The Middle East Channel

The perils of diplomatic disengagement

After the recent unrest at embassies in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia and the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, there may be mounting pressure in upcoming weeks or months to permanently shut down embassies or rupture diplomatic relations. Already, there have been significant diplomatic staff withdrawals from many of the embassies. While ...


After the recent unrest at embassies in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia and the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, there may be mounting pressure in upcoming weeks or months to permanently shut down embassies or rupture diplomatic relations. Already, there have been significant diplomatic staff withdrawals from many of the embassies. While the security situation may undoubtedly warrant temporary reductions in diplomatic presences overseas, countries should be extremely wary of using long-standing diplomatic sanctions as a way to condemn a regime’s behavior or as a foreign policy tool of coercion. Historically, security reductions and closures in the name of security can lead to more entrenched policies of diplomatic disengagement. In light of recent events, policymakers should be cognizant of some of the dangers of diplomatic disengagement as they face decisions about if and when to resume normal embassy operations or shut embassy doors for the long haul.   

Why is it crucial to remain diplomatically engaged particularly in the most dangerous parts of the world that may pose a security threat? Lost in the recent debate on embassy security is a clear articulation of the specific logic and empirical evidence to illustrate why a diplomatic presence is so important in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it quite simply in September 1949:

"We maintain diplomatic relations with other countries primarily because we are all on the same planet and must do business with each other. We do not establish an embassy in a foreign country to show approval of its government. We do so to have a channel through which to conduct essential government relations and to protect legitimate United States’ interests."

Over the last several decades, the United States has adopted policies of diplomatic isolation when dealing with problematic states, such as Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, Burma, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. These policies have mainly consisted of diplomatic actions, such as severing diplomatic ties, downgrading ties, not recognizing a regime, closing the U.S. embassy, or placing strict limitations on various forms of diplomatic engagement. At first glance, diplomatic sanctions seem a rather cost-free measure, as they do not require expenditures in terms of forces or dollars. Unfortunately, diplomatic disengagement can actually be quite costly and may result in the loss of valuable real-time understanding of intelligence; diminished communication with the target state; and a reduced ability to promote interests overseas.

Modern day diplomatic sanctions and the continuance of severed ties have primarily been used to target states for issues related to terrorism, proliferation and, in some cases, an accompanying desire for regime change. The original impetus in many historical cases of U.S. diplomatic disengagement was security concerns, but the closures persisted as policies of diplomatic isolation became used as tools of coercion or punishment. For example, in Sudan, there was a short suspension of U.S. embassy personnel in 1986 due to the presence of Libyan terrorists in Khartoum and the shooting of a U.S. embassy employee that year. But the embassy was not permanently closed. With the rise of the National Islamist Front in the early 1990s; Sudan’s involvement in harboring Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists; support for Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War; and the assassination attempts directed at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and CIA station chief Cofer Black, the United States started drawing down its diplomatic presence in 1996 — the U.S. staff was moved to Nairobi and commuted to Khartoum for a week each month. This move came three years after Sudan was listed as a state sponsor of terrorism and was a precursor to comprehensive sanctions regimes against the country.  Through various punitive measures, the United States hoped to pressure the regime to change its behavior and crack down on terrorism within its borders. Also in the early 1990s, ties with Iraq were severed due to its invasion of Kuwait and remained severed on grounds related to proliferation, after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Throughout the 1990s, ties with Afghanistan also remained severed until the installation of a new government following the U.S. invasion in 2001.  The ties were originally cut with the closing of the embassy in 1989 following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and appear to have remained cut throughout the 1990s mostly due to the rise of the Taliban regime and its policies, specifically its ties to Bin Laden and support for terrorism. 

