In the Wake of Benghazi: Thoughts on Diplomacy, Security and Representation

by daryl.copeland on September 14, 2012

The sacking of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the tragic deaths of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff, and the continuing protests outside U.S. embassies throughout the Greater Middle East raise a host of vexing questions.

Unfortunately, when it comes to striking an appropriate balance between the competing demands of effective diplomatic representation and optimal personal security, for the most part one is left with an uninspiring ensemble of compromises and trade-offs.

There are no bromides or panaceas, no good or easy answers.

The big picture

In any diplomatic service, ensuring the welfare and well-being of employees is – and, indeed, must be – the top government priority.

Yet, there are countervailing considerations and practical constraints. In the first instance, primary responsibility for the protection of diplomats and diplomatic premises rests with the host country; Libya’s abject failure on that score suggests that the competence and authority of the elected government is still shaky. Moreover, most U.S. diplomatic missions are already so fortified and securitized that they more resemble Fort Apache than the popular image of an elegant chancery on some leafy boulevard.

Physically isolated by blast walls, festooned with multiple levels of surveillance, lethally defended by Marine guards, and procedurally odious to enter, these missions are so protected that a simple visit is often transformed into a degrading ordeal.

In the case of those working inside such bunker-like installations, limitations on the effective practice of diplomacy, and especially public diplomacy, can be overwhelming.

For a country that styles itself as the “land of the free,” all of this is extremely unsettling. Any further hardening of the diplomatic footprint will further diminish the United States’ already declining soft power, discourage face-to-face contact, and present real problems in terms of establishing interpersonal ties based on confidence, trust, and respect.

Limited options

Threats to the personal safety of diplomats can to some extent be mitigated through recourse to virtuality. The State Department has already established for itself a leadership position in the use of social media – primarily Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs – to advance the ends of popular engagement.

That said, the capacity to forge lasting personal relationships is one of diplomacy’s most crucial assets. When it comes to advocating policies, projecting values, and pursuing interests, even the most sophisticated e-communications and web presence can get a country only so far.

In other words, while there may be technological alternatives, there is ultimately no substitute for the immediacy and warmth of direct contact. Absent the human factor, significant opportunities, not least for the generation of intelligence, will be lost.

So, whatever the security arrangements at the American consulate in Benghazi – and there remain many unanswered questions on that issue – it is hard to imagine much further movement in the direction of militarizing or, for that matter, digitalizing diplomatic representation without completely undermining the idea of diplomacy itself.

Looking forward

What, then, to do? U.S. authorities are not in a position to outlaw the production even of blasphemous or scurrilous trash such as The Innocence of Muslims, the film behind the current rash of violence. Dispatching warships and sending in additional troops will not advance the ends of diplomacy, which are all about privileging talking over fighting through dialogue, negotiation, and compromise.

Even with every precaution, there is no acceptable way to completely fireproof the practitioners of statecraft. To the extent that there are any helpful prescriptions, they come down mainly to the critical matters of managing risk and acting strategically.

Among the possibilities:

  • Spare no effort in ensuring that those responsible for the attacks are apprehended and tried according to due legal process.
  • Emphasize prevention (through police work and intelligence) rather than physical deterrence.
  • Ensure that all staff receive comprehensive training on emergency responses and contingency planning.
  • Initiate a national conversation on the implications of cultural and religious insensitivity, especially in the media.
  • Consider policy changes – on Middle East peace, drone warfare, support for authoritarian regimes – that might result in gains for Brand America in the Islamic world.

As suggested at the outset, however, none of this really offers much consolation in the immediate wake of tragedy.

Keep calm, carry on

Though particularly difficult in times of crisis, perhaps the best advice would be to try and maintain a broader perspective and take the long view. The threats represented by political extremism and religious violence are real, but a host of other global and transnational challenges, many rooted in science and driven by technology – climate change, biodiversity, resource scarcity, to name a few – are arguably even more profound. And at the highest level of analysis, globalization is sharpening inequality at the same time as connectivity is heightening awareness.

All of this, in combination with the continuing blowback from western powers’ tendency to favour defence over development or diplomacy, makes for an atmosphere of extreme volatility.

Foreign ministries, for their part, are charged with delivering diplomacy on behalf of states in this turbulent and transformative operating environment. As power shifts and new forms of insecurity are manifest, that mandate is becoming more complex and difficult to execute every day.

Even with a full slate of policy and administrative reforms, and under the best of circumstances, diplomats, decision-makers, and apprehensive publics are in for a rough ride.

But the alternatives to successful accommodation could be a great deal worse than anything seen to date in Benghazi or elsewhere.

Peacefully managing the transition to something resembling a heteropolar world order has become job one. In that regard, finding creative ways to ensure more and better diplomatic representation will be essential.

Devoting additional financial and intellectual resources to diplomacy and increasing its prominence and profile as an international policy instrument would be a reasonable place to start.

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