Diplomatic Briefing

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Commentaries: Do We Still Need Embassies?

One of the impacts of the global recession is that it has compelled a number of countries to scale back their diplomatic representation overseas by closing some of their embassies. Faced with the economic and financial realities during economic downturns, governments often have little choice but to cut back on the spending that is involved in maintaining and operating embassies overseas. Not surprisingly, then, there has been discussion or debate as to whether embassies and resident diplomats are still needed or relevant in the 21st century. Globalization and rapid advances in information and telecommunications technology have connected billions of people. The conduct of diplomacy cannot be immune to this. It must change or at least adapt, so that it is more responsive and effective in this modern environment.


Commentaries: U.S. ambassador’s post to the Vatican remains unfilled

There was no U.S. ambassador in the crowd at St. Peter’s Square during Tuesday’s installation of Pope Francis at the Vatican. That post has been vacant since November, when Miguel Diaz, a theologian, left the job to teach at the University of Dayton. Some Catholic critics of the Obama administration see that empty chair as a symbol for the lack of engagement between Washington and Vatican City. One of the candidates for ambassador, Nick Cafardi, former dean of the Duquesne University School of Law and co-chair of Catholics for Obama, disputed that characterization, listing numerous human rights campaigns in which the Vatican works with the State Department, such as battling human trafficking. In addition, while battling poverty is hardly a new focus for the Vatican, some speculate whether Pope Francis’s emphasis on the issue could become the basis for even more cooperation.


Consular affairs: Diplomat says Prisoner X case highlights consular assistance limits

A former diplomat says the Prisoner X case highlights government limitations when giving consular assistance to Australians with dual citizenship. Ben Zygier is believed to have worked for Israel’s spy agency Mossad before being arrested and jailed in a top secret Israeli prison in February 2010. The dual Australian-Israeli national died in his supposedly suicide-proof jail cell in December 2010. He did not request or receive Australian consular assistance after being arrested, and Australia’s ambassador in Tel Aviv was not told about the case. Foreign Affairs officials in Canberra learned of Zygier’s arrest via Australian intelligence officers in Israel, and then relied on the assurances of Israeli authorities that he was being treated within his rights as an Israeli citizen. Foreign Minister Bob Carr has described that as a failing, and former Australian diplomat Ross Burns agrees. But he doubts consular assistance would have helped Zygier in any case. “Australians have high expectations of what can be achieved on behalf of dual nationals in situations that emerge in foreign countries,” he told The World Today. “The reality in international law is that we don’t have automatic right of access to people if they enjoy the nationality of the host of the other country.


Commentaries: US takes its diplomacy digital

When John Kerry took to Twitter on his first day as US secretary of state, he joined an army of diplomats using social media to reach out and connect directly with people around the world. “Exhilarating to walk into @StateDept today and get to work with remarkable team. Dad on mind! -JK,” Kerry wrote in his first personal tweet. In less than 140 characters, the new US top diplomat instantly signaled he intended to carry on and deepen a commitment to using social media begun under his predecessor Hillary Clinton. Clinton did not tweet, but she propelled the State Department towards what she called 21st Century Statecraft, and social media engagement has taken off. There are now more than 300 Twitter accounts with some three million followers, over 400 Facebook pages with close to 20 million fans, and 185 YouTube channels as well as Flickr, Google+ and Instagram links run by the State Department, its embassies, staff and diplomats. Most of the embassy Facebook pages are written both in English and the local language, and the official Twitter accounts are in 11 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Russian and Turkish. Absent any diplomatic ties with Iran, there’s even a “virtual embassy of Tehran” (http://iran.usembassy.gov/) set up in late 2011 and managed from Washington carrying information about visas and studying in the United States.


Consular affairs: U.S. Consulate Property in India Sold

The U.S. consulate properties are being auctioned in India by the U.S. government which has created a buzz among prominent real estate players in Mumbai. The U.S Consulate property, Washington House, the Altamount residential building has acquired by Lodha Group for 341.82 crore. Washington House property had quoted a fixed price of 350 crore and the property was one among the two marquee properties that U.S government set up for sale in the financial capital, Mumbai. Last year, the consulate had already shifted to another building in the Bandra-Kurla complex. Subsequent to this, both Washington House and Lincoln House, the other marquee property, were offered for sale.


Consular affairs: Record demand for US visas from Brazil, China

Record numbers of Brazilians and Chinese have applied for visas to travel to the United States this year, the US State Department said. The State Department said it had deployed extra staff to its embassy and consulates in Brazil in order to process some of the 820,000 visa applications received this year, a 42 percent increase over 2010. More than 1.2 million Brazilians visited the United States in 2010, contributing some $6 billion to the economy, according to the US government, which said the number of visitors could reach 2.8 million by 2016. The State Department has also seen surging demand from China, where more than one million visa applications were submitted in 2011, a 34 percent increase over 2010. The deployment of extra staff has reduced the average wait time for a visa appointment in Brazil to less than 50 days and in China to less than 10 days, the State Department said.


Commentary: US steps into a virtual Iranian world

The administration of United States President Barack Obama has launched a virtual US Embassy in Iran that, as expected, has been immediately filtered.Tehran sees it as yet another subversive initiative by Uncle Sam to sow divisions between the people and the Islamic regime that overthrew a US-friendly dictator and then took American diplomats as hostage for 444 days in 1979-1980, prompting theUSto sever diplomatic ties with Iran. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast has called theWashingtoninitiative an historical admission of its mistake in cutting off diplomatic relations withIran. The Americans, on the other hand, scoff at the notion that they could have maintained relations with their embassy taken over and their diplomats in custody. For sure, there is no lack of blame on both sides as to the cause and effect of the long diplomatic alienation between the US and Iran. The US’s Virtual Embassy Tehran website aims to bring information and dialogue to Iranian citizens. For some ordinary Iranians, the ability to file for visas through the virtual embassy, instead of undertaking the chore of traveling abroad, at least for the initial application, represents a plus, while others see this as a US trap to lure Iranians with the promise of rewards by mobilizing them against their government. The lines between consular and political activities are cut pretty short here. Nearly a decade ago, both sides briefly entertained the idea of aUSconsular office on one of Iran’s Persian Gulf islands, such as Kish or Qeshm, and for a while the Iranian government under president Mohammad Khatami seemed amenable to the idea. But it was quickly forgotten in the quicksand of mutual hostility that has consistently dwarfed any and all initiatives to restore diplomatic relations betweenTehranandWashington. One reason for Iran’s objection at the time was the fear that the US would use its facility in thePersian Gulf to spy on Iran’s naval activities. Another concern was the possibility of unwanted long lines reflecting a big desire on the part of many Iranians to visit the US. However, from Tehran’s point of view, a diplomatic foothold by the US in Iran would enlarge the US’s eye and ears. The US is actually taking advantage of no diplomatic relations for a free hand in covert and other similar activities, whereas with a full-staff embassy, the US would be forced to respect some boundaries. In other words, the US is definitely on a war path with Iran, all the more reason why Washington is presently content with only a virtual embassy instead of an actual one that could act as a buffer handicapping the US’s war moves. The virtual one is not a prelude to an actual one, but rather a substitute as far as the US is concerned, one that fulfills less a consular and more a soft power function, as a tool of influence.