Historical cases of diplomatic disengagement have illustrated the impact that staff drawdowns and embassy closures can have on information collection and communication channels. One primary benefit of diplomatic representation is the increased access to information. Political officers collect and analyze information about the attitudes and actions of foreign governments and societies. Embassies report on human rights, economic trends, security concerns, proliferation issues and political dynamics. An on-the-ground presence also gives the U.S. government critical information about events that can greatly assist in crisis management, humanitarian disasters, and negotiations with the target government. While journalists and other organizations provide policymakers with open source reporting regarding issues on the ground, the embassy staff serves as a much more direct channel and tool for policymakers since it can be tasked with answering particular questions and report on issues designed to assist with specific foreign policy objectives. There are a number of cases that illustrate the negative impact diplomatic isolation can have on information collection. Much has been written on information collection difficulties with regard to Iran and North Korea. For example, in 2009, during the protests in the aftermath of the Iranian election, the  press reported that United States lacked valuable information due to a lack of diplomatic ties and resident embassy. As a result, second-hand information on the crisis was being obtained largely via Twitter, Facebook, and other informal sources along with views that friendly governments shared. However, officials and experts were concerned that these second-hand sources of information could not provide insight into the internal political dynamics in the Iranian leadership or the precise strength of the opposition movement. 

Most recently, the high alert status and extra security at diplomatic posts around the world means that mobility of embassy staff and diplomats is limited. In addition, reductions in staff due to security concerns means that there are fewer people on the ground to write diplomatic cables and report back on the sentiments of the population or political dynamics on the ground. While this current tradeoff is understandable in light of the recent violence, such withdrawals frequently lead to downgrading of diplomatic status with the target state and the removal of the ambassador or a more permanent and lengthy shutdown with a rupture of diplomatic ties in some cases. 

Diplomatic sanctions cripple communication with the country of concern. This makes miscommunication or misperception more likely. It may also make it more difficult for a country to promote its interests abroad, influence the target state, and convey the intricacies of specific policies related to security issues. When one of the authors of this piece, Ambassador Carney, was in Sudan, the withdrawal of the embassy staff and diplomatic ultimatums in 1995 to 1996 so aggrieved the president that he refused to see Carney a year later when Carney sought to convey that the United States was pressuring the late insurgent leader, Dr. John Garang, to join in talks about resolving the civil war. The sides did eventually meet, but the United States lost potential leverage. 

Lastly, diplomatic disengagement may also undermine the effectiveness of economic sanctions in terms of getting the target state to comply with specific foreign policy demands. While sanctions on their own may succeed in having a punitive economic impact on the country, translating this impact into compliance with demands can be enhanced through a diplomatic presence. Statistical analysis and research on U.S. sanctions data illustrates that the probability of failure in U.S. economic sanctions increases significantly when the United States has no embassy presence in the target country. Smart economic sanctions require knowledge of specific target state vulnerabilities, the ability to garner the support of allies, and the ability to calibrate policies based on which elements of the economic sanctions are working and which are not. In addition, keeping open diplomatic channels of communication throughout a sanctions episode allows for an additional channel of influence and coercion. A diplomatic presence contributes greatly to this process. 

While condemnation and punitive measures may be required in response to problematic actions, diplomatic withdrawals and permanent disengagement have significant blowback effects that undermine foreign policy goals. Legitimate security concerns warrant getting embassy staff out of harm’s way, but policymakers should not use diplomatic shutdowns as a more permanent tool of coercion and should be cognizant of the longer-term consequences associated with lengthier withdrawals. If the current security situation leads to a more permanent retreat in the U.S. diplomatic posture overseas, the United States may actually be putting itself at greater risk in the longer term as it loses insight into these countries and the ability to work with them or influence their political and economic trajectories. Embassies are not just symbolic architectural facades. Embassies, along with the dedicated and courageous men and women who work in them, play a critical role in educating policymakers about local dynamics, working to solve complex economic and political situations and promoting U.S values and interests overseas. These functions become even more critical in threatening and dangerous security environments than in stable ones.

Ambassador Timothy Carney is a retired U.S. career diplomat. He is the last accredited U.S. ambassador to Sudan.

Tara Maller is a Research Fellow in the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola