Diplomatic Security: A Necessarily Elusive Goal?

A few weeks ago I was asked by a journalist to comment on the role of military police guards at Canadian diplomatic missions. As I had never worked in an embassy or consulate under those circumstances, I was unable to be of much help.

Still, the query got me thinking about the matter of diplomatic security in general, and, more particularly, about the question of how much is too much.

The more that I reflect on that subject, the less certain I am about the prospect of reaching any hard or fast conclusions.

Clearly, the Government of Canada must accord high priority to ensuring the well-being of its employees. Occupational hazards must be mitigated and workplaces maintained to a high standard of safety and security. This applies anywhere, and nowhere more so than in the case of nationals posted to fragile or failing states, or in conflict zones.

That said, in an overly securitized environment the conduct of effective international political communication becomes very difficult.

Staying “in the bubble”, and especially a fortified bubble, is a prescription for isolation from the broader community.

For a diplomat, that spells disaster.

Simply put, you can’t do diplomacy from inside a forbidding, bunker-like chancery which few will feel comfortable entering if they must endure an ordeal of intrusive registration procedures and searches.

Outside of the embassy, the practice of public – let alone guerrilla – diplomacy is a non-starter in the company of a close protection unit.

When you turn diplomatic missions into something resembling Fort Apache, and when diplomatic practice is limited by inordinate restrictions arising from concerns over personal safety, the establishment of vital local connections, and of relationships based on confidence, trust and respect, is next to impossible.

South of the border, questions regarding the appropriate level and mix of diplomatic security measures have received considerable attention, particularly in the wake of the sacking last September of the US Consulate in Benghazi. The controversy surrounding the death Ambassador Chris Stevens and several of his colleagues stimulated some unusually searching and insightful commentary.

Nothing similar has occurred in Canada.  To be sure, this country does not present as large a real or symbolic target as the USA, and nor are our diplomatic missions as heavily fortified and over- built. Nonetheless, Canadians would benefit from a more frank discussion of the complex issues at play.

The case of Canada’s mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which operated out of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base in that city, provides an instructive illustration. From what I have been able to determine through exchanges with DFAIT and CIDA personnel who served at the Kandahar PRT, that now abandoned enterprise could not be considered a great success. Although it was promoted as an integral part of Canada’s “3D” approach, the Kandahar operation could perhaps be more aptly described as one big defence D adorned by two much smaller diplomacy and development Ds.

Vastly outnumbered, the civilian staff were unable to circulate freely beyond the compound gates. Pre-clearance was necessary to leave the premises and military escorts were often required. Roaring around the city and surrounding countryside in heavily armed convoys, and arriving at meetings in the company of uniformed guards bristling with weapons did not make for the initiation of open, free-flowing exchanges.

Under such constraints, non-military members of the mission did not spend as much time as may have been desirable in the field. Result? More bureaucracy, less diplomacy, and long days spent in the gym, or watching videos, or talking with colleagues and writing reports about what might be going on outside.
Diplomats with effective connections to the grass roots should be great sources of intelligence, and indeed, the whole point of counterinsurgency warfare is to be present among those you are seeking to win over. Clearly, that was not the case in Kandahar, where a pair of colossal intelligence failures betrayed a shocking  state of disconnection from the local population. While Canadians slept behind the blast walls and razor wire, the Taliban successfully engineered two massive jailbreaks from the Sarposa prison. Cars and taxis reportedly spirited the escapees away undetected over the course of several hours. This despite the fact that the PRT was located nearby, that Corrections Canada had staff working inside the facility, and that programs related to the prison were listed as among Canada’s priority assistance projects.

Not exactly the sort of legacy that the government had hoped for. Yet if Canadian representatives are unable – or unwilling – to swim at large in the sea of the people, then they will inevitably be left high and dry, hopelessly beached like fish out of water.

What, then, to make of all of this?

There are no panaceas or bromides. Maintaining official representation abroad can be dangerous, and this must be acknowledged and anticipated.  But every eventuality cannot be covered. By imposing drastic reductions on diplomacy’s scope and extent, or by effectively knocking it back to set-piece encounters between designated envoys, charges of irrelevance will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Standardized, cookie-cutter remedies will never work. If performance is to improve, specific decisions about diplomatic security are better made on a case by case, and sometimes a day by day basis. Even at that, finding a workable balance will never be easy.

Nonetheless, some thoughts:

  • Provide adequate protection, but keep it to a minimum reasonable threshold.
  • Emphasize prevention (through police work and intelligence) rather than physical deterrence.
  • Avoid recourse to across the board rules which prevent envoys from exercising their professional judgement as to what constitutes appropriate activity in particular situations.
  • Use technology, and especially social and digital media, to engage foreign publics, but not at the expense of direct personal contact.
  • Ensure that all staff receive comprehensive training on emergency responses and contingency planning.

At a higher, more strategic level of analysis, the pursuit of an international policy mix that will attract admiration and respect rather than animosity and resentment is probably the most promising way forward.  An emphasis on development assistance and humanitarian relief, for instance, are bound to incite less violence than drone attacks and the global war on terror.

In a world beset by a staggering array of threats and challenges for which there are no military solution – climate change, pandemic disease, inequality – we cannot afford to keep our diplomats sealed up inside tightly securitized bubbles.

Risk should be managed… but not avoided.