplomats, however, still do enjoy this immunity.
An embassy is a building that houses the diplomats of a particular country. It is based in the capital city and is headed by a top diplomat called an ambassador. A diplomatic office that deals with less important matters, such as issuing visas, is called a consulate. The person who 'heads' a consulate is a consul whose rank is lower than an ambassador.
An embassy, a consulate, or the residence of a foreign government is expected to be safe for the people who work or live in it. The host government is expected to protect it. If necessary, the government will station troops outside the building to make sure angry mobs don't attack it. Protection of diplomats is one of the most important rules of international law.
The United States didn't like what happened to its embassy in Tehran, Iran, when Iranian revolutionaries seized it and held about 50 Americans inside it hostage from Nov. 4, 1979 to Jan. 20, 1981. Practically every government in the world supported the American government in protesting this unlawful action.
This is why the US government is so agitated about a local community like Glen Cove taking action on its own against Russian diplomats.
Even if the Russians were found to be spying at Glen Cove, the US government would not treat them as criminals. Instead, it would probably see to it that the diplomats were called back to the Soviet Union by their government in Moscow. It's just another example of how diplomats are treated in a very special way.