The titanic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has once again spotlighted embassies round the world. Thailand has been no exception. Social media has been overflowing with complaints from disaffected nationals who have faced endless ringing tones with classical Beethoven thrown in for free.
Not to mention long-winded oral instructions to press extension numbers in a perpetual and fruitless bingo game. Or those never-ending prerecorded messages stressing that overworked staff don’t know any more about viruses than the embassy’s very comprehensive website. So why bother?
Of course, embassies are not strangers to public opprobrium. Maybe the movies are to blame. Gregory Peck in The Omen, playing a top diplomat, tricked his wife into raising the anti-Christ in their own home. Meanwhile, in Lethal Weapon 2, embassy officials with diplomatic immunity used their get-out-of-jail free card to enjoy a hard day’s night of killing strangers, doing drugs and trafficking firearms.
Some diplomats park wherever they like in London and New York and tear up gleefully the fine tickets. And what can air hostesses do if a very naughty consul insists on smoking in the lavatory? Not to mention the Ukrainian who transferred diplomatic immunity to his dog when the angry hound bit three people.
As government budgets shrink, embassies and diplomats seem to resemble expensive luxuries more than political or economic assets. Ambassadors in particular are frequently stereotyped as overpaid couch potatoes and haughty consumers of cocktail party booze and sausages-on-sticks.
What critics fail to understand is that the consular section – the one that “helps” its citizens – is the Cinderella of various embassy services which have all been cut back anyway by cash-strapped western governments. Additionally, these countries have had