Are embassies still necessary?


in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Security

Dylan Prazak

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 idea—the necessity of traditional embassies and all the elaboration they entail—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:

  1. Do embassies still do anything that couldn’t be accomplished by fewer people in less specialized secure facilities?
  2. 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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

. January 6, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Military Role in U.S. Embassies Creates Strains, Report Says

Published: December 20, 2006

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 — The expansion of the Pentagon’s presence in American embassies is creating frictions and overlapping missions that could undermine efforts to combat Islamic radicalism, a report by Congressional Republicans has found.

Chris Berry January 6, 2009 at 3:00 pm

I think you are probably right about the espionage aspect, but we have to remember that this works both ways. Don’t forget the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that had to be demolished before it was completed. Maybe the only real value of the modern embassy is to provide a safe haven when relations between nations take a sudden turn for the worse.

Milan January 6, 2009 at 3:05 pm

As a sign of how closely related embassies and espionage are, consider the Soviet/Russian embassy in Ottawa. In 1956, its employees let it be gutted by fire, rather than allow Canadian firefighters to enter. That was probably the right choice, given how Canadian and British intelligence agents tried to plant bugs in the replacement building while it was being constructed.

oleh January 7, 2009 at 12:38 am

“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.”

As a traditionalist, I had simply assumed the need for embassies. You have given me something to think about. I think another reason for spending significantly for embassies may be simply the prestige of having an ostentatious embassy. However, that is not a good reason. Maybe countries do not can save significantly by reducing the costs associated with embassies by acting the manner you suggest. Perhaps the diplomatic community can join together to have one community hall for their larger social functions.

Alena January 7, 2009 at 11:28 am

As I grew up in Pakistan, I saw first hand the changes in the American Embassy there. When we first got there in 1967, the American Embassy was pretty much a cultural centre with a theater, library and lots of open events to promote American values and culture to already keen and westernized Pakistanis. Within 10 years that changed dramatically and a number of people had been kidnapped or assassinated. The open and friendly approach quickly changed and the embassy turned into a fortress. We experienced the same changes in Sudan where there was a bloody attack on the embassy staff in which a number of our young marine friends were killed as they formed the first line of defense for the ambassador. I continue to view embassies as places to promote good will among people, but if the costs of keeping them safe become so high, maybe their days are numbered

Anon January 7, 2009 at 11:36 am

Embassy roles:

The role of such a mission is to protect in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law;

Aside from spying, it’s not clear how fortress embassies do this, except perhaps when coordinating the evacuation of their nationals during periods of national crisis.

negotiating with the Government of the receiving State as directed by the sending State;

Given communication technology, this can mostly be done from home, with the occassional delegation deployed to negotiate in person.

ascertaining by lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State;

There are two ways of doing this: media monitoring, which can be easily accomplished from outside the country, and having a feel for how the populace is actually thinking. The latter cannot be achieved from inside a fortress.

There is probably some extent to which embassies are still useful due to their communications with people inside the host country government, as well as the interpersonal relationships they help foster.

promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations.

Perhaps the most dated purpose for embassies. Firstly, embassies are too fortified to do this well. Secondly, globalization means they are no longer especially important actors in this field. Private for-profit and non-profit organizations can do a better job of playing this role.

. August 26, 2009 at 3:39 pm

The Identity Crisis Of the American Embassy

Are embassies to be fortresses, cultural landmarks or simply offices? The answer is up for grabs.
By Jane C. Loeffler
It should come as no surprise to Foreign Service professionals that most Americans have no idea what embassies do or why they are important. Two examples illustrate this point: When architecture students were asked to plan the reception area for a U.S. embassy last fall, one young man presented drawings of an embassy lobby that included a fully-equipped bar complete with stools. His rationale was that “happy hour” was a time for embassy personnel and their guests to unwind and that the lobby area was ideal for this purpose. The students seemed baffled by the question of who would enter the embassy or what sort of business might occur there. Second, when a group of Midwesterners recently toured Italy’s soon-to-open embassy in Washington, they listened attentively but appeared clueless as to what the building was for. “Maybe treaties?” one man suggested.
Buildings that proclaim a nation’s identity to the world should not be so misunderstood. This is a problem for those who recognize their importance as symbols and also for those who work in them. With security shaping every aspect of embassy architecture, U.S. foreign buildings are undergoing a profound identity crisis. Once celebrated as emissaries of openness and optimism, they now convey a mixed message — pride coupled with apparent indifference, assertiveness fused with fear.
With every disaster there are calls for more draconian provisions aimed at averting another tragedy, like the bombings in East Africa on Aug. 7, 1998. But in the rush to provide needed security, there has been little time to assess how the threat of terrorism is affecting America’s overseas identity or to examine the crucial question: Are openness and security mutually exclusive? When technical analysts, such as structural engineers and blast experts, take over key embassy planning decisions, there is less focus on the larger picture of presence, and also less focus on the quality of the workplace environment and those who use it.

. September 1, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Because embassies have become hard targets, terrorists have turned to attacking hotels, which also are symbols of Western influence in many parts of the world. In many ways, large Western hotel chains have become today’s embassies. Lowering their highly visible profile by removing company signs and logos to discourage attacks would be contrary to most business practices, especially abroad.

Because they are soft targets, attacks against hotels can be expected to generate a high number of casualties, many of them Western tourists or business people. In November 2002, 15 people were killed when al Qaeda-linked suicide bombers attacked the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Kilifi, Kenya. In August 2003, the Jemaah Islamiyah militant group attacked the JW Marriot in Jakarta, Indonesia, killing more than a dozen people and injuring more than 100. In July, four al Qaeda-linked suicide car bombers attacked hotels in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort, killing 34 people.”

. September 8, 2009 at 12:38 pm

We observed that after 9/11, increased situational awareness and security measures at hard targets like U.S. government or military facilities were causing militants to gravitate increasingly toward more vulnerable soft targets, and that hotels were particularly desirable targets. Indeed, by striking an international hotel in a major city, militants can make the same kind of statement against the West as they can by striking an embassy. Hotels are often full of Western business travelers, diplomats and intelligence officers. This makes them target-rich environments for militants seeking to kill Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate the extreme security of a hard target like a modern embassy.

In early 2005, STRATFOR began writing about another trend we observed: the devolution of al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement from an organizational model based on centralized leadership and focused global goals to a more amorphous model based on regional franchises with local goals and strong grassroots support. As a result of this change, the less professional local groups receive less training and funding. They often are unable to attack hard targets and therefore tend to focus on softer targets — like hotels.

Following several attacks against hotels in 2005 — most notably the multiple bombing attacks in Amman, Jordan, and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt — we updated our 2004 study on the threat to hotels to include tactical details on these attacks. Now, following the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and the July 2009 Jakarta attacks, we are once again updating the study.

The most likely method of attack against a hotel is still an improvised explosive device (IED), whether vehicle-borne (VBIED), planted ahead of time or deployed by a suicide bomber in a public area. However, after the Mumbai attacks, the risk of a guerrilla-style armed assault including the use of high-powered assault rifles and explosives against multiple targets within a given radius is quite high. The relative success of the Mumbai operation and the dramatic news coverage it received (it captured the world’s attention for three days) mean that copycat attacks can be expected. Additionally, attacks targeting specific VIP’s remain a possibility, and hotels are likely venues for such attacks.

. November 3, 2010 at 4:39 pm

“Embassy wars – a feverish battle with bugs and telephone taps – were a dominant theme that connected the 1950s and the 1960s. Over a period of twenty years, diplomatic missions ceased to be elegant salons peacefully advancing their nations’ interests and were gradually transformed into technical fortresses from which espionage was both launched and repelled. Ironically, as the Cold War moved from a period of intense hostility, symbolised by figured such as Stalin, toward the possibility of détente under a new generation of leaders such as Khrushchev, the increased diplomatic interaction between East and West only offered yet more possibilities for electronic espionage.”

Aldrich, Richard. GCHQ: The Uncensored Story Of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency. p.197 (hardcover)

. September 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm

America’s embassies
First, dig your moat

Designing buildings for America’s diplomats is getting ever trickier

Jul 30th 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

“NOBODY can be messing with our embassy,” declared Barack Obama in mid-July, after a pro-government mob pelted America’s mission in Damascus with stones, eggs and tomatoes. That is not true, however, of the put-upon architects who have to design America’s embassies: they are constantly being hit with new restrictions, from both their own government and the host country.

Ever since the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, security has been the overarching concern when designing new embassies. Safety rules have been tightened repeatedly, and incorporated into a “standard embassy design” that dictates which offices should be adjacent to which (keep the bigwigs away from the public areas), how far embassy buildings should be set back from nearby roads (100 feet, or 30 metres), what materials can be used for walls and windows (nothing that is easy to climb or shatter) and so on. The result, critics say, is a dull series of near-identical, boxy bunkers. As John Kerry, who heads the Senate foreign-relations committee, put it in 2009, “We are building some of the ugliest embassies I’ve ever seen…I cringe when I see what we’re doing.”

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