Do We Still Need Embassies?

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Do We Still Need Embassies?

Modern technology and cost pressures prompt some to argue they are irrelevant. But embassies still have a role.

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.

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.

In addition, having people on the ground provides added value in terms of obtaining insight into what is going on in the host country. While it is plausible that the information gathering and country assessment functions of an embassy can be done remotely using modern technology, the quality is not the same. Consolidating and aggregating information is not enough. Analyzing local developments is a key part of a diplomat’s work and requires a deep understanding and appreciation of the issues, culture and “pulse” of the host country and its citizens. While our globalized world is increasingly interdependent, competition for access to markets and resources remains. A country with people on the ground is more likely to get a more accurate assessment of local opportunities, risks and developments. That is a competitive advantage.

Another advantage of having people on the ground is the extensive people-to-people contact is allows the host country. While communication may be maintained via phone and e-mail, and air travel makes it easy for officials to fly in for crucial meetings, these tools cannot replicate the relationship that can be established through constant personal contact and interaction.

Especially in countries whose cultures put a premium on personal relationships as part of doing business, a lot more is usually achieved over a round of golf, karaoke sessions or coffee at a cafe compared to constant exchanges of e-mails or phone calls.

Global migration is another key element that comes into play when assessing the need for embassies. In its “International Migration Report 2009: A Global Assessment,” the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat notes that by 2010, the number of international migrants could be as high as 214 million, an increase of 58 million since 1990.

Roughly 10% of the population of the Philippines (around 8-9 million people) live overseas, either as migrants or foreign workers. More significantly, the Central Bank of the Philippines (BSP) reported that personal remittances, which support the domestic spending that has fueled the country’s economic rise, rose 7 percent year-on-year. The Philippines is the fourth-largest recipient of remittances from overseas workers in the world, trailing only India, China and Mexico. But as a percentage of GDP, the Philippines leads with 13.5 percent.

Like other countries with very large migrant communities based overseas, the presence of embassies and consulates facilitates the effective provision of consular services and protection. The increase in levels of migration has also given rise to the global problem of human trafficking and incidents of abuse of foreign workers. Without embassies, these citizens would lose a valuable layer of protection.

So what are governments to do? The diplomatic approach would entail compromise, or a middle room. Governments will likely try to balance necessity and cost-cutting. Already, a number of countries are streamlining their diplomatic presences overseas by closing certain embassies and downsizing embassy staffs.

One novel and effective option being explored by some countries entails arrangements that deploy a resident diplomat based in an embassy of another country or the mission of a multilateral organization. For example, Estonia’s first diplomatic representation in South America is in Brasilia, capital of Brazil, and consists of one diplomat based in the Portuguese Embassy. This arrangement is made possible via a bilateral arrangement between Portugal and Estonia. Something similar is being explored by certain Latin American countries, particularly the members of the Pacific Alliance, especially with regard to enhancing their diplomatic presence in East Asia.

Embassies have existed for centuries and it is very likely that they will be around for a long time to come. The way they will operate and conduct their work will necessarily change and evolve to keep them relevant and responsive to global developments, but in one form or another, the embassy will continue to be key to the conduct of international relations.

Moira G Gallaga was Presidential Protocol Officer to three Philippine presidents and has completed assignments at the Philippine Consulate General in Los Angeles and Philippine Embassy in Washington D.C.