Britain likes to claim that, diplomatically, it punches above its weight. When that fails, though, it is clearly open to a bit of hardball. Only this explains the threat, disclosed with righteous indignation yesterday by Ecuador's Foreign Minister, to enter the country's London embassy and seize the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, by force. That threat was, to say the least, unwise, in that it ceded a measure of diplomatic advantage to Ecuador and was not, realistically, going to change anything.
The balance of probability was always that Ecuador would grant Mr Assange's plea for asylum, and there was little Britain could do. Ecuador's own record on free speech might not be unblemished, but it is a generous granter of asylum and its relations with Britain – and Sweden, where Mr Assange is wanted for questioning on sex charges – are not so crucial to its wellbeing as to influence the decision.
The result, as of last night, was a stand-off that leaves Mr Assange holed up in the Ecuador embassy, the Foreign Office pledging to carry out its "international obligation to extradite him to Sweden", and Sweden accusing Ecuador of obstructing the course of international justice. The whole episode highlights the difficulties that follow when a canny individual seeks the protection of a foreign state, but also of certain grey areas in law and diplomacy. One such is the validity of the UK's 1987 law permitting entry into a foreign embassy; another is the question of safe passage. Some draw comparisons with China, which allowed the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, to leave for the US.
Justifying his asylum claim, Mr Assange cited fears of prosecution in the US for publishing secret government documents. And both the UK and Sweden have reportedly refused to guarantee that he would not face extradition to the US, which may fuel suspicion. In present circumstances, though, the US is a distraction. If Mr Assange is to live up to the honesty and integrity he professes, he must defend himself in Sweden, then contest any US extradition on its merits. Anything else will at once harden the current diplomatic impasse and discredit what is left of his reputation as a campaigner.