Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:16 | SYDNEY

Don't write off diplomats yet


Sam Roggeveen


27 November 2007 16:29

William Langewiesche's new essay for Vanity Fair makes the reasonable argument that the safer US embassies become, the less useful they are, in that safety restrictions prevent diplomats from really knowing the country they're in. Unfortunately, the article contains some snide asides that play into lazy stereotypes about effete, globe-trotting diplomats. And Langewiesche simply carries his argument too far.

He says 'trade and financial ties, immigration, tourism, television and music, the internet, and news reports of the superpower's policies and wars—the whole organic mass of globalization...has rendered obsolete the role of embassies in providing information of almost any kind.' But at least four of the factors Langewiesche cites as undermining the need for embassies actually illustrate how important they are. When it comes to arranging trade, international finance, immigration or tourism, there's no substitute for having locally acquired knowledge of the host government — stuff like that can't just be arranged via video link or by flying in.

And those 'news reports of the superpower's policies and wars' are generated by journalists in part through their contacts with diplomats. However protected those diplomats are, spending years in a country as a government representative still gives them access that journalists can't match. When journalists like Langewiesche stop asking diplomats for leaks and quotes, we'll know Langewiesche is right and we can all roll up our expensive foreign embassies. But it hasn't happened yet.