For Immediate Release
January 23, 2008
Contacts: Neil Tickner, 301 405 4622 or email@example.com
U.S. Embassies and 'Fortress America': Testimony of UM's Jane Loeffler
The heavy fortification of U.S. embassies requires a "conversation" on how to balance security and openness abroad, said University of Maryland historian Jane C. Loeffler today in congressional testimony.
Efforts to provide U.S. diplomats with "sorely needed safe and functional workplaces" has led to off-putting "big box store" designs that can create more than physical walls, said Loeffler, a visiting associate professor and expert on the cultural and diplomatic impacts of U.S. embassy design and construction.
She testified before the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs.
A complete transcript of her testimony is available at the subcommittee Web Site, and there are excerpts below.
In a September 2007 article in Foreign Policy, Loeffler wrote about problems with the unopened U.S. embassy in Baghdad:
A citadel is rising on the banks of the Tigris. There, on the river's western side, the United States is building the world's largest embassy... a massive, fortified compound. Encircled by blast walls and cut off from the rest of Baghdad, it stands out like the crusader castles that once dotted the landscape of the Middle East. Its size and scope bring into question whether it is even correct to call this facility an "embassy." Why is the United States building something so large, so expensive, and so disconnected from the realities of Iraq? ... Although U.S. diplomats will technically be 'in Iraq,' they may as well be in Washington.
People ask if architecture really matters when security is such a huge concern. There is no better illustration that it does matter than Congress's instinctively correct decision after 9/11 to maintain the Capitol as its place of business. You might have relocated to a lower profile, less accessible setting or retreated to home districts and chosen to communicate via teleconference, but you did not. You decided to conduct business here adding as much security as possible without impeding the business of government or public access to government.
During the Civil War, when he might well have stopped construction of the great Capitol dome, President Lincoln did not. "When the people see the dome rising," he declared, "it will be a sign that we intend the union to go on." Lincoln recognized the power of architecture. Congress has recognized it. When it comes to America's presence abroad, we must recognize it, too. With globalization, when we face the world we face ourselves. What we see matters...
...experts warn that soaring maintenance costs will plague our new embassies. Poor oversight and cut corners are bad news for those who have to live and work in such facilities and for those who maintain them. It might be okay if the buildings were to be replaced in ten or twenty years, like shopping malls here at home, but they are not...
Anyone who has seen the American flag flying atop U.S. embassies in Prague or London knows what Lincoln meant when he compared the Capitol to a symbol of strength and a beacon of freedom.
Are isolated embassy enclaves really "platforms for diplomacy," as some maintain, or just a platforms for maintaining an overseas presence? Do such facilities support or undermine the expansion of public diplomacy - a key weapon in the war of ideas? Is a design formulated for Kampala really right for The Hague? These questions call for answers, and in seeking answers, we would do well to be guided by the same thinking as those who strive to maintain the openness of the Capitol.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer recently spoke out on this subject because of his concern that we are allowing security experts to make too many of our decisions about public buildings. "We'll end up with buildings that look like our embassy in Chile," he said, deploring it as a "fortress." It's not just about money, he said, it's about finding people who'll listen, who understand that embassies make "a statement that the United States is a democracy and is not walling itself off from the world."
Former U.S. Ambassador to India, Daniel Patrick Moynihan addressed these issues in 1999. Sen. Moynihan saw architecture as a national policy issue and called for an ongoing "conversation" on how to balance security and openness at home and abroad. That conversation has not yet occurred, but with your help it could begin now.
Loeffler is teaching an honors course at UM on the subject this semester.
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