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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 (diplomatic) Service.  The State Department's Foreign Service operates American embassies and consulates in most countries of the world at a cost to the taxpayer of many billions of dollars per year.

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;  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.

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 ...

One may ask, Isn't the embassy an important resource for Americans traveling in foreign countries?  Well, no, it isn't.  Typically, if you as an American citizen need assistance from the American embassy, you don't make an appointment;  instead you show up and stand in a long line outside, in the rain, snow, or whatever weather.  After perhaps an hour in this and another line or two, and a security pat-down, you get to enter the building through a small side door and go through the security routine again.  You may find yourself in a small room with a few cashier's type windows.  This room is the only part of the embassy you will see.  You take a number;  you wait.  Eventually you get to try to explain to the person on the other side of the bullet proof glass what you need.  Service?  Hardly.  It turns out the only service you get from the embassy can be handled out of a small office with half a dozen functionaries.  It's the imposing American presence represented by the embassy American territory that it is that invites the security problem;  it would not be a problem if the simple day-to-day paperwork was handled apart from the embassy.

(Several countries have, incidentally, asked the U.S. to move its embassies from downtown locations 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 cost us billions, and are a security and traffic nightmare.  The thing to do with them is to shut them down and rent a small office where functionaries can carry on their minor paperwork.  The host nation could easily house several dozen countries' service offices in a single building.  As for the Ambassador, a traveling Ambassador going where he/she is needed when he/she is needed there will be a far more efficient use of resources.  It's likely that if the U.S. 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 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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