This week’s attacks on U.S. embassies in the Middle East have brought into sharp focus the dangers of an expansive physical diplomatic presence overseas which has led some to question why the U.S. remains in the region.
The U.S. currently has 294 physical embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions across the world, with 27 in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which is more than any other nation. Other major Western powers, such as Britain, are currently expanding their overseas portfolio, but has the U.S. reached saturation point whereby its network is becoming more damaging than beneficial? Are these attacks a signal that the U.S. should reduce its diplomatic footprint in the Middle East and elsewhere?
A look of the top 3 pros and cons of having a physical diplomatic presence will help to answer these questions.
1) It’s the norm! Every state wishing to establish and maintain mutually beneficial diplomatic relations with another seeks to do so with a base on the other’s soil, and the U.S. undoubtedly wants to continue to advance its interests abroad. Having a resident embassy makes it easier to cultivate and maintain contacts, negotiate, lobby, gather information and handle a crisis in relations should one develop. The personal touch almost consistently proves more effective than remotely trying to perform these functions.
2) Prestige: To maintain America’s foreign standing and super-power status it is important for a continued demonstration of its involvement and influence in all four corners of the world, which embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions partially symbolize. To withdraw and retreat would risk damaging U.S. relations with their on-going allies that remain in these regions.
3) A diplomatic hub for travellers and foreign nationals: With millions of Americans travelling and residing across the globe, embassies and consulates provide the necessary bases for nationals in trouble or in need of assistance, from lost passports to legal issues.
1) Symbolic targets for attack: The more embassies a state has the more foreign targets there are for an adversary to attack. The U.S. is not short of this physical diplomatic presence, and the violence directed towards the U.S. embassies this week is just the most recent of attacks on the highly symbolic buildings. Other notable events include the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 and the attack on French, Turkish, and Saudi Arabian diplomatic buildings during the Syrian uprising.
2) Are physical embassies redundant? The role of the embassy and ambassador have diminished over recent years with dramatic improvements in travel and communications alongside the increased number of summits, multilateral meetings and the utilisation of organisations such as the UN more. Furthermore, in the current cyber-age, many traditional functions of an embassy can now be found online and indeed the Obama administration opened a virtual embassy in Iran last December. While this signalled a downgrade in diplomatic relations with Iran, in the future the establishment of a virtual embassy may not need to signal this, and would remove the foreign physical presence and reduce the risk to U.S. personnel.
3) Political fallout over diplomatic immunity: Embassies and their immunity powers can stir political trouble as demonstrated through the Julian Assange controversy in Britain in recent months. By removing U.S. sovereign buildings on foreign soil, there may be fewer objections to an overt U.S. presence and the immunities that are attached to it.
The advantages of embassies to maintain and improve important diplomatic relations in an increasingly globalized world vastly outweigh the possible disadvantages embassies bring. Embassies and consulates have survived many sustained troubling periods including two world wars; therefore their continued existence shouldn’t be too strongly doubted just yet.
While what has happened across the Middle East is very troubling, it is not the time for the U.S. to run scared from all its diplomatic posts but must instead stay-put where possible. Obama rightly responded that the U.S. “can’t withdraw from the region” as it “would hurt our safety and security.” It is vitally important for the U.S. to continue to promote its interests in the MENA region and elsewhere; having a physical diplomatic presence, such as embassies, will help to facilitate this.
It’s much easier to demolish an embassy and the relationship that accompanies it than to build it back up again irrespective of how shaky the functioning relationship currently is. The U.S. should nevertheless be cautious before making any moves to expand their physical diplomatic network in light of the current attacks.