By Jovan Kurbalija | September 19, 2012 - 18:00 GMT
The recent attacks on diplomatic missions in the Middle East have brought into focus the discussion on embassies and the tension between their function and protection. It reminds me of sessions in the early 1990s when I assisted young Maltese architectural students to design an ideal embassy for a pan-European architectural competition. They found my explanation of diplomacy as a profession that builds bridges between nations through engagement and dialogue counter-intuitive. Most embassies are surrounded by high walls and guarded by heavily armed soldiers. They are far from open and inviting spaces. The embassy architecture symbolises in physical form the tension in the function of diplomacy as well as tensions in global politics.
Since the 1990s, especially after 9/11, the situation has deteriorated. Today, embassies, in particular US embassies, are fortresses. Walls around them are higher, although not high enough to protect them from attack. As the former US ambassador Edward P. Djerejian said ‘we built a 16-foot wall, but there is such a thing as a 17-foot ladder.’ The numbers of security guards in the US embassies alone have multiplied to 40.000 worldwide.
US diplomats are uneasy about this ‘embassy fortress’ that makes their job of engaging with locals more difficult. With more diversified politics, diplomats cannot just maintain relations with local government officias. They have to engage with people in all walks of life, including journalists, business people, and university professors. In a sobering twist of fate, the day after he was killed, the US ambassador in Bengazi was supposed to go to the hospital and discuss a new programme for emergency medicine with Libyan doctors.
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