Chris Blattman

The fundamental problem with US diplomacy?

While Washington plays “Guess the next Secretary of State”, Robert Worth has a marvelous NY Times Magazine piece, where he quotes a former Ambassador to Kenya:

“The model has become, we will go to dangerous places and transform them, and we will do it from secure fortresses. And it doesn’t work.”

Here is Worth:

By the time I became a foreign correspondent in 2003, the “Fortress America” model was entrenched. In Lebanon, where I lived for several years, the U.S. Embassy had long since moved to a well-guarded compound in the hills a half-hour north of Beirut. In some ways it seemed more like a prison; diplomats based there could not leave without advance permission, and when they did, they were often surrounded by guards. Most journalists scarcely bothered to talk to them, because we assumed they knew the country far less well than we did.

He also paints a thoughtful portrait of Chris Stevens, the US diplomat killed in Libya, and what lessons not to draw from that experience.

I can add one anecdote to the mix: in Sierra Leone the other embassies apparently call the US fortress “Mordor”.

Read it all. I would love to hear from diplomats in the comments, especially Americans, anonymously or not.

16 Responses

  1. It’s easy to criticize — then even easier to blame when it goes wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with all aspects of fortress in a box, etc, but it would be nice is if folks recognized the very real threats and dangers that face diplomats. For every horrible incident that goes wrong (just this year: USAID diplomat killed in Afghanistan, horrendous car bombing in Peshawar, tragedy in Benghazi, and very scary invasion in Tunis), hundreds more are prevented that never make the news. Our security offices are doing the best they can to try and mitigate those threats and keep us safe and alive. I agree that it’s important to have critical discussion about the approaches and models to ensuring safety and security, but at the end of the day, I feel like we need to cut everyone some slack. No one has the answers (this is a very different post-2001 world that we live in), but what I do know is that my colleagues work around the clock doing the best they can to mitigate very real dangers and threats that US agencies have to contend with in many countries. Carrying a black passport heightens the risk — diplomats are targeted in ways that NGO workers are not, and so for many foreign service officers, it’s about choices. As diplomats, especially those of us in development, we agree to give up some of our rights, including freedom to roam, live (or even explore) at the local level. Those are conscience, cognizant decisions we made. Instead we rely on our implementing partners to be our eyes and our ears — it’s a trade off. Many of us did Peace Corps or worked for NGOs before joining the foreign service, so we understand the other life, and we know what we are missing out. We recognize the privileges and limitations that are associated with making this career choice.
    –U.S. Diplomat (S. Sudan, Liberia, Pakistan)

  2. In Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the locals call the Australian diplomatic staff residence compound ‘Fort Shit Scared’

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