Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Diplomacy is inherently unsafe

Clearly the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens has been a sober topic of conversation considering many of us are studying to enter that profession. And the question of security of U.S. embassies (and consulates) was sticking point in class the other day. The consensus seemed to be that, however sensitive we are to criticism to the contrary, the U.S. is providing adequate security at our diplomatic outposts. But the reality is that all of our diplomatic missions are beholden to the security apparatus of the host country, however deficient they may be.

It would be impossible to staff each embassy with a division of Marines or guarantee U.S.-provided security. The host countries are presumed to fulfill that responsibility. That's part of the diplomacy compact. A reliable source explained it this way:  We have 23 Marines at the embassy in Cairo--7 on staff at any given time--to protect a building employing 1000 people. The Marines are there to slow down angry mobs (or better yet, to diffuse their anger). When really angry people are scaling really tall embassy walls, shooting one of them would only exacerbate the problem.

The United States recently sent two Navy ships to the coast of Libya in the wake of last week's attacks, ostensibly to provide added security. But more Marines and the threat of Tomahawk missiles will not prevent attacks; it might even provoke more.  

Diplomats are selected for their ability to dodge dangerous situations without resorting to the use of force. To the extent that force is needed it must come from host governments. Otherwise the utility of diplomacy or state collaboration, mutual trust, and the diplomatic agenda would be undermined.

In the wake of the tragedy in Libya, Sudan turned away 50 U.S. Marines en route to provide added security saying, "Sudan is able to protect the diplomatic missions in Khartoum and the state is committed to protecting its guests in the diplomatic corps." Diplomats live in inherently dangerous situations. Like it or not, diplomats have to trust their own instincts and rely on the security provided by host countries to prevent similar tragedies.


Lightman said...

To a certain extent, I agree. Security of embassies is up to the host nations, and, also to a certain extent, failures in that security--failures that result in tragedies like that in Libya--are on the shoulders on the host nation.

However, as a matter of practicality and in the interest of making sure we protect ourselves and our assets, where does the responsibility of the US government for the protection of its embassies emerge? As you indicated, it would be impossible (and impractical) to send Marine detachments to adequately guard all embassies all the time. It would also be, in my opinion and as you suggest, extremely detrimental to the diplomatic process to have a small army constantly at our embassies. The successful practice of diplomacy necessitates some overture of trust.

But the question is: what happens when a host government proves itself (at the risk of sounding insensitive) incapable of guaranteeing embassy security? Surely there must be some measures we, and other nations, can take to prevent another tragedy like what happened to Ambassador Stevens in Libya without disrupting the balance of mutual trust and cooperation that is so necessary to diplomatic interactions.

It's a Farley Tale Story said...

I agree with that assessment. It would be irresponsible to abandon all practical measures to improve security.

First the United States might have to reconsider where we place our diplomats, or at least curtail the flexibility of diplomats to go into dangerous places. If it's too hot, don't send diplomats. Obviously that comes at some cost to our global interests. Maybe we should have had a smaller (or no) presence in Benghazi, but that would have hampered our goal of helping Libya reestablish law and order.

Another goal could have been more military training at the outset. We could establish cross national training programs to equip host country governments with the skills needed to protect our diplomats. That might have an even greater effect on our soft power in the region and bolster our relationships abroad. But Libya is still dominated by militias. A country's national government needs to have more internal control before we conduct that type of military training.

And our government needs to secure commitments from host countries to provide security -- and continue to reinforce that demand over and over.

You can never account for events like the video that served as pretext for the mass violence that resulted. Our world is too globalized to predict when a video, a cartoon, etc., will spark organic violence. Ultimately diplomacy cannot be practiced at the end of rifle. So you try to enstill trust and train the local security apparatus as best you can -- and then let your people go to work.