THE United States embassy in Belgrade remains open today, accredited to what remains of Yugoslavia, Serbia, and Montenegro. The ambassador has been withdrawn and the staff reduced, but the American flag still flies and the seal remains on the door, despite the world outcry against the actions of the Serbs in Bosnia.
One of the most difficult decisions governments face is whether to break diplomatic relations in a situation such as that in Yugoslavia. The presence of a diplomatic mission has come to be seen by both friends and adversaries of an offending government as implying approval of that government's actions. Concerned citizens and their elected representatives opposed to the actions of another state question why their government should keep diplomats in place.
The inclination of policymakers is to keep embassies open. Especially in significant areas of crisis, officials responsible for foreign relations wish to leave in place as long as possible personnel who can advise. They also want the secure communications that make effective reporting possible. Hope exists that, by direct intervention, diplomats can assist in resolving crises. Breaking relations is easier than finding the exact timing and rationale for resuming relations. The US maintained representation
in such capitals as Warsaw, Managua, Beijing, and Baghdad, even when many people pressed for breaks in relations because of their disapproval of Polish, Nicaraguan, Chinese, and Iraqi actions.
Washington may seek to retain an embassy in areas where persecuted peoples seek protection and visas. One purpose in maintaining US diplomats in Tehran after the Iranian revolution was to provide access to US consular officers for minorities - Jews and Bahais - in particular jeopardy.
At one time, when nations went to war, relations were automatically broken. In an age of undeclared war this is less the case. The US embassy remained in Managua, Nicaragua, even when Washington was supporting the contra army fighting the Sandinistas.
The US and other countries seek measures short of a break in relations, including the withdrawal of the ambassador and a reduction in the size of staff. This has been done in Belgrade. Even such measures as these, however, reduce diplomatic effectiveness; ambassadors generally have greater access and influence in a capital. Smaller staffs often mean a more limited capacity to follow events. In Belgrade, for example, the US was less able to ferret out the truth about the reported Serbian-run internment ca mps because fewer officers remained.
In some circumstances, governments have no choice. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, most Arab governments broke relations with the US, and US embassies were closed. In a few countries, such as Egypt, Washington was able to maintain "interest sections" with American personnel under a foreign flag, but such arrangements were seldom effective substitutes for embassies. In Yugoslavia, the withdrawal of ambassadors was part of a multilateral decision to impose sanctions on Belgrade because of Serbian actions.
For the US, in this situation, there were no options.
In other cases, threats to personal and property security dictated the removal of personnel and the shutting down of offices. The seizure of embassy personnel by Iran in 1979 and the turmoil in Lebanon have made the US more prone than other nations to withdraw staff when faced with serious security threats. This happened in Uganda in the period of Idi Amin, in Afghanistan after Soviet troops left the country, and in Somalia when warring actions made that capital untenable. (In Somalia, however, the Egyp tian ambassador has remained, courageously, throughout the turmoil.)
Diplomatic personnel in a capital can make a difference. As a channel of information free of local control, they can keep the outside world informed of events and circumstances in a crisis. They can be a reminder to rogue regimes of world opinion. It is therefore unfortunate that embassies are seen more as a symbol of outside approval of a regime's actions and less as an expression of another nation's interest in the people of a country. As a result, governments often sacrifice their eyes and ears abroad
just when they may be needed most.