Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Yes, there is a point to an embassy

Yes, there is a point to an embassy
Published 14 Aug 2013 

Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.

After the recent precautionary closure of US and other Western embassies in the Middle East due to terrorist threats, Anthony Bubalo's questioning of whether too much security renders the functions of an embassy obsolete is both provocative and justified. There is no easy answer, but to permanently close embassies, especially in difficult countries, is no answer at all.

The three core tasks of diplomats are indeed rendered more difficult by security threats from non-state actors (the incidence where a functioning state encourages or obviously tolerates violence against a diplomatic outpost of another state on its territory is fortunately rare; the storming of the US Embassy in post-revolutionary Tehran is the only example that comes to mind).

These tasks can be summarised very briefly: an ambassador, backed by his/her staff, should be (1) a facilitator and networker at the nexus of the incoming (from the locals) and the outgoing (by its diplomats) functions of an embassy; (2) an on-the-spot reporter and analyst for the folks back home; and (3) a brand manager directing an intelligent display of soft power.

As Anthony points out, this means travelling in the host country and building up relationships with locals. Any envoy worth their salt will be close to the grassroots, digging well below the level of news and information on the web. [fold]

This kind of interaction can be done in a many different ways. Networking with the host government is usually done at a high (often ambassadorial) level, whereas meetings with dissidents are normally the task of junior staff. An economic or cultural event can be organised through a chamber of commerce, an embassy outpost or friendly structure anywhere in the civil society of a host country. The envoys of many countries, often linked by institutions (EU, NATO, ASEAN etc) or traditions (the Commonwealth, Francophone countries, Latin Americans etc), get together regularly to exchange information and share reporting tasks. And anybody in the profession knows that even the much derided cocktail parties can be information bonanzas.

The emergence of non-state organisations as indispensable participants on the international scene ensures that they too are frequently directly involved in the 'diplomatic circus', opening up still more sources of information and interaction than in 'classical' diplomatic times.

The potential for violence against posts and their staff is a function of the power and influence of the home country. Clearly, a US embassy or ambassador is a far higher profile target than the equivalent from a smaller and politically less important country. On the other hand, high profile embassies and envoys are routinely protected by high security, which makes softer targets viable alternatives for terrorists. Also, high profile embassies often have more staff who divide up work, making it harder to target any single person.

Things do go terribly wrong once in a while, as seen in the latest example in Benghazi. Ambassador Stevens is not the first and will not be the last US diplomatic representative who pays with his life for service to his country. From all we read about him, he would probably be the last person to advocate hunkering down permanently.

For the US and many other countries, the question is not whether to close down official outposts. The official envoy is more necessary than ever as a scout, a guide and an interpreter in the ever growing interaction of individuals, institutions and ideologies brought along by our flatter but at the same time more tribal world. The question is rather how to manage risk at diplomatic outposts through the right mix of security while at the same time diversifying sources, partners and access to stay involved in the world.

Photo by Flickr user Mieko-Y.

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