REVIEW: Article

What Else an Embassy Really Does

“What does an Embassy do?”, ambassadors have always been asked. Routinely and elegantly, chiefs of mission, past and present, respond by describing the peaceful advancement of our country’s interests abroad and defining the diplomat’s own role in terms of reporting, representation and advocacy. But the substance and volume of what else today’s Embassies really do might astonish many taxpayers.

This variance between perception and reality is nothing new. My predecessor Walter Hines Page offered a rather depressing description of what he did as American ambassador in London in 1913:

“...getting [Americans]..out of jail when they are jugged;...helping [them]...move the bones of their ancestors; interpreting the income tax law;...hearing American fiddlers, pianists, sitting for American… photographers, writing letters of introduction, to..the House of Lords....”

Diplomats are, more often than commonly understood, hostages to such mundane concierge and flag-flying tasks, mandatory social events, an endless stream of “visiting firemen” wanting to make courtesy calls, and a host country’s insatiable appetite for speeches.

Although the ambassador’s more serious labors are often confidential and intangible, taxpayers have some sense of the substantive policy work of Embassies. What our fellow citizens may not realize, however, is how much of our time is spent as innkeepers, reservations clerks, constituency-service representatives, and processors of the grunt work of government.

Make no mistake: I have one of the best jobs in the world; and to the President and the Senate, my colleagues and I shall be forever grateful. Diplomacy certainly is, as Berhnard von Bulow termed it, “a first-class stall seat at the theater of life.”

But Ross Perot was not correct when he observed, in the 1992 Presidential campaign, that “[e]mbassies are relics of the days of sailing ships.” A critical duty of every ambassador has been to help re-define the role of the Embassy for a new generation. A glimpse of what else an Embassy really does today demonstrates that its work is being reinvented.

Numbers tell part of the story. Embassy London—with 650 staff members, representing 28 agencies of the Federal government and requiring an $18 million annual payroll—last year sent 115,000 cables to Washington (almost 500 per working day!); 19,223 cables were received by us. The classified pouch material we handled in 1999 weighed more than 30,000 kilograms.

We issue 25,000-plus passports each year. With 250,000 American citizens resident in the United Kingdom (UK) and 3.9 million annual American visitors, replacing passports is an everyday task. On Mondays, before noon, it is not uncommon for us to have already replaced 50 passports, which had been stolen over the weekend.

Each year, we respond to the deaths in the UK of, on average, 400 American citizens. We deal regularly with law enforcement officials regarding the 40-or-so Americans arrested every month. We annually arrange for the arrest and extradition of about 100 criminal fugitives wanted in the United States (US).

Year-in and year-out, our Consular Section receives nearly one million public inquiries about citizenship and passports, absentee voter registration and visas. Last year, we processed 166,000 non-immigrant visa applications from individuals representing 185 nationalities. We register as citizens about 3,600 babies each year. Our Federal Benefits Unit oversees the annual disbursement of more than $162 million to 26,000 Social Security beneficiaries in the UK.

Embassy London manages nearly $1 billion in real estate, including 104 leased and 124 government-owned residences. Our personal property inventory exceeds 50,000 items, dispersed among 6,000 locations.

In 1999, Embassy London’s print shop photocopied 479 miles of paper (2.7 million pages). Our medical team cares for the Embassy’s 538 families and, last year, 200 medically evacuated staff from other Embassies.

Since 12,000 uniformed US military personnel are stationed in Great Britain, our Defense Attaché annually attends about 250 ceremonial occasions. This office clears, each month, an average of 90 US military aircraft to enter UK airspace and, each year, 12,000 Department of Defense visitors to the UK. In the past six months alone, we have cleared 33 US Navy ships and submarines to visit 13 different UK ports. We receive about one call per day from people wanting to enlist in the US armed forces.

The Embassy’s Office of Defense Cooperation plays a critical role in US-UK defense industrial base relations, which contributed to some $8 billion UK government procurement from US firms over the past six years.

Since 40 percent of all passengers traveling between the US and Europe come to the United Kingdom and 18 million people flew between our two countries last year, it is no surprise that the UK is the site for about one-third of all overseas Federal Aviation Administration-certified repair facilities.

In the last fiscal year, our Embassy’s Internal Revenue Service office received 30,000 phone calls, letters and walk-in inquiries about tax matters, more than 10,000 tax returns and requests for extensions, $200 million in remittances, and almost $140 million in checks.

Our Immigration and Naturalization Service team processes more than 1,500 petitions per year for immigration of relatives to the US and some 7,000 non-immigrant traveler visas for businesspeople, students and tourists. The Embassy’s Customs Office, with the fourth-biggest customs caseload in America’s worldwide system, handles almost 200 inquires per week about tariff rates, prohibited and restricted items, and import/export regulations.

Because there are more US banks in London than in New York, our financial colleagues keep incredibly busy with US banking activities in the UK. The Embassy’s Department of Justice contingent oversees all civil litigation in Europe and last year retained 50 private-sector lawyers to handle more than 400 active cases.

Our Commercial Service, in 1999, advised 1,300 American companies establishing operations in Britain or seeking partners there. We receive more than 8,000 telephone calls per year from British and Irish businesses seeking US suppliers of goods and services. Our Foreign Agricultural Service last year handled some 430 requests relating to the US’s $1.4 billion in exports of agricultural products to Britain.

Embassy London’s Public Affairs team deals with the world’s largest concentration of international media.

We work closely with British intelligence. In the past three years, our Secret Service detail handled 72 visits of current and former US Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Treasury Secretaries, as well as seizing $15 million in counterfeit US currency.

For the past three years, Embassy London has averaged 16,000 official visitors per year from the Federal government. For last year’s visiting government officials, we made some 35,000 room-nights of hotel reservations in London.

As Ambassador, I receive more than 400 speech, reception and meal invitations per month. (All of us ambassadors eat for our country!) More than 3,000 Americans wrote me last year for help in securing tickets to Ascot. In the past twelve months, we received some 50,000 letters protesting capital punishment, animal leg traps, land mines and similar matters. Our Web site has 60,000 monthly visitors.

The breadth and depth of the modern American Embassy’s role might be better conveyed, however, by anecdote:

  • When British artist Damien Hirst had difficulty getting one of his works to Chicago and sought our help, we discovered that the subject piece, “Mother and Daughter,” lacked certification because it actually was a cow with calf encased in glass tanks filled with formaldehyde. (We got it to the exhibition opening on time!)
  • Last year, Embassy London’s Drug Enforcement Agency staff, among other cases, confiscated ten kilos of cocaine shipped from California as partial down-payment for 1.9 million Ecstasy pills.
  • We were summoned when an American was arrested for landing a hang-glider on the roof of Buckingham Palace.
  • A Middle East businessman last year called, offering to pay $100 million to purchase an ex-Navy warship to use as a Millennium floating entertainment and conference center.
  • Hundreds of inventions and proposals are submitted each year. Among my recent favorites were five perpetual-motion machines, three devices for contacting Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), and a sure-fire three-step plan to increase the intelligence quotient (IQ) of US Army generals.
  • Our Edinburgh Consulate assisted in the return to the Sioux tribe in South Dakota of a ghost shirt given to Glasgow by a member of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” in 1891.
  • Based on a live-action video of a young girl subjected to sexual abuse, we coordinated New York, Los Angeles and Manchester police work that identified the apartment complex where the video was made, found and arrested the violator and rescued the child victim.
  • Already this year, we have assisted four Americans who sold all their possessions to come to Britain to join Internet partners, only to find that their “true loves” were already married or planned to make off with their “new loves’” life-savings.

Jefferson and Adams probably had similar experiences, though undoubtedly not the same volume.

Our Embassies’ agendas and operations are now being transformed by this era’s convergent revolutions of technology and business.

  • Web pages are now routinely used for geopolitical crises, natural disasters and Presidential visits. Conversations between Embassies and Washington, at all levels, now typically close with the phrase, “I’ll e-mail you the details.”
  • The US Department of Commerce “e-Expo” Web site, exhibiting products available from 850 small and medium-sized American businesses, averages 7,000 hits per day.
  • Many of Embassy London’s million public inquiries annually can now be answered by touch-screen information kiosks in our Chancery and by our Web site, filled with information and down-loadable forms.
  • Instantaneous access to the Social Security Administration’s local access network (LAN) records system in Baltimore allows our officers to adjudicate claims at post, speed up benefits payments, and combat fraud; and visa security name-checks by our Embassy are now done in the Washington database in less than one second.
  • Unauthorized changes to passports can now be detected by our Embassy’s anti-fraud documents laboratory, using new technologies that led to the arrest of 40 criminals in only the past year.
  • To engage students throughout Britain in discussions of the US Presidential election, I hosted electronic “chat rooms” with students on 25 campuses.
  • Digital video conferencing has enabled Embassy London to host a discussion of US-Iraq policy between US Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering and a dozen London-based Arab journalists, as well as a trans-Atlantic dialogue between 175 non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders about management of non-profit organizations.
  • We have established a “virtual consulate” in Wales, staffed by an energetic London-based junior foreign service officer who takes inquiries on a local Cardiff phone number, spends one-third of each month commuting to Welsh functions, and is responsible for reporting on and building relationships in that important part of the UK.

Emerging technologies also are changing the diplomatic agenda itself. Genetically modified foods, beef hormones, chemical and biological weapons, the security of computer systems, flows of potentially lethal technologies: each is the subject of cables, demarches and negotiations, which would be unfamiliar to diplomats of prior generations. And the revolution in information technology has now made diplomacy people-to-people, as well as state-to-state.

Although commercial matters were also the concern of 16th-Century Venetian ambassadors, the contemporary Embassy’s business functions have been revolutionized by the globalization of America’s economy, the growth of multinational corporations and professional firms, the increased importance of exports and worldwide markets, and the rise of new-technology and service enterprises. The Embassy’s work on trade, investment and commerce has come to dominate daily schedules.

Bananas and cashmere, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), beef hormones, hush-kits, Foreign Sales Corporations and “Open Skies” for the aviation industry, for example, have consumed an enormous amount of Embassy London’s time in the past three years. Antitrust policies, intellectual property issues and privacy concerns have been the focus of much of our analytical agenda.

The Embassy’s commercial diplomacy also has expanded dramatically. Last year, Embassy London hosted trade delegations from 30 states and helped organize 100 US companies’ exhibitions. As our Embassy’s commercial and economic functions have increasingly been intertwined, we undertook a variety of initiatives:

  • Spurring and assisting the founding of the Wales-North American Business Council, the Scotland-North American Business Council and the American Business Council in Northern Ireland;
  • Urging and helping the American Chamber of Commerce in London and the British-American Chamber of Commerce to merge, an effort which took three years and resulted in what is now called British-American Business, Inc.;
  • The organizing of trans-Atlantic conferences on the policy infrastructure of America’s new-business formation and growth, defense industrial base consolidation and the financing of new-technologies enterprises;
  • Organizing a media tour of British new-technology companies which were started in university settings and were financed by American venture capital; and
  • Supporting the work of the Prince of Wales, who—through the Prince’s Trust—makes small loans to struggling, inner-city and minority entrepreneurs seeking to start their own businesses.

This business focus plays an important part in advancing American values, as well as interests, around the world.

What modern Embassies really do demonstrates how much they have already been reinvented. But their long-established structures, culture and mode of operations may not yet serve America well enough in the revolutionary time in which we live.

The author of The New New Thing observed, “Believe it or not, there are people, inside and outside of Silicon Valley, who consider it almost their duty to find the new new thing.” Many of my colleagues, I trust, also are looking closely at what they really do and consider it their duty to create a genuinely new new Embassy.

Issue Date