To get to the American embassy in Amman, Jordan, one has to bypass a series of daunting obstacles, from a roadblock of thick cement barriers that line the access routes, to the security detail that regularly includes trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, and finally past the nine-foot stone wall that surrounds the immense compound occupying a space the size of six football fields. The embassy in Jordan is neither America’s largest nor most impregnable, two honors that both likely go to Baghdad, but it is certainly a product of the same security-first model of embassy building that has defined the last thirty years of American diplomacy.
The existence of fortress-like diplomatic compounds would seem antithetical to the very idea of diplomatic relations, an objective strengthened by engagement with the host society rather than isolation from it. Barbed-wire fencing and blast walls hardly convey the American ideals of openness and inclusiveness, which the country wishes to impart on the world at large. Although it is important to note that different embassies have different threat levels and corresponding security protocols depending on where they are located, the question still remains a critical one.
“There is absolutely no doubt that it is important for American officials to be able to engage with the society with which they are doing business,” says Dr. Stephen Sestanovich, a former US Ambassador-at-Large, who oversaw the diplomatic missions to the newly independent states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. “In my own experience, the concern about security can sometimes be counterproductive and can excessively circumscribe the kind of contact that people need to have.”
Yet the evolution of the American embassy from a public institution nestled in the hearts of international cities to the secure compounds tucked far away from the hustle and bustle of city life has come as a direct response to a long history of hostility and attack that has left many Americans dead.
In the political firestorm that has ensued after the killing of the American ambassador in Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, diplomatic security has become a lightening rod of presidential campaign attacks. Caught in the crossfire, however, is the very diplomatic work that politicians should be trying to protect. The partisan debate raging over the incident will likely only lead to an increase in the type of security that has alienated American embassies from host populations and made the work of American diplomats far more difficult.
“We had very extensive contact with Libyan society but we got an ambassador killed and now we don’t,” says Sestanovich. “It’s going to be a while before we build that up. We were too careless about what it takes to make it possible to sustain open diplomacy over the long run.”
There is no doubt that increased diplomatic security has been a necessary outcome of attacks on the lives and properties of Americans operating overseas. In 1979, as a popular revolution swept Iran, 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after Iranian students took over the American embassy in Tehran demanding the return of the Shah, whom had fled to the United States. Four years later in 1983, the American embassy in Beirut was bombed, killing 63 people. That same year, the US marine barracks in Beirut was also blown up killing 241 Americans and causing a US retreat from the war-torn country. In the late 1990s, American embassies in Nairobi and Dar el-Salaam were bombed killing 223, and bringing Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network front and center on the American radar.
In the aftermath of the Beirut carnage, Secretary of State George Schultz commissioned an advisory panel chaired by Admiral Bobby Ray Inman to see what could be done. In 1985, an evaluation known as the “Inman Report” was issued offering many recommendations for securing American diplomatic instillations abroad. The Inman report would fashion how American embassies were conceived and constructed for years to come. Embassies began to take on the characteristics of military compounds—incorporating all types of security measures, some of which impeded diplomats’ abilities to function. In some places, senior officials were chauffeured from place to place in armored convoys. Embassies became “hermetically” sealed from their surroundings, importing all their food and drinks from the United States. Many relocated to isolated, secure areas. In the words of the report, “Being on the busiest or most fashionable street or corner may have been an asset in earlier days; today it is a liability.”
“You have to look at each [embassy] on a case by case basis,” says Dr. John Hirsch, a former US ambassador to Sierra Leone who also served in Pakistan, Israel and Somalia, among other places. “Some of this is just kind of the reality of the time that we live in. So if you are in Kabul, you are just going to have to do the best that you can with security guards. I think the role of diplomacy has changed in the sense that you have to adapt to these realities. But I don’t think that they ultimately make it impossible to function.”
Harvard professor and foreign policy realist Stephen Walt describes the impression the embassies give as a combination of “power and paranoia.” In an article in Foreign Policy magazine in 2010 titled Fortress America?, Walt stated, “It’s possible to go too far in the quest for perfect security. Trying to blast-proof everything may even be counterproductive, if the damage done to our global image is greater than the damage that violent radicals would do to a slightly less-fortified global presence.”
The “fortress America” embassy may also reinforce the image of America as a militaristic nation and an empire abroad, particularly in the Middle East where those embassy-compounds already exist and where the American presence is most resented. In considering the implications, it would also be prudent to reflect on the purpose of diplomacy and if those objectives can be met as the push for security becomes overly acute.
“The objective is the same one that its been as long as diplomacy has existed,” says Amb. Sestanovich. “To have the kind of face to face, confidential contact with governments at all levels, so as to be able to do business, and a broader and minimally fettered contact with the society beyond government so that other national interests can be advanced, whether it’s cultural contacts, commercial contacts, or just the ability to understand what’s going on.”
Both Sestanovich and Hirsch believe that more security is often necessary and does not prohibit effective diplomacy if the right measures are taken. Relating an instance from his own experience in which security trumped diplomacy, Sestanovich harkens back to the period immediately after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. At the time he was in charge of overseeing all the embassies of the “newly independent states” that sprung from the Soviet Union. One embassy in particular was singled out to be shut down because of its perceived vulnerability, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The ambassador and his staff were moved to nearby Kazakhstan.
“Our people rotated in a couple days a month just to maintain contacts, but it was a palpable drop off in our understanding of what was going on and our engagement not with just the government of Tajikistan but with all elements of Tajik society. We knew less about Tajikistan. We were able to influence Tajikistan less.”
Although the example is a bit extreme, how far is it really from the hundreds of diplomatic officials in Iraq who never leave the “Green Zone” during their entire tour, remaining shut in from the realities of what is happening in one of the most important countries to US national interests? Some estimates say that 40-50 percent of the entire American Foreign Service has served in Baghdad or Kabul in the past decade, a significant experience for American diplomacy. There is little doubt that America’s fortress-like embassy in the Green Zone, which is the largest embassy in the world, leaves an impression on Iraqis and American officials, alike.
“I do think we have made life more difficult for ourselves by putting all these restrictions in. And I think security is a tail that should not wag the dog,” says Hirsch. “But you’ve got to do the best you can when you are out there as the ambassador. Your main responsibility is to protect the staff. Everybody is charged with doing this, so it is not as if there is not a protocol or an arrangement to do this. But even if you do everything, you just cannot guarantee these things.”
In a 2010 speech on the importance of a diplomacy that reaches the people and not just the politicians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, “The works of our artists, architects, and preservationists provide us with another language of diplomacy. A transcendent language that allows us to convey values that are at once distinctly American yet speak to all of humanity. Increasingly in this world art and architecture helps us maintain our sense of openness and liberation.”
Maintaining effective diplomacy in an increasingly hostile world will likely hinge on the balance that is able to be struck. Forgetting the objective of diplomacy in a rush to full-proof the safety of diplomats would not only be counterproductive, but an impossible task. Likewise, the desire to engage with a host society while downplaying or ignoring the real threats that exist can lead to the type of tragedy recently experienced in Libya, as well as set back diplomatic efforts in the future.
In contemplating where that balance should lie, it may be useful to consider a quote from one of the great champions of investment in the design of public infrastructure, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in 1999 stated, “Architecture is inescapably a political art, and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular age were. Surely ours must be openness and fearlessness in the face of those who hide in the darkness.”