U.S. Embassy closures: What’s at stake?

In light of the recent closures of U.S. Embassies across the Middle East and North Africa,  Dr. Mary Thompson-Jones, director and faculty member of the Master’s in Global Studies and International Affairs program at the College of Professional Studies and former American diplomat for 23 years, discusses the unprecedented closure of 21 embassies/consulates and the long-term costs of that move.  Dr. Thompson-Jones has served in embassies and consulates in Madrid, Prague, Quebec, Guatemala, Sarajevo, and at the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. 

Q:  Should U.S. Embassies and Consulates ever be closed?

This is a hard call to make, and I don’t have insider knowledge as to the specific threat, but closure = absence, which may be more dangerous in the long run than any outside threat. What’s discouraging about this action is its magnitude – it tars an entire region with the same brush, making no distinction among very different security environments in the many countries affected. Worse, this tells our partners all over the Arab world that we don’t think their countries are safe working environments. Once the threat is lifted we will have some damage control to do, reassuring our partners that we do in fact want to be present.

Q:  What are the long-term consequences of closing, from a security standpoint?

Terrorist groups might see the closure as a victory. A clear goal of many terrorists is to see fear and uncertainty take primacy over policy. Without having to engage in anything but so-called “chatter” they achieved their aim. This will not only encourage future attempts by other groups, but might also encourage bluffing. The magnitude of the closures is troubling, since it suggests that we sometimes work with blunt instruments. It could be seen as a damaging admission that our intelligence can sometimes be very vague.

Q:  What are the long term consequences, from a policy standpoint?

Diplomacy is contact work. Contrary to some assumptions, diplomats spend most of their workdays outside the embassy, meeting people, having conversations, asking questions, and learning. This is highly skilled work, requiring not only language competence but a good sense of what’s happening on the street. It requires knowing the right questions to ask, but also how to interpret the answers. If an embassy or consulate is closed, those conversations aren’t going to happen. There are also consequences from the business perspective. The consular function of issuing visas is set back, and normal programming – from an Ambassador on down – is cancelled. Trade promotion isn’t happening, American ideas and viewpoints aren’t aired, and the valuable public space which every embassy wants to fill will be taken up by others.

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