Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

DIPLOMACY IN TRANSISTION: Are embassies outdated?

Buried in the archives of the State Department in Washington is a 19 th-century dispatch from the diplomatic representative in Barcelona. It complains bitterly that the mission in Spain has had no word from Washington since 1816. Date of the dispatch: 1828.

Now, says Ambassador Samuel Gammon, who tells the story in the modern State Department office where he oversees personnel matters, the department sends and receives about 1,000 cables each day to and from its missions around the world.

About these ads

His highly placed British counterpart, in the more Spartan surroundings of his London office, mentions Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore. Even when dispatches were sent, they took six months to reach him and another six to yield a reply. In the meantime, he was the voice of Britain in Malaysia.

Now the airlines fly daily to Singapore, and the voice of Britain speaks from London. "Ambassadors will not nowadays act without instructions," says the British diplomat.

Changes in travel and communication since World War II are only one aspect -- the quiet side -- of a slow, steady shift in the outlines of international diplomacy. A noisier side -- heard most acutely in the takeover of the United States Embassy in Tehran but seen also in threats to embassies throughout much of the free world -- involves a profound shake-up of the ancient notion of diplomatic immunity.

Where is the trend taking us? Are the striped pants and glamour of diplomacy giving way to fatigues and combat boots? Is international relations becoming the purview less of ambassadors in the field than of bureaucrats with telephones in the capitals? Is diplomacy, like the diplodocus, outmoded? Or is it evolving?

Interviews with high-ranking diplomats in London and Washington point a common direction: Even before the Iranian situation posed its hard questions, Western governments were taking hard looks at the future of diplomacy. The role of the ambassador and his staff, in broadest terms, is still clear. Robert Neumann, former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Morocco, notes that their purpose is "to give the home office a feel for the realities of the host country , and to give the host country a feel for the realities of the home country."

To do so, says Harry Barnes, the State Department's former director general of the Foreign Service, requires an ambassador who is a Renaissance man -- whose view is both broad and deep, who is "bright enough to understand the complexity" of the problems faced.

But if the role is the same, carrying it out has changed during the last few decades. Observers cite several forces for change:

About these ads

* The expanding international community.The past 30 years, the British diplomat says, have seen great increases in the number of countries needing some form of permanent representation. Whereas Britain had some 65 missions in 1949, it now has more than 120. The United States, which had 99 diplomatic posts in 1960, now has 133.

As countries tend to band together into supranational groupings such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the UN and the European Community, the nonaligned and Islamic nations, they require multilateral as well as bilateral diplomacy.

Contact with such groups in Brussels, New York, and elsewhere requires a mission and often an ambassador. But, the British diplomat says, "Policy is not being made in New York -- policy is being made at home." So multilateral cannot simply replace bilateral representation.

* Better transportation and communication. The "shuttle diplomacy" of the 1970s -- seen again in the Middle East activities of President Reagan's special envoy, Philip C. Habib -- prove that higher-ups from home can preempt the ambassador at the drop of the landing gear.

"[Former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy and highly personal style, however successful," Ambassador Neumann says, "have made foreign ministers increasingly unwilling to deal with anybody other than the secretary." One result: Power coalesces at the top, sucked upward from ambassadorial to secretarial level.

Nevertheless, diplomats generally feel that the role of the ambassador remains crucial in laying the groundwork for such visits -- not so much, perhaps , on the relatively familiar terrain of Europe as in what the US ambassador to Chad, Donald Norland, calls the "terra incognita" of places like Africa.

But other diplomats point to the resignation of the former US ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, because of what he felt was the refusal of the White House to credit his views of the Iranian situation. Their point: The ease of communication led White House staff to rely less on the embassy in Tehran than on its own interpretations of events.

* Increasingly complex negotiations. Diplomats agree that straightforward foreign policy matters now get less and less attention, replaced by an upsurge of technical concerns. The former American ambassador in London, Kingman Brewster, argues that the complexity of negotiations -- on topics as diverse as nuclear weapons, fisheries, and the Olympics -- requires experts from outside the Foreign Service. The nature of the ambassador's role, he says, is such that "you cannot have a firsthand, definitive knowledge of anything."

Instead, he says, the ambassador "takes on a function as a kind of coach or briefing guide to the expert." Embassies fill in the experts on the nuances of political pressures in the host country.

* Growing commercial dealings. Before World War II, the British diplomat notes, commercial counselors ranked "below the second scullery maid." Now, as the commercial functions in embassies assume top priority, the commercial counselor may even stand in for the ambassador when he or she is away.

The reason: Trade relations have become such a vital part of international affairs that they are brandished (as military force was once brandished) as threats -- as they were, for example, in the West's dealings last year with the Soviet Union over Afghanistan and Poland.

Reflecting this increasing importance, the Trade Reorganization Act of 1980 established a separate Foreign and Commercial Service in the US under the Department of Commerce, removing similar functions from the State Department.

Beyond these forces, a more immediate problem also shapes the role of diplomacy: the need for security. Along with the Iranian crisis, world attention has focused in the past decade on the killing of British ambassadors in Dublin and The Hague, of US diplomats in Khartoum, the Sudan, and Guatemala, and of a host of related incidents.

The problem, as the State Department's former assistant director of security operations, Verne St. Mars, says, is that security costs money. Since 1974, the US has spent $117 million on security -- money that, in a safer world, could have supported diplomacy more directly. Security costs now eat up 7.3 percent of the department's $820 million salaries-and-expenses budget -- up from 4.3 percent in 1974.

Those costs cut directly into diplomacy's greatest asset: people. The number of US Foreign Service officers has declined from 3,717 in 1960 to 3,564 in 1981.

Most diplomats say the constraints of heightened security, including armored limousines and search procedures at entrances, have not hampered the ambassador's ability to do his job. But as a former British ambassador to an Arab country noted, "All embassies are more or less fortresses nowadays."

His observation is borne out even in London, where a vigorous Middle Eastern community imports some of the same racial and religious animosities now tearing apart its homelands.

At the Israeli Embassy, for example, barbed wire, steel gates, television cameras, window grates, and less obvious security measures keep out anyone who does not have an appointment. Inside, an Israeli diplomat shrugs it aside. "We have not even to the slightest changed our way of acting," he says.

So far, there is little evidence that security risks are hampering recruitment into either the US or the British diplomatic corps. In fact, the reverse may even be true. After a slowdown in applications during the antigovernment outbursts of the Vietnam war years, the newsworthiness of diplomacy has brought a resurgence of interest.

But Mr. St. Mars notes that the costs of security may have to include higher salaries for riskier areas. His question: "Can you really pay a guy enough to take the kind of risks that affect his wife and children?"

Some diplomats say no -- and match words to action by bailing out of the Foreign Service altogether. When they do, private employers are generally happy to snap up their skill and expertise. For those who stay in the diplomatic corps, however, it is the question of wives and children that is causing some of the greatest concern for the planners.

Harry Barnes, reflecting on what he calls "our general and growing concern about how we staff embassies," notes increasing demands that wives accompanying diplomats overseas be allowed to work. Reciprocal working arrangements are being negotiated, notably with Canada, to allow working papers to diplomats' wives. But in some smaller countries, working American wives are often seen as a threat to locals who might otherwise get the job.

One result: Where once Foreign Service assignments were accepted unquestioningly by the officers, increasing numbers are turning down postings for family reasons. "When I entered the Foreign Service," says former US Ambassador to Liberia Robert Smith, "assignments were not regarded as negotiable." Now, he worries about "a breakdown in Foreign Service discipline."

Even in Britain, where the women's movement lags far behind that in the United States, the Foreign Office abolished in the mid-1970s the rule requiring women officers who married to resign. Now, some take their husbands on assignment -- although, says the British diplomat quoted earlier, "Where he sits at table is all rather complicated."

Nevertheless, says one highly placed Foreign Service planner in Washington, many officers prefer Washington assignments -- a change, he says, from 10 to 15 years ago. The reasons: "The danger factor, the dollar factor, the spouse factor."

Add to these the sheer cost of maintaining some awkward and expensive buildings -- some of the beautiful old verandaed mansions in the Far East, for example -- and the economic pressures on international diplomacy become even more acute.

Where does it all lead? Will the thrust of the women's movement lead to increasing separation -- diplomats abroad, spouses and children at home for the sake of jobs and schools?

Already, in danger zones like Beirut, that is the situation. Some observers wonder whether it will become more widespread, and whether the US and Britain will someday be represented abroad largely by single men and women.

Will that representation, they ask, provide an accurate reflection of these countries in the eyes of the host nations?

And will the sheer costs of doing business shrink the world's capacity for diplomatic interchange -- fewer people in the field, more in the air?

What it comes down to, says one US diplomat, is, "Do we consider ourselves a first-class power needing first-class representation any longer?"

"If the question is, should we maintain the same level of diplomatic progress we have for the last 40 years," says a State Department financial analyst, "the answer is probably no and the department is looking at it."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.