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Foreign embassies:  anachronisms!

August 2004

It's time to rethink the need for foreign embassies. They may be a useless waste of taxpayers' money, while presenting convenient targets for terrorists.
The U.S., like most countries, is dumping a substantial chunk of the government budget down a rat hole called the Foreign Service. The State Department's Foreign Service operates more than three hundred American embassies and consulates in most countries of the world – even at the Vatican! – at a cost to the taxpayer of many billions of dollars per year. And what's it all for? A couple of practical purposes, like issuing visas, handing out tourist brochures, and helping Americans in trouble, but mostly the embassies are there for prestige – to show that we're important. After all, the other countries all have embassies.

Of course, the ambassadorship, expensive though it is, does serve the purpose of allowing the President to reward his political contributors and supporters, and the post has been used for this purpose from the beginning. Some may think it worth the cost to have some of these people out of the country ...

The practice of governments keeping permanent representatives in foreign capitals became widespread only in the late 17th century; until then it was a rare court that thought this worth the cost. Resident ambassadors may have served a useful function in the 18th and 19th centuries, perhaps even through part of the 20th century. But in the 21st century their usefulness to the nation is near nil, while their cost is high. With modern communications among all levels of governments, the functions of permanent ambassadors have largely been reduced to useless formalities. The ambassador attempts to hobnob with the host nation's leaders, and attends formal social functions, where his presence is a mutual pretense that the President himself is on hand. In addition, the ambassador serves as an errand boy, passing notes of protest to the host government, and receiving same.

The presence of embassies in a capital city creates an elite environment that lays on the host country the unnecessary burden of maintaining a gala diplomatic social circuit, with its financial costs, wasted time, and security concerns. Both the host and guest governments would benefit by skipping this entire circus, dedicated as it is to deception, flattery, and spying. And speaking of spying, the average embassy houses a good number of spies with a ready-made HQ for mischief. Getting this hornets' nest out of town would leave one less worry for the host country.

One may ask, Isn't the embassy an important resource for Americans traveling in foreign countries? Well, no, it isn't. Even if you travel a lot, as I do, you'll probably never have anything to do with the embassy. Gone are the days when your friends wrote letters to you to be picked up at the embassy. (Or wired money for you to the American Express office.) Those days won't return. Of course, if you do something stupid and land in jail, you may receive a visit from the consulate, but it'll probably only be to confirm your identity. Mostly, the embassy deals with visa applications, spying, and making sure the ambassador has hot coffee and polished shoes.

Why not quit the bad habit of building embassies, which have time and again been magnets for violent acts directed at the US. The fact that the embassy represents a piece of American sovereign territory draws terrorists like flies to a cowpie. If it were not for the considerable effort expended on spying, on keeping the ambassador happy, and keeping him and the entire staff and building safe, the actual business of the embassy could be handled out of a relatively modest trade and visa office. We could skip the spies; instead, one or two communication/translation experts could monitor local news media and political events and provide summaries to the State Dept. It's the imposing presence represented by the embassy that invites the security problem; remove it, and that problem dissipates. Several countries have, incidentally, asked the U.S. to move its embassies from downtown locations to an outlying area because of the traffic interruption and the security risk it poses for local citizens.

American embassies serve little or no useful purpose in the 21st century. They've outlived their usefulness, they cost us billions, and are a security and traffic nightmare. The thing to do with them is to shut them down and move the needed functions to a service office. The host nation could easily house several dozen countries' service offices in a single building, which would avoid the security breaches we have experienced before. As for the Ambassador, a traveling Ambassador, official, or Secretary of State coming directly from the President and going where he/she is needed when he/she is needed there will be a far more efficient use of resources than keeping a couple of hundred of them lazing away unproductively on the banquet circuit.

My suggestion is that we (the US) begin by closing down in a few minor countries. Let's definitely start with the Vatican. This "country" (which our State Department calls the "Holy See") isn't even large enough to house our embassy, which has to be located in Italy. It should be a rule: that a country that doesn't have room for an embassy doesn't rate an embassy. We would move on to closing down in minor countries, quickly saving tens of millions. But eventually let's get out of most or all of them.

It's likely that if the US gives up the practice of keeping foreign embassies, first a dozen, then a hundred countries will follow suit, because in the end the practice is really just an expensive and traditional but outdated fad that everyone does because everyone does it. And communication with foreign governments wouldn't suffer a whit.

© 2004 H. Paul Lillebo

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