In the corridors of many a foreign ministry there is a nagging, occasionally irritating, chorus pumping from the loudspeakers of diplomats charged with rethinking how best to cover an increasingly complicated world. From Canberra to Copenhagen, London to Lisbon, practitioners of 21st-century diplomacy keep being asked the same question: “How low can you go?”
In this age of austerity, the words play on a brain-numbing loop that saps morale and inhibits creative thinking. For budding young ambassadors, their reference point might be rapper Ludacris and his song “How Low”. For elder statesmen who got their first plum postings in the 1980s, they might recall Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise” with Chuck D. asking “How Low Can You Go?” The cleverest of the bunch, however, will also remember that the song was the title track to the film Less Than Zero. As consul generals and chargés d’affaires work through spreadsheets in a bid to close chanceries and cut headcount, they’re increasingly finding that they’ve come to a point where they can no longer carry out their assignments in a manner that pleases fellow states or fed-up taxpayers.
On my recent tour around the Nordic region, a senior diplomat told me he felt that ambassadors in many countries were in a highly contagious damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t situation. “You get to a certain point where you can no longer represent your nation appropriately when you’re so understaffed and you have a mission full of local hires who don’t understand your values,” said a former ambassador. “There’s currently a big push in many countries to have regional hub-style embassies and then parachute people into neighbouring countries when needed. The problem with this approach is that it’s difficult to maintain relationships and it’s hard to make an impact when your embassy is nothing more than a hotel room,” he added.
While latest technology has always played an important role in everything from eavesdropping to keeping in touch with your foreign secretary back home, the jazziest PowerPoint played on a secure Panasonic PC atop a diplomat’s lap is never going to have quite the same effect as a round of drinks hosted in a fragrant garden of a well-appointed residence.
“There’s a real danger that countries will become ‘Denmark by Marriott’ or ‘Canada by Hyatt’ because hotels will be the only places where diplomats can conduct business. The nearest embassy will be three countries away, residences will be sold off and we’ll lose many of the tools that allow us to do our jobs effectively,” explained the concerned ambassador.
When admirals are being wined and contracts are being signed for new frigates, embassies are at their best. Not only are they cementing alliances and generating revenue, they look efficient and useful. Yes it might be expensive to maintain a sprawling mansion in a wealthy neighbourhood in a southeast Asian capital. For sure the security is expensive and the monthly bill for the gardeners is high. And most definitely the Champagne could be swapped for something fizzy from New Zealand, but what kind of signals would closing down the mission send to the electronics company you’re trying to persuade to relocate to one of your country’s less attractive counties, particularly when they were just sipping Krug at your arch rival’s embassy around the corner?
“You can’t beat being there – full time. Full stop,” said a more junior diplomat. “How are you supposed to use softer tools of persuasion when you can’t immerse people in your design, let them sample your food and drink and simply experience your version of hospitality? It’s kind of like being homeless.”
When there’s belt-tightening back home and hospital beds are being closed, schools being shuttered and benefits cut, then embassies are glimmering, bloated targets on the horizon. Not only are they expensive to maintain and staff, they’re even more expensive to kick-start once you shut them down.
But perhaps it was ever thus. When embassies are lavish and wonderfully appointed they’re seen as a waste of taxpayers’ money. When a consulate is pokey and located down a dank hallway in an anonymous office tower then they’re a national disgrace. “It’s hard to win in this game,” said the senior diplomat. “But things have become quite critical. All of this dismantling will be very hard to rebuild. Perhaps more worrying is that consolidation and closures by some countries will mean that those nations at the receiving end will retaliate by closing their missions. Where will that leave the business of diplomacy and trade?”
Ambassadors, their wives and assorted attachés are going to become an even more regular part of the Monocle line-up now that Monocle 24 is on air. Every Sunday we’re going to be handing over our kitchen at Midori House and inviting statesmen and stateswomen to serve up an element of soft power during our “Brunch with the Ambassador” segment. If you’re a press secretary and haven’t heard from us yet then feel free to lobby our planning desk and tell them why you think Finns make better pancakes or why a breakfast of congee is the true path to better health and a more stable South China Sea.
As we’re now available around the clock, we’re keen to hear your thoughts on our new service. Your comments, questions and suggestions can be forwarded to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or to our managing editor David Michon (email@example.com). As ever, thank you for your support and for listening.
For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the FT Weekend.