Hysteria over New US Embassy by Sadiq Saleem

This article appeared in The News on August 18, 2009

The usual America-bashers in Pakistan are going hysterical over the planned expansion of the US embassy in Islamabad instead of seeing it as a symbol of the US commitment to remain engaged with the country. If these people are to be believed, there is something sinister about the expansion of the US embassy.


They have done no research on the size of American diplomatic missions in other countries and their bearing on US relations with the host country. As is often the case, it is all about hyping up anti-American sentiment without sharing facts. Here are the facts, then.


The size of an embassy reflects the nature and depth of relations between two countries. If Pakistan wants US aid and US military hardware then it should be pleased that the US is committing resources and personnel to its relationship with Pakistan.


Hostile nations often limit the number of diplomatic personnel in each other’s capital by agreements on these numbers. Pakistan and the US do not have such restrictions because they are not hostile or enemy countries. Pakistan limits the number of diplomats from India on a reciprocal basis. We can do that with the US but that would imply attributing hostile intentions towards the world’s sole superpower. If Pakistan wants, and if it can afford it, we too can build a larger embassy in Washington.


The US — and for that matter any other country — determines the number of personnel in its embassy on the basis of perceived need. For example, the US embassy in Beijing employs 1,405 people. In addition, the US has five consulates in China as well. The US-China relationship involves many dimensions, from military sales to agriculture, customs, trade and investment. The Chinese being a non-emotional nation have not gone into convulsions over the size of the US diplomatic presence in Beijing and five other cities. Instead, they have built a modern and expanded Chinese embassy in Washington DC.


The British and the Americans are possibly the closest allies in the Western world. But the London embassy, one of the largest United States diplomatic buildings in the world, with a staff of 750, trails New Delhi, Moscow, and Mexico City in total personnel. The explanation for that lies in the high degree of computerisation and technological compatibility in both countries that saves on more expensive personnel. The tasks that are performed by machines in London are more cheaply performed by people in New Delhi, Mexico City and Moscow where the cost of living is less.


The Baghdad embassy is now the largest US diplomatic building in the world and it employs 700 civilian and 250 military personnel. The US embassy in Islamabad employs a total of 750 people and the expansion will increase that number, especially during the construction phase when security of construction has to be ensured in an environment of possible terrorist attacks. The US is not asking for new consulates in Pakistan, maintaining the three consulates in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar.


While the Anti-American brigade in Pakistan is fussing over whether the US is planning to “take over Pakistan” through the expanded diplomatic facilities, the US rationale for the expansion is different. It is sad that the Americans have not taken the criticism over the embassy expansion seriously because they probably consider it non-serious and unworthy of comment. But in Pakistan, conspiracy theories take a life of their own and those who believe in them do not always follow facts or logic.


The people who believe that the US is planning to “take over Pakistan” through the expanded embassy already believe that “the US controls Pakistan”. They cannot see the contradiction in their beliefs. If the US controls Pakistan without a huge embassy why does it need to take over control by expanding their embassy?


The expansion of the American embassy in Islamabad is part of an overall expansion of US diplomatic presence in non-Western countries. On January 27, 2007 then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained the need to beef up diplomatic staff around the world. “In the 21st century, emerging nations like India and China and Brazil and Egypt and Indonesia and South Africa are increasingly shaping the course of history,” Secretary Rice said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, where she focused on ‘Transformational Diplomacy’.


She defined “Transformational Diplomacy’ as an effort “to work with our many partners around the world, to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system,” and rooted in ‘partnership’ not ‘paternalism’ as the US is often accused of doing.


In line with this, the US also released a policy paper outlining the channelling of the US aid to countries that move toward democracy and deliver the needs of their people. “We have nearly the same number of State Department personnel in Germany, a country of 82 million people that we have in India, a country of one billion people,” Rice said pointing to the deficiencies in US diplomacy.


“It is clear today that America must begin to reposition our diplomatic forces around the world, so over the next few years the United States will begin to shift several hundred of our diplomatic positions to new critical posts for the 21st century. We will begin this year with a down payment of moving 100 positions from Europe and, yes, from here in Washington, DC, to countries like China and India and Nigeria and Lebanon, where additional staffing will make an essential difference,” she said.


In a Fact Sheet the State Department released, it noted that “In a multiyear process, hundreds of positions will be moved to critical emerging areas in Africa, South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere,’ said the Secretary of State.


Ironically, of the many countries where US embassies are being expanded, only in Pakistan some people have voiced concerns and conspiracy theories.


Then we wonder why, of all American allies, Pakistan is the only one that keeps getting left behind and is not treated consistently by the Americans. From Japan and Korea to Turkey and Egypt, US allies know that getting the benefits of aid and trade involves interacting with more Americans including diplomats and marines. In Pakistan, the conspiracy theorists want more American aid and trade but don’t want more Americans around.


Sadiq Saleem is a businessman and part-time analyst based in Toronto, Canada.


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