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A diplomatic necessity: Why embassies persist in the digital age

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This post is part of the Do embassies still matter? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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6 April 2016 16:07


This post is part of the Do embassies still matter? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

In conjunction with the launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

Do countries still need to maintain expensive, permanent official establishments in foreign capitals? Or have advances in communication overtaken embassies? Like a hardy perennial, this question comes around every few years. Contrary to those who believe embassies have had their day, in my view they are in renaissance, performing a role for which there is no substitute. If embassies did not exist, they would have to be invented.

There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, bilateral relations are increasingly complex and volatile. Their propensity to sprawl across a range of subjects and involve multiple state and non-state actors means the field team — the embassy — is the only home entity with a holistic, real-time view of the relationship with the assignment country. Foreign ministries that understand this have actually thinned out staff in their territorial departments, so as not to duplicate the work done by embassies. That is the experience of Canada, Germany and the UK, among others.

This leads us to the second reason for a strengthened raison d'etre: embassies are now more engaged in the day-to-day management of bilateral relationship. Of course, this role will always be subordinate to the MFA, but advice offered by embassies is crucial. This role carries risk. It requires embassies to shift out of narrow field vision (‘I know my parish, but policy is determined at home’); they must comprehend the larger context of that bilateral relationship, and offer policy advice based on a total. national perspective.

And while a few would argue modern communications obviate the need for embassies, I would respond they have only enhanced their role. In- house networks allow the embassy abroad to be ‘nested’ into an MFA, as if located in the next room. Proposals and ideas are bounced back and forth, and policy execution deployed in a seamless process that was inconceivable even 15 or 20 years back. Secure video conversations are also quotidian, again enhancing MFA-embassy integration.

But some communication is an illusion. Home officials and leaders today can, and do, deal directly with foreign counterparts, via their smartphones and the many apps that permit instant, conversations bereft of protocol or intermediaries. To outsiders, it seems heads of governments and ministers run such exchanges independently, unmindful of what their officials think. Mostly, though not always, that is an illusion. Exchanges are still scripted and it is the resident embassy that remains the permanent, reliable communications channel, especially in the phases that precede and follow direct encounters between leaders at bilateral summits or larger conclaves.

At its core diplomacy is still about trust-based communication between authorised state actors, and that trust is a product of relationships constructed and nurtured with foreign interlocutors. As Paschke observed in his 1999 report for the German government, interchanges between ministers and high home officials that meet continually at conferences produces an ‘illusion of familiarity’. The craft of relationship building rests on trust, predictability and integrity and embassies ground those relationships.

Finally, in a world where news is always breaking and instantly available, embassies provide analysis that is predicated on the interests and objectives of the home country that draws on information from many authoritative sources in the assignment country. News media, in contrast, tend only to report in times of crisis and with newsroom budgets shrinking all over the globe, there are fewer correspondents able to invest time in cultivating such sources.

While it may appear the embassy reporting role is diminishing in value, they singly and jointly furnish continual analysis that remains pertinent, particularly in places where bilateral relations are fraught or hostile.

Of course embassies have to be empowered to do all of the above. When countries recycle politicians or other non-professionals as ambassadors, these appointees often lack motivation or craft skills. Some perform well, but they tend to be the exceptions. That is the situation in much of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, where half, perhaps even more, of embassies are led by those who have been selected from outside the career track; non-professional ambassadors are less prevalent in Asia, and virtually unknown in Europe.

None of this detracts from the need for countries to periodically undertake ‘zero base’ evaluation of their diplomatic networks and consider different representation options. With public funds in short supply, recourse to new forms is likely to spread, including closing embassies of marginal importance, shifting envoys out of expensive and ostentatious residences and chanceries, or opting for low-expense methods, such as ‘non-resident ambassadors’, a form of part-time representation, where ambassadors visit the assignment country a few times per year. It's practised by Malta and Singapore and used selectively by some other countries. Another option is to share embassy premises and service facilities. Scandinavian nations, central European countries, Baltic states and others do this. Joint embassies in the full sense have been tried by East Caribbean states, but one should not be surprised if some EU states and others also move in that direction.

In sum, embassies remain as the key element in bilateral diplomacy, very much front and central to the promotion of external relations. While the physical form they take may be evolving, their role is critical in our world of globalised diplomacy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user: Olivier Finlay Beaton

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