Survival of the fittest: The resident embassy in today’s globalized world

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Por: Estanislao Sánchez Rodríguez

Resident embassies have existed for more than five hundred years (Mattingly, 1937). They have served as representatives of their states and nationals abroad. Their role evolved progressively to suit states’ needs, as well as the changing context of international relations. Their functions derived from customary law first (i.e. established state practice), and many years later states agreed their legal framework in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 (Denza, 2009). Despite their contribution to diplomacy, the need for them has become an occasional issue of debate in today’s globalized world.

This article focuses on the value of the resident embassy as a key player in ‘bilateral diplomacy’ as defined by Berridge (2015b). Its usefulness derives from the continuance of the functions of diplomatic missions and the advantages of conducting them on the spot, as well as the preference for the resident embassy over other alternatives of representation abroad. The need to maintain resident embassies may seem obvious for diplomatic relations, but still there are proponents that call for their cutback and some even for their disappearance. It is interesting to note, as Berridge (2015b) suggests, that some of the arguments commonly used to “get rid of” the resident embassy reinforce its usefulness.

The advantages of the resident embassy

The most obvious argument for the need of the resident embassy relates to its advantages in the execution of certain specialized activities on the spot. Berridge (2015b) summarizes the main functions carried out by the resident embassy, some of which are: representation; preparing, supporting, and following up negotiations; lobbying; political reporting; policy advice; consular work; economic/commercial diplomacy; and propaganda. Some resident embassies even are instructed to conduct temporary functions according to foreign policy interests or local circumstances.[1]

In today’s globalized world, the functions that the resident embassy carries out may be conducted remotely, but diplomacy still has its advantages when performed on the spot. Officials at home depend heavily on modern electronic communication channels (both written and visual) to gather information about events occurring abroad. However, the wide-ranging information that is accessible over the Internet lacks an important added value of a resident embassy’s local reporting: first-hand information. Diplomats can easily gather valuable information through their network of local contacts enabling the resident embassy to provide useful interpretations of events, analysis, and commentary.

Another argument in favor of the resident embassy is its role as a permanent communication channel with the foreign ministry of the host state. Despite that different state actors at home participate in the decision-making process of foreign policy and the negotiation of agreements, the resident embassy remains the front door to diplomacy and protocol abroad. As Berridge (2015a) suggests, ‘it is usually paradiplomats who mess up cross-cultural negotiations.’ Thus, it is common for the resident embassy to settle loose commitments of delegations or special envoys, straighten out contentious issues left behind, or rectify misinterpreted or incomplete messages. Such scenarios require an immediate response to prevent them from escalating. Thus, heads of mission are in a better position than officials at home to do “damage control” through a personal approach, tact, and discretion. Remotely resolving such issues could escalate a simple misinterpretation to a deeper conflict of interest.

Most of the routine tasks instructed to the resident embassy are direct instructions from the various directorates of the foreign ministry.[2] Others result from the momentum of the bilateral relation (e.g. focus on economic/commercial diplomacy when trade and investment are the core of the bilateral relation). The resident embassy is in the best position to “capture a moment” (e.g. areas of strength and weakness) and report it to the foreign ministry. Occasionally, state ministries and government agencies request the direct support of the resident embassy without informing the foreign ministry. Such requests reinforce the need for diplomats to conduct and coordinate activities on the spot, as well as the maintenance of an open line of communication with local authorities to follow up on the implementation. Indeed, the resident embassy –in its role of coordinator on the spot– can minimize the negative effects that domestic bureaucratic politics can have on bilateral diplomacy.

Finally, the resident embassy can be of great use in all stages of negotiation. When a complex agreement is being negotiated, the resident embassy can support the initial process by lobbying, or as Berridge (2015b) defines it, by ‘exerting pressure to secure support.’ As with “damage control”, through a personal approach, tact, and discretion, heads of mission can obtain valuable information on the direction of a negotiation. The resident embassy is also in the best position to “spy” on the game board and its players, or to conduct ‘back-channel’ talks with local contacts participating in a negotiation. Likewise, by having the “whole picture” of a bilateral relationship, the resident embassy can identify potential areas of negotiation that could lead to new agreements. It is precisely the role of the resident embassy to target new areas of cooperation and monitor those already on course.

The pressure for alternatives

In today’s globalized world, the resident embassy not only faces the pressures of travel and electronic communications (Berridge, 2015b), it must also deal with the economic constraints of states. Gallaga (2013) claims ‘one of the impacts of the global recession is that it has compelled a number of countries to scale back their diplomatic representation overseas by closing some of their embassies.’ Rana (2011, p. 135), on the other hand, suggests ‘the resident embassy is actually a remarkably cost-effective institution, cheaper and more effective than any alternative that can be identified.’ The pressure for alternatives does not necessarily imply that the resident embassy has outlived its usefulness. States are not closing all their embassies; in fact, some states are opening more.

As Berridge (2015b) notes, ‘in some bilateral relationships conventional embassies cannot be maintained.’ States have responded to the circumstances of specific bilateral relationships, as well as to their own limits and capabilities, with innovative alternatives to representation abroad, some of which are: interests sections, consular posts, liaison offices, front missions and virtual embassies (Berridge, 2015b). Like the resident embassy, these alternatives of representation conduct specific functions and are mostly staffed by diplomats. Their existence reinforces the need for a resident representation to conduct specific functions that otherwise would be difficult or slower to execute remotely even with the advances in travel and electronic communications.

The concurrent embassy is a particular case of an alternative to a resident representation. For states with limited financial and human resources, the opening of resident embassies which are concurrent with neighboring states (i.e. multiple accreditations) continues to be a common practice with advantages in many fronts. From its post and with its staff of diplomats, the resident/concurrent embassy extends the scope of its activities to cover the bilateral relations with the concurrent states. Where a state does not have a resident representation, a concurrent embassy is vital when providing consular services and protection to nationals (e.g. to issue emergency passports). The resident/concurrent embassy is also useful as a logistical support for delegations and special envoys visiting concurrent states. Its work can even raise a bilateral relationship with a concurrent state to a higher level that would be more appropriate to handle with the opening of a resident embassy rather than maintaining a distant presence.

Conclusion

The resident embassy has not outlived its usefulness; on the contrary, its work adds important value to foreign policy and diplomacy. Despite the force of globalization and its different manifestations, states still recognize the resident embassy as a key player in diplomatic relations.[3] States progressively codified a legal framework for the existence and operation of diplomatic missions, and despite economic constraints, some states continue to open more resident embassies. Likewise, other alternatives of representation abroad have not pushed states to “get rid of” or substitute their resident embassies. It is most probable that the resident embassy will continue to adapt rather than disappear from the scene. Rana (2011, p.131) suggests ‘the resident embassy is the heart of the diplomatic process.’ It will continue to survive as the fittest.

Estanislao Sánchez Rodríguez has a B.A. in International Relations at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and a Master in European Integration, at  Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB). He is a member of the Mexican Foreign Service, since 2010 as Second Secretary and he currently is in charge of the Consular Section of the Mexico in Singapur.

His academic record includes the articles “El frágil equilibrio de seguridad en el Este de Asia” y “México y las Operaciones para el Mantenimiento de la Paz” in the Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica Magazine (october/december 2013 and april/june 2015 editions respectively). 

[1] As Berridge (2012, p. 2) suggests, ‘all major embassies significantly affected by an armed conflict usually gain an enlarged military component.’

[2] Rana (2007, p. 132) claims ‘some diplomacy theorists have argued that the embassy has become a simple agency implementing the instructions of the foreign ministry, often left out of the information loop by the home authorities.’

[3] The CSIS Embassy of the Future project (2007) makes the interesting point (applied to US diplomacy) ‘diplomacy is about people’ and ‘empowering diplomats’ to conduct their mission. It presents recommendations to invest in people, integrate technology and business practices, and embrace new communications tools, among others, to define the embassy of the future.

References

Berridge GR (2012) Embassies in Armed Conflict. London and New York: Continuum.

Berridge GR (2015a) The Diplomatic Moment. Diplomatic Theory and Practice 1502. Lecture 1. Malta: DiploFoundation.

Berridge GR (2015b) Bilateral Diplomacy. Diplomatic Theory and Practice 1502. Lecture 5. Malta: DiploFoundation.

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (2007) The Embassy of the Future Available at http://csis.org/publication/embassy-future [accessed 18 March 2015].

Denza E (2008) The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961 (UN Audiovisual Library of International Law). Available at http://legal.un.org/avl/ha/vcdr/vcdr.html [accessed 14 March 2015].

Gallaga MG (2013) Do we still need embassies? The Diplomat. 4 September. Available at http://thediplomat.com/2013/09/do-we-still-need-embassies/ [accessed 14 March 2015].

Mattingly G (1937) The First Resident Embassies: Medieval Italian Origins of Modern Diplomacy. Speculum. A Journal of Medieval Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4. Available at http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2849298?sid=21106127523483&uid=3738992 &uid=4&uid=2 [accessed 14 March 2015].

Rana KS (2007) Bilateral Diplomacy. Geneva and Malta: DiploFoundation. Available at http://issuu.com/diplo/docs/bilateral_diplomacy [accessed 15 March 2015].

Rana KS (2011) 21st Century Diplomacy. A Practitioner’s Guide. (Kindle eBook). London and New York: Bloomsbury.

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