Do We Still Need Embassies?
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Do We Still Need Embassies?


One of the impacts of the global recession is that it has compelled a number of countries to scale back their diplomatic representation overseas by closing some of their embassies. Faced with the economic and financial realities during economic downturns, governments often have little choice but to cut back on the spending that is involved in maintaining and operating embassies overseas.

For developing countries, especially those facing issues such as poverty, serious income inequality, battered economies and poor quality of life for average citizens, it can be quite difficult to justify the allocation of limited government funds to maintaining an embassy. It doesn't help that there is a mistaken public perception of the way in which diplomacy is conducted: that it is all about cocktails and receptions. It makes it very easy for grandstanding politicians to target diplomats and their perceived "lifestyles" overseas in order to make budget cuts.

Not surprisingly, then, there has been discussion or debate as to whether embassies and resident diplomats are still needed or relevant in the 21st century. Globalization and rapid advances in information and telecommunications technology have connected billions of people. The conduct of diplomacy cannot be immune to this. It must change or at least adapt, so that it is more responsive and effective in this modern environment.

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Former British diplomat Carne Ross strongly emphasizes this point, noting that conventional embassies are ill-suited for today's challenges.

Yet others would go further, and argue that embassies no longer have a role in the conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy. Proponents of this view would cite the benefits of modern telecommunications and information systems and networks. Instead of spending millions to keep ambassadors, security teams, and other support staff resident in a foreign country, presidents and prime ministers can now conveniently communicate directly on matters of urgency and importance. Cellular phones, e-mails and video-conferencing technology enables world leaders, government officials and bureaucrats to communicate and coordinate directly with one another.

If person-to-person contact is a must, air travel allows an official to be anywhere in the world in less than a day. Some countries designate special envoys to take advantage of this. The use of special envoys to cover specific countries and/or issues is certainly more cost-effective than maintaining a fully staffed embassy.

And of course the internet makes it easy to gather information and monitor events and developments overseas. A network of local contacts can likewise be established to serve as sources on the ground to help gather and evaluate data, information and news, which can then be made available electronically.

So there would seem to be a strong argument to be made in favor of eliminating embassies, particularly for governments facing harsh fiscal and economic realities. Yet there is an equally strong case to be made in support of maintaining a diplomatic presence overseas. This case rests on the premise that the outlays are necessary and will produce a return over the long term.

Take Zambia, which in 2009 spent around US$20 million on its foreign missions. That’s a significant amount, but with an economy worth around US$20 billion that year it only represents 0.1 percent of GDP. Developing countries usually require foreign direct investments and increased market access for their goods and services to help grow their economies, and embassies play key roles in bringing these into the country.

Viewed from that context, devoting that percentage of GDP to improving the chances of securing much-needed investments, broader market access overseas and developmental aid seems to constitute a worthwhile outlay.

But diplomacy and managing relations between countries is not a business. Although economic and commercial interests invariably play a big factor, diplomacy is about more than just dollars and cents. Indeed, it is as much about form and symbolism as it is about substance. Specifically, establishing or maintaining an embassy is a clear sign to the host government of a commitment to deepening bilateral relations.

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