Commentary | 19 September 2016

Does modern diplomacy still need a global network of embassies?

In a special issue of Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, the electronic journal of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Alex Oliver argues that embassies are still essential in today's diplomacy. The full article (translated from the original into German) can be read here

The version in English is set out below.

  • Alex Oliver

In a special issue of Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, the electronic journal of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Alex Oliver argues that embassies are still essential in today's diplomacy. The full article (translated from the original into German) can be read here

The version in English is set out below.

  • Alex Oliver

Executive Summary

Are embassies still important?

The centuries-old model of diplomacy – conducted by governments through their embassies – is under challenge. The rise of digital communications, the increasing potency of non-state actors, the ascendance of global issues over bilateral concerns, international financial crises: all these have wrought massive changes across the globe, affecting the way governments operate. Some have speculated that the embassy, like the horse and cart, will no longer matter in this new order. Indeed, the communications revolution, the democratisation of information, security challenges, increasing centralisation of decision-making, the power and reach of global corporations, combined with the global financial ravages of the last decade, are testing the traditional model of diplomacy to its limits.

In an era of tightening government budgets and an anaemic global economy, it is expensive to maintain a network of permanent embassies across the globe and staff them with trained diplomats from the home country. Diplomats themselves have a reputation for being elitist, old-fashioned, ineffectual cocktail-circuit regulars – an expensive luxury. They are also frequently ‘male and pale’, failing to reflect the diversity of their modern societies, which limits their ability to understand and engage with the societies in foreign countries. They have been digitally-challenged, slow to adapt to the modern communications landscape and thus alienated from large sections of contemporary society.

When modern leaders can converse with each other and with huge audiences on Twitter and Facebook, apparently without reference to their ambassadors, it is tempting to assume that countries can conduct their diplomacy very effectively without the need for bricks-and-mortar establishments. Governments and their embassies no longer monopolise global flows of information: mass communications transcend borders, and information is freely available through global news services and other sources across the world wide web. Further, large corporations – some of which eclipse many national economies – have vast resources, sources of information and intelligence, and appear to have little need of the services of an embassy or consulate in a host nation.

These arguments are simplistic and fail to comprehend the diverse functions and value of the embassy and the diplomats within it. Trade, immigration, tourism, the internet and global news services may well create connections between nations. But it is diplomacy which still provides much of the necessary lubrication. Diplomats forge relationships with foreign governments, navigate power dynamics, gather and interpret information, and help citizens and businesses steer through foreign settings and legislative regimes, all with a trained eye on their country’s national interest. The Secretary of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) eloquently made the case in a 2015 speech:

A subscription to The Economist is no substitute for Australian eyes on the ground. The telephone and text messages cannot substitute for the relationships that embassies build with the power brokers in other countries. 

Good relations between nations are built on trust. Military and economic strength count, of course, but the example of the United States and China in the South China Sea illustrates that neither military nor economic heft guarantees a diplomatic outcome. Trust is built on relationships formed on the ground over extended periods of time. Fly-in fly-out visits by leaders or, as has been suggested by some, non-resident diplomats, cannot substitute for relationships of substance built over time. The embassy is the key constant.

In a major research project released early in 2016, the Lowy Institute for International Policy examined the diplomatic networks of all 42 OECD and G20 nations in its Global Diplomacy Index, updating earlier work done in 2009 and 2011. We found that while around half of those 42 nations have reduced their diplomatic footprint over the last decade, others had expanded, including China, Brazil, Germany, Turkey, Korea, Mexico, Argentina, Indonesia, Chile, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Australia.

This reinvestment in diplomatic networks suggests that governments continue to see value in their embassies and other overseas posts. Some (like Australia) had cut their diplomatic networks as a result of restructuring and post-financial crisis austerity budgets, but are now opening or re-opening posts. Germany’s Auswärtiges Amt suffered budget cuts in the period 2010-15, but its €4.8bn 2016 budget is almost 50% higher than the €3.3bn it received in 2012, and its extensive diplomatic network has been maintained. Between 2010 and 2015 the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) was forced to shave £100m from its annual spending and nearly 10% from its UK-origin staff count. While hiring freezes remain in place, the FCO has deployed extra staff in priority posts and opened or strengthened fifteen posts. Since 2015, Australia has committed to an additional six diplomatic posts, its largest expansion in several decades.

These expansions could be justified by the rising importance of consular work alone. The explosion of international travel, driven by lower prices and globalisation, has seen record numbers of citizens travelling overseas every year, visiting an ever-broadening set of destinations. When they encounter trouble, their embassy or consulate is often their first and last resort. Rapid response teams can fly in to assist with major crises, but the bulk of everyday consular work needs the resources, local knowledge and contacts of a consulate.

Ministries are alive to the challenges they face and are addressing the shortcomings of their embassies and diplomats. While there is much more work to do, the embassy remains a crucial instrument of international relations.