IF current State Department budget projections for fiscal year 1997 stand, the US may be forced to close at least 20 embassies around the world. Foreign affairs specialists deplore this possibility, but others ask: In a day of rapid communications, are traditional embassies still necessary?
Those who pose the question argue that embassies, often with ostentatious quarters and ceremonial trimmings, are expensive anachronisms.
Are such establishments needed when more and more heads of state and their ministers can visit each other within a few hours or talk directly by telephone or e-mail? Trusted delegations can be sent if higher officials are not available. Diplomatic business can be conducted at the United Nations or at one of the many international conferences. Failing these channels, why cannot the US deal with other nations' embassies in Washington and eliminate costly representation abroad?
Why cannot the Central Intelligence Agency, with its multi-billion-dollar capacities and less conspicuous operations, be the eyes and ears of the US around the world? And why do we need embassies in every country; do they not merely become targets for aid requests or local protests?
Embassies are justified on grounds that they render consular services such as visas, passports, and help to citizens abroad. Why cannot these functions be contracted out to travel agents or banks overseas? Many businesses scoff at official US help; multinational corporations create their own relationships with other governments.
The answers to these questions begin with the fact that the world remains composed of sovereign governments. Relations between these governments are still conducted largely through embassies and foreign ministries. In an age when challenges to US interests can appear in even the smallest country, the nation is blind, deaf, and mute where it lacks diplomatic representation.
Kings and presidents may talk to each other, but they do not talk in a vacuum. To be successful, their discourse must be based on an accurate knowledge of the political, economic, and security concerns of those whom they approach. Such assessments can most effectively be provided by their own experienced observers - their ambassadors and embassy staffs. And it is on them that rulers depend for the day-to-day negotiations that follow high-level exchanges.
Reporters and business executives who may meet with foreign decisionmakers are not recognized as true plenipotentiaries. The intelligence community may have significant access through agents, but few governments recognize such operatives as valid interlocutors on broad official business. Embassies of other countries in Washington may convey accurately to their ministries US positions on an issue, but their assessments of their own politics are unlikely to be fully objective. They will not be a substitute for observations on the spot made by diplomats.
Diplomats and ex-diplomats, unfortunately, have little credibility in defending the preservation of traditional diplomacy. Their actions are seen as self-serving. Yet, they speak from experience.
The time may well have come for a thorough study of how nations transact their business with each other in an age changed by technology. Changes, however, cannot be unilateral. The United States on its own cannot forgo the access and immunities that underlie diplomatic relations. And whatever the conclusions of such a study, if a nation like the US is to remain a major global player, it must continue to have the access and insights into other nations and societies now provided by its time-honored embassies.