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Arx Americana

I used to spend a lot of time in American embassies. For much of its existence, Geekcorps was funded primarily by USAID, so meetings in nations where we worked or wanted to work were often in the embassy compound. (In nations where USAID has a large presence, it often has its own offices – in ones where it’s a smaller presence, the office is often within the embassy.) I also got into the habit of meeting with the Commercial section of US embassies, always a good way to get a sense for the local business scene… or the US government perception of the local business scene… which inevitably involved embassy meetings.

It’s not easy to get admitted to a US embassy, even if you’re carrying a US passport. (The situation is much worse for people attempting to get interviews to obtain US visas.) Not only is there a security check involving x-rays of bags and a pass through a metal detector, followed by a patdown, but certain items can’t enter an embassy. Anything that might be used as a bugging device – a mobile phone, a PDA, a laptop computer – must be checked at the gatehouse before you enter the main building. Working with the US government, you get into the habit of working on paper – at the height of my work with Geekcorps, my calendar, phone book and other critical resources were all printed out in my Circa notebook, so I could have access to my digital data on paper during meetings…

(The security rules had some other odd implications. You can’t bring any medicines or drugs into most US embassies, including aspirin. As an insulin-dependent diabetic, this is a really unnerving situation, as you’re leaving medicine which is hard to obtain in a country like Mongolia with the Wackenhut guards, praying you’ll get it back. One of the reasons I don’t wear an insulin pump is that the notion of having to explain the pump to the guards or leave it with them…)

You can learn a lot about how the US government views a country by virtue of the location and the structure of the embassy. In Ghana, the US embassy had two main locations – one was on the Ring Road, the main road of Accra, and another was in a residential neighborhood in Osu, an upscale part of town. We shared a security wall with this second part of the embassy – the consular section – and they were excellent neighbors. If you ignored the fact that the road was blocked in front of the consular section, you might have imagined that the compound was merely the location of a somewhat security-conscious Ghanaian business.

That style of embassy – an approachable, visible building integrated into the downtown of a city – is an old-school approach to embassy design. According to Jane Loeffler, who literally wrote the book on US embassy design, the visibility and accessibility of these buildings was part of their mission: “prominent, accessible public buildings to be visited and admired by American citizens and their foreign hosts.” The US built a lot of these embassies in the 1950s, but changed tactics in the 1960s, as US policy in Vietnam became less popular and attacks on embassy buildings became more common. Attacks on the embassies in Khartoum, Athens, Kuala Lumpur and Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s changed the philosophy of embassy design for good. In countries where the US government believes that the local population is unlikely to be opposed to US interests, embassies tend to be easily accessible, located downtown and protected by a modest amount of visible security (usually substantially set back from the road, with a perimeter of concrete road obstacles). In countries where the threat is considered more serious, US embassies are fortresses. Specifically, they are “Inman” buildings, designed to meet a set of security standards proposed by retured Admiral Bobby Inman, a former head of the NSA – Inman proposed that buildings be remote, on large and fortified sites, and designed to withstand bomb blasts.

In 1998, terrorist attacks on embassies in Tanzania and Kenya killed at least 220 people, primarily African employees of the US government. The old Kenyan embassy had been near downtown Nairobi – the old one is far, far removed from the city center, a long taxi ride from downtown. Non-official vehicles aren’t allowed into the compound, and you’re not allowed to park your vehicle nearby – instead, you take a taxi to a drop-off point hundreds of meters from the main gate and walk to the gatehouse, then walk again to the main building. The doors to the embassy are thick, bomb-proof vault doors, and when they close behind you, it’s clear that you’re far, far away from Nairobi.

Obviously it makes sense that the US government wants to protect diplomats and the people who work with them from attack – had the US embassy in Kenya not been in a crowded part of town, the collateral damage to citizens (reports of up to 4,000 people wounded) would have been much lower. But this new style of embassy construction has practical and symbolic implications. Loeffler wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post two weeks after the East Africa bombings titled “Diplomacy Doesn’t Belong In Bunkers“, which argued in part, “defensive building styles bring problems of their own, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and divorcing diplomats from the communities they need to know and understand.”

Architecture sends messages. Our embassies say that America fears Kenyans more than Ghanaians (or did – see update at the end of this post), Chinese more than Mongolians. And we fear no one more than the Iraqis.

Loeffler has an article in the upcoming issue of Foreign Policy that analyzes the US Embassy in Iraq in detail. It’s the largest embassy building in the world, covering 104 acres in the Green Zone. That’s six times larger than the UN complex on the banks of the East River in New York. It incorporates 619 one-bedroom apartments, as well as all the facilities to support a small city – an electricity plant, water, sewage, a food court, movie theatre, market – all surrounded by nine-foot high walls.

What message does this send? Loeffler observes, “…the United States has designed an embassy that conveys no confidence in Iraqis and little hope for their future. Instead, the United States has build a fortress capable of sustaining a massive, long-term presence in the face of continued violence.” Another clear message is the fact that the US is never, ever planning on leaving Iraq – a perception many Iraqis will tell you they’ve had since the opening days of the invasion. The embassy may cost more than a billion dollars to build and a similar amount per year to operate – its architecture, cost, self-sufficiency and isolation make it very clear that the US isn’t going away any time soon, no matter what Congressional democrats – and most Americans – may hope.

Approachability is clearly not a priority for American diplomats in Iraq. The New York Times reports that Iraqis who’ve worked for the US government and contractors – who are therefore at great risk of death or kidnapping in Iraq – aren’t signing up for refugee status. Why? Because they can’t do so in Iraq – they need to flee to Jordan or Syria, where they’re likely to be turned away at the border. I can’t think of a more shameful policy than forcing people who’ve risked their lives to support our disastrous mission in Iraq to flee their country to seek refugee status in our country.

In the halcyon days of Mission Accomplished, IESC – the USAID contractor that took over operations of Geekcorps – started bidding for projects in Iraq. They hoped that we could recruit computer geeks to come build internet centers in schools and libraries around Iraq. I refused to work on the project, believing that there was no chance that volunteers would be able to have the cultural experiences we wanted to create with the Geekcorps program – the chance to work and live close to people in the country. A few months later, I’d left the company, and it seemed clear that it would be years before it might be possible for volunteers to walk the streets of Baghdad and interact with Iraqis without armed escort. The structure of the US embassy in Iraq implies that the time when that sort of interaction might take place may be never.

I can understand the need to build a fortress in Baghdad. But Loeffler warns that the design for the US embassy in Iraq is going to inform future embassy design around the world. The cosy, approachable neighborhood embassy may well be a thing of the past, from Accra to Ulaanbaatar. In the grand scope of all the terrible decisions made post-9/11, it may seem like a small thing, but I suspect it’s a huge step backwards for US diplomacy for many years to come.

Architecture is a form of communication that lasts for decades or centuries. I hope for a future where embassies that embody Fortress America seem like anachronisms, the memories of an unhappy, scared time that’s now past.

Kwasi points out that I’m already behind the times with this post – the US has upgraded its embassy in Ghana to a new structure that comes much closer to the fortress model than the humble old structures did.

9 thoughts on “Arx Americana”

  1. Welcome back, my good friend. Here is some update for you: there is a new US embassy in Accra. A $60m behemoth that resembles the Alcatraz more than the Marriott. Very intimidating, the security around and inside it.

  2. Excellent essay, Ethan

    I wonder if there are any Flickr groups for US embassy photos? Would be interesting to compare, and mash up the images with data about when the embassy was constructed and characterizing current US relations with the host country…

    – Amy Gahran

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  4. That’s a really interesting idea, Amy. My general sense is that it’s hard for people to take photos in most embassies nowadays – looking through my personal photo streams, I have almost none. But it would be worth a search on Flickr.

  5. I too am saddened with the bunker-style embassies. I see them as showing an arrogance and imperialisms that insults the openness and warmth of America’s citizens.

  6. Interesting article. My friend recently went to the US embassy in Poland to get a visa. I stood outside the bars and waited to see him being treated respectfully under shady trees and dealt with respectfully throughout, he told me. In contrast, when he had tried to get a visa to come to Canada, he was shunted around like cattle, the person going with him couldn’t see him at all after he started the process, and he was treated poorly. As a Canadian, I felt odd standing looking through bars at my friend in a sort of grand cage, but I understand the security is needed, and it wasn’t much more than the usual bars people have here in Poland if they can afford them. The main thing, he was treated much better than at the Canadian embassy, and that surprises me and cuts across some assumptions, doesn’t it. The fact that he got the US visa and not the Canadian one just underscores it all, as well.

  7. It’s interesting how much the US’s new embassy design policy resembles the USSR’s. Soviet embassies, while close to city centers or in “embassy districts,” were always tightly closed compounds. In Latin America during Soviet times, I was told that their closed character extended even to support personnel — not only office workers and mid-managers, but janitors, cooks and the like — who were all part of the Soviet foreign affairs establishment.

    One also never saw embassy personnel in less than pairs — even an embassy limousine, I saw parked one night in an upscale Quito neighborhood, had a both a chauffer and an assistant dozing in the front seat, while their superiors were inside at a private party whose noise and laughter reached the street.

    On the other hand, Soviet policy rewarded personnel for such things as proficiency in the language of the country where they were stationed, with raises for each level of increasing fluency. That, at least, is an incentive the US could well adopt — perhaps it has, since.

  8. I enjoyed reading your article and found your observations to be right on the mark. In the summer of 2006 I attended the grand opening of the new US Embassy facility in Conakry, Guinea, relocated from the center of the downtown peninsula to the outer fringe of the city. Although the structure seemed enormous to all of us, we were surprised to find out it was one of the smaller models being built throughout West Africa. The days of seeing street vendors selling fried plantains from the shade of the building are clearly over.

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