This Vanity Fair article discusses the evolution of American embassies from open glassy structures intended to be a concrete reflection of American values into fortresses that almost completely isolate those inside from the country hosting them. This is certainly true of the new embassy in Baghdad. It has its own electricity and water supply and it is sharply isolated from even the ‘Green Zone,’ which is itself a fortress for foreign occupiers. The article goes on to ask whether embassies are even really necessary, in this age of mass communications:
Faced with the failure of an obsolete ideaâ€”the necessity of traditional embassies and all the elaboration they entailâ€”we have not stood back to remember their purpose, but have plunged ahead with closely focused concentration to build them bigger and stronger. One day soon they may reach a state of perfection: impregnable and pointless.
There is certainly something to the argument. If the people working there are completely out of contact with the local population, they may as well be located in their home state. Due to security concerns, day to day matters like visas and assistance for tourists are increasingly handled at locations aside from embassies. Perhaps all ambassadors need these days is some secure office space, a home in a well defended gated community, and the ability to rent facilities where large social functions could take place. Eliminating embassy compounds would remove a tempting target for terrorists, and allow a lot less diplomatic and local staff to be retained.
In the end, the two key questions seem to be:
- Do embassies still do anything that couldn’t be accomplished by fewer people in less specialized secure facilities?
- Do any of those enduring purposes justify the risk and expense now associated with embassy construction and operation?
It seems to me that the answers may be ‘not much’ and ‘often, no.’ The most important remaining role for many embassies may be in espionage: snatching up nearby radio transmissions and providing some land that operates under the legal regime of the ambassador’s home state.