American embassies around the world are being shut down amid renewed terrorist threats against overseas installations. The United States is facing huge budget deficits and cutting funding for American diplomatic efforts has become a popular talking point. In 2013, the United States appropriated some $51.6 billion to the Department of State, with $10.4 billion of that going to fund overseas embassies.
Foreign Service budget under fire
In recent years the Foreign Service’s budgets have come under fire in Congress, with numerous members proposing steep budget cuts to State and the U.S. Foreign Service (a branch of the State department). In particular, some pundits and critics have argued for closing down some of America’s embassies and consulates. Others have suggested creating regional embassies.
Scaling down U.S. Diplomatic efforts, however, is not the way to go. For starters, a major portion of the work load for embassies abroad is protecting and serving American citizens. Consider that in 2009 Americans made some 61.5 million trips abroad. This actually marked a 3 percent decrease from 2008, likely due to the Great Recession. While traveling abroad American citizens may lose their passports, get into legal trouble, need a medical evacuation, or could be caught up in natural disasters and civil disturbances.
United States embassies expected to help citizens
In these situations, and others, American embassies are expected to step forward and help citizens. While embassy staff will not usually interfere with local laws, they will work to ensure that citizens are not being unlawfully detained. When an American citizen is caught in an emergency of any sort, U.S. embassy staff are often their best chance for receiving aid. Embassies have helped evacuate countless citizens from numerous situations. This point becomes clear when we realize that American diplomats are working to evacuate citizens from Yemen amid the threat of terrorist attacks. It’s easy to forget when we discuss “diplomacy” that much of our diplomatic efforts are focused on serving American citizens. And why shouldn’t American citizens have representatives to turn to in times of need?
Further, one shouldn’t forget that embassies are an important part of American intelligence gathering efforts. Any country that runs spy operations on foreign soil generally does so out of their embassies and under the cover of diplomatic immunity. While it is fair to question whether or not diplomatic efforts should be used for such means, the simple fact is that embassies are essential for gather information necessary to secure the homeland.
Embassies also process countless visas each year for foreign citizens to come and visit the United States. Of course, some people may want to wall off America and restrict foreigners from visiting. Before jumping to any rash conclusions, however, it should be noted that the economic impacts of foreign tourists are estimated to top $1 trillion. Add in business investments and foreign students studying in the United States, and the total amount of contributions will be substantially higher. Further, embassies collects fees for most of the visas processed.
And of course, there is classic diplomacy, the bread and butter of U.S. foreign service efforts. Diplomacy refers, in general, to the management of relations between nations. This can include maintaining or encouraging peace, building trade relations, and numerous other things. Trade deals can help drive economic growth for the United States, creating jobs and investment. Diverting trade wars, actual wars, unnecessary tensions, and other things also helps ensure the global economy can grow. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have proven, a war can cost hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions of dollars.
Creating a more efficient and cost-effective Foreign Service may certainly be worth discussing. Learning how to make dollars stretch and how to run aid programs more effectively would probably allow the government to cut costs without cutting staffing or services provided. Still, maintaining diplomatic efforts is essential for maintaining America’s prosperity and stature in the world.