Many years ago, as I completed my studies at Oxford, I had to decide what to do next.

I was interested in the diplomatic service (since there was still a lot of world to see) but should it be the New Zealand service - (I had been offered a job by External Affairs) - or the British?

I decided to make an approach to the Foreign Office to see what they would say and – having sat the entrance exam – I was offered a job.

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After a stint at the Foreign Office in London and then a posting to the British Embassy in Brussels, I had begun to get a feel for diplomacy. I was, therefore, a little surprised when I was approached by someone with whom I worked, and asked if I would be interested in joining MI6. I decided to stick to what I knew.

I had already realised that it was part of the natural order that a significant proportion of the staff at most embassies (of most nationalities) were not what they seemed and worked on "the dark side". In the British service, they were referred to as "friends".

That is why, when diplomatic relations become strained between two countries, the usual response to some alleged misdeed is to expel a number of embassy diplomats, on the reasonable assumption that they are likely to be spies – precisely what Britain has done following the apparently Putin-authorised attempted murder in Britain of a former Russian spy and his daughter using the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok.

Putin's involvement was found to be "overwhelmingly likely" because Novichok can be safely handled only by those who made it and therefore understand it, and Russia, as witness the Litvinenko case, has form in such matters.

Twenty-three Russian diplomats were sent packing by the British as a protest. They were described as "spies" and probably were - the British were no doubt very well aware of who was doing what at the Russian embassy. The Russian tit-for-tat response is par for the course.

The world-wide diplomatic reaction to the episode shows that Britain is not alone in condemning such an outrageous assault by one state on another (albeit that the prime victims are individuals). Vladimir Putin must understand that what may well be standard practice for a former KGB official within Russia has no place in other countries, even if the advantages to a President wanting to encourage a large turnout in the fake election he is currently fighting are all too evident.

President Putin's intervention in the 2016 US presidential election is already the subject of considerable contention and it seems increasingly likely that he is intent on throwing his weight around as part of a campaign to restore Russia's position as a "great power".

What "the West" (to revive a Cold War term) should now do is a matter for the most skilled response that can be brought to bear. Sadly, while I have every confidence that the British Foreign Office and the French Quai d'Orsay remain in skilled professional hands, we cannot be equally sanguine about the American State Department.

Donald Trump's first choice as Secretary of State, the now departed (not to say, fired) Rex Tillerson, had no diplomatic experience and under his watch, the State Department was run down in terms of expertise, numbers and morale. His successor, former CIA head Mike Pompeo, has a record that does not inspire confidence – which may make obviously dangerous pressure points like Iran and North Korea more difficult to resolve.

While the weakness of the State Department may be one of the gains sought by Putin when he tried to engineer Trump's election, such an outcome does not necessarily depend on foreign intervention.

We should not forget that our own Murray McCully, when he was Minister for External Affairs here, in my view, set out to appoint businessmen and political hacks rather than experienced diplomats to head up our posts abroad – thereby pre-dating by half a decade the practice now adopted to predictably problematic effect by Donald Trump.

In the murky world of espionage and state-sponsored criminality, skilled diplomacy remains by far the best means of resolving international crises. James Bond may be entertaining in the cinema, but the world is a dangerous enough place without making it more so.