Modern world, along with globalization, challenges the existence of traditional diplomatic institutions. It cannot be agreed, whether the embassies and high commissions are still needed. Is the technology replacing them? Should other government departments deal with the issues related to them? Or is their existence too much valuable to replace them? There are so many pros and cons of having permanent missions abroad. The aim of this article is to compare pro arguments to arguments against in order to find out whether the institutions of the ‘old’ diplomacy have any contemporary relevance.
First of all, let me start with a little bit of historical background of embassies to understand the reason of its existence. Embassies, in the form known today, were established in the 13th century in Italy. Envoys were expensive to dispatch and were facing risk during travelling. Resident embassies in a foreign country not only minimized the risks and expense of constant journeying by rough roads and unpredictable seas; they also aided political reporting and the more discreet preparation, conduct and following up negotiations. (Berridge, 2015, 115) Permanent missions were needed, because there was no such a thing as telephone or internet. But, in the modern world, where the developed communication technology allows us to get in touch with somebody on the other side of the world within seconds and without leaving our house, and where travelling became much easier and safer, where media reports anything what happens more or less immediately, we have to look for a deeper meaning of diplomatic institutions.
What is embassy actually for? Functions of the normal embassy are representing the sending state and protecting its interests in the receiving state, while gathering information about the latter state, and negotiating and promoting friendly relations with it – all within the limits of international law (Article 3). (Berridge, 2015, 119) Embassies carry important tasks. It is a tool for strengthening relationships between states by, for example, hosting social occasions or attending state ceremonies. Building relations with public by giving public lectures. Provide consular services to its own citizens who lives abroad. Play crucial role in negotiations between states. Reporting home on present conditions or on relations between hostile states on the territory of a third. Provide support for government figures when travelling abroad. In the time of war or state of emergency, ambassadors play important role. In some countries, the function of embassies can be more specialized, depending on the priorities of a particular relationship. For example, in developing countries embassy takes care of the administration of foreign aid. French embassy in Delhi has a nuclear energy section or U.S. embassy in Mexico City includes department which deals with narcotics.
Another aspect is the actual building, where embassy is located. It might symbolize values to which this state attaches high importance. For instance, the Turkish Embassy in Berlin consists of two halves separated by a high, copper-covered archway meant to represent Turkey’s position as a bridge between Europe and Asia. (Berridge, 2015, 121)
It seems that functions of embassies are irreplaceable. However, some argue that effects of dramatic improvements in travel and communications decrease the importance of these institutions, or even make them to be useless. International organizations seem to have more influence than traditional diplomatic institutions. Multilateral conferences appear to be more effective. The embassy can no longer, by itself, provide the diplomatic means to cope with the global system. (Leguey-Feilleux, 2009, 185) Institutions, such as United Nations or European Union, changed the way how the diplomacy is practiced. Also, since diplomacy covers range of specialized issues, other government departments need to be involved.
Other argument is that reporting had been overtaken by the huge growth in the international mass media. Diplomatic missions also face danger due to the ideological tensions and cultural divisions. Some of the embassies were attacked. As an example, see The report from United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security on ‘Significant attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel’ (Bureau of Diplomatic Security, 2013).
Apart from danger, the weakness of permanent missions is the cost. Berridge, professor of international politics, also points out that ambassadors, who are part of permanent mission abroad, have tendency to ‘go native’. (Berridge, 2015, 117) That means that there is possibility to lose touch with sentiments at home. Being part of different culture, accepting gifts from the locals, and becoming part of the community of receiving state can potentially lead to the change of the interest.
The world is changing and many things, including diplomacy, are adapting to the modern era. However, the nature of diplomacy and the tradition remain the same. Permanent missions still have its important role. They are just adapting to meet the needs and expectations of the modern society. Some embassies shrunk, those of others have expanded. Some being closed down, however new ones are being opened. Some countries run the missions cost effectively. This means, that states might share the embassy, or that there is one institution available in the region rather than in each state and the ambassador travels around. States are deeply interconnected with each other, therefore communication and cooperation are the key to success. The map below shows us how many permanent missions are currently in the world:
Figure 2: (Global diplomacy index, 2016)
This picture shows how many permanent missions are run by USA:
Figure 3: (Global diplomacy index, 2016)
You can see the connections of other countries as well. This interactive map is available on the website of Lowy Institute: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/global-diplomacy-index/ (Global diplomacy index, 2016)
Permanent missions are still in use and facilitate many activities. The word ‘permanent’ represents the crucial meaning of embassies and high commissioners. Regular consultation can promote the partnership. It allows to continuously work on the relationship between countries. Moreover, some types of negotiation require preparation and personal contact is essential. Ambassadors also have opportunity to follow up on the negotiations, when needed. Reporting home on present conditions is more accurate. Trained staff is more reliable than media. The advantages of traditional diplomatic institutions are still more valuable and strong enough to deal with its weaknesses.
Given all the points, I think that institutions of ‘old’ diplomacy do have contemporary relevance. If anything else, embassy is permanent reminder that your country exists. It creates platform for personal contact. Personality matters, and you cannot send personality by email, Whatsapp, Skype or even Twitter.
Berridge, G. R. (2015), Diplomacy Theory and Practice (fifth edition), Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke
Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S.D. of S. (2013), Significant attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel 1998-2012, Washington, D.C., Available at: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/211361.pdf, [Accessed: 19 November 2016]
Gallaga, M.G. and Diplomat, T. (2013), Do we still need embassies?, Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2013/09/do-we-still-need-embassies/, [Accessed: 19 November 2016]
Global diplomacy index (2016), Available at: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/global-diplomacy-index/, [Accessed: 19 November 2016]
Leguey-Feilleux, J.-R. (2009), The dynamics of diplomacy, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, CO
Newsy Politics (2015), What do embassies have to do with diplomacy? – Newsy, Available at: https://youtu.be/remTjP-yhk0, [Accessed: 19 November 2016]
Oliver, A. (2016), “The Irrelevant Diplomat“, Foreign Affairs, 14 March 2016, Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2016-03-14/irrelevant-diplomat, [Accessed: 19 November 2016]