The embassy, at least in its traditional form, is facing an existential crisis. The global transformations of the twenty-first century have dramatically changed the way nations practice diplomacy. The rise of digital communications, diminishing resources, and growing security threats all raise the question of whether the traditional embassy is still relevant.
More than half of the developed nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have reduced their diplomatic footprint over the last decade, according to our research at the Lowy Institute, where we have constructed the Global Diplomacy Index, which charts almost 6,000 diplomatic posts across nearly 660 cities around the world. As government budgets shrink, embassies and diplomats seem more like expensive luxuries than political assets. It doesn’t help, of course, that diplomats are stereotyped as overpaid and ineffectual cocktail-circuit regulars and that foreign ministries frequently fail to reflect the times. They generally lack diversity and are slow to embrace innovation, even social media. Australia’s diplomats in Indonesia, for example, were still not using social media in 2010, even though Indonesia is the site of one of its most significant embassies, the largest recipient of Australian aid, and one of its most important neighbors in Asia. Despite being described as a “digital dinosaur” in 2010, the secretary of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs admitted in 2012 that he still did not consider digital diplomacy a high priority. And with the rising importance of economic diplomacy, governments are more inclined to open trade offices and innovation hubs than embassies. For example, our research indicates that between 2009 and 2015 the United Kingdom’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office shed almost 30 diplomatic missions, while its science and innovation network expanded its coverage from 24 to 28 countries.
Once the government’s eyes and ears abroad, embassies are now usually the slowest way to get information, unable to compete with lightning-fast media reporting and exhaustive country analyses prepared by NGOs and risk consultancies. The digitally connected world allows governments to communicate directly with their counterparts, and some world Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have become prodigious users of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, speaking to huge domestic and foreign audiences without even telling their embassies.
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