Eli5: How could a nation’s government verify the credentials of an ambassador before modern technology?

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Before high speed, secure communication technology existed in the form of computers/phones, how could a government confidently engage with someone claiming to represent a foreign nation’s government? I just imagine you’d risk someone with the ability to forge documents and put on a good performance being able to declare war on behalf of an unsuspecting country.

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9 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

The ambassador came with signed credentials from the government/King on a scroll/letter sealed with an official wax seal. In addition they would normally be a known noble from a respected family not some random stranger.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Head of state says to host nation that they will dispatch someone at a particular date on whatever ship and send with papers. Imposter needs to:

– intercept this original communiqué to know what is going down
– forge papers with royal/imperial seal (so they need to find something else that has been sealed to copy from)
– abduct the real ambassador so two don’t turn up
– either commandeer the ship the ambassador was on or build their own ship to the same design and name it the same
– arrive at the destination and present themselves and their fake papers according to correct protocol
– fund and build an embassy at the agreed location
– report back to their home country using correct protocol, seal and ciphers

In older times ambassadors or emissaries were usually exchanged face to face along with an exchange of hostages for surety.

Anonymous 0 Comments

[Somewhat relevant XKCD](https://xkcd.com/2650/)

People lying is a very old problem, as old as humanity at least and likely older still. So while yes it was possible to pretend to be someone you were not and make decisions that does not mean that everyone everywhere would take you at face value. Forged documents might help, but if you rock up and say you’re the Duke of Suchandsuch and you bear a message from King Soandso and nobody in the Court has heard of you, or your duchy then why would they believe you? At a minimum they might ask someone at Court they do know to verify that you are who you say you are.

Anonymous 0 Comments

This is one reason why historially ambassadors were members of the aristocracy. King Jimbob isn’t going to just send some random schlub to be his ambassador to king Billybob, he’s going to send Duke Dickweed to be the ambassador. King Billybob knows Duke Dickweed either directly or by reputation.

Another technique is for King Billybob to send a trusted person, Count Cowfart, to meet the ambassador right there in King Jimbob’s court, have King Jimbob introduce Count Cowfart to Duke Dickweed and that way Count Cowfart can personally assure his liege King Billybob that Duke Dickweed really is the ambassador from King Jimbob.

In addition to that, the whole signet ring and wax seal really was semi-secure. The signet was made by a skilled craftsman and quite diffcult to reproduce (as well as being a crime that resulted in a really horrible and drawn out execution if you were cuaght trying to reproduce it) and the wax they used as designed to cool brittle and rigid, adhere to paper and cloth, and to hold the impression perfectly. Meaning the only way to open the document would be to break the wax so you get both an assurance the document was legit sealed with the signet AND that it hadn’t been altered.

Anonymous 0 Comments

There’s a bunch who explained the historical solutions, but for the underlying academic problem: we do know it’s possible to communicate securely through insecure means. It’s actually *way* more important today than it ever was before “modern technology.” Notably, your computer/device can communicate securely with a remote server without needing to trust any of the tens-thousands of devices between you.

Now, the modern base standard example is the [Diffie-Hellman key exchange](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffie%E2%80%93Hellman_key_exchange), but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. There are simpler implementations of the same general idea, both mathematically and technologically, but the idea is that you can exchange secrets through open means.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Look up Lt Col Fremantle. He claimed to be an official observer from the UK and embedded with both Confederate and Union troops, but he was little more than a war tourist. Without an easy and official way to check his story, many high ups were fooled. It did happen.

Anonymous 0 Comments

You did occasionally have people fake credentials for assorted reasons. One of the most audacious cases was when a Scottish man, Robert Fortune travelled to China in 1848 at the behest of the East Indian Company, in order to acquire the secrets of tea processing. Mr. Fortune pretended to be a Chinese government official, and convinced the people running the tea processing plant to let him tour the place and see how things were done.


Anonymous 0 Comments

This kind of question is funny to me because I could see someone 500 years from now asking the same thing.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Depends on what part of the world you’re talking about, but when you see stuff in fantasy about someone having a ward, it’s an old tradition where important families would send younger children to live with other nobility. This creates a web of people who know and have a reason to care for each other, and can vouch for other representatives from other families who come to visit. Add in the limited availability of certain gifts, wax seals, and signed documents, it takes a lot to forge fake evidence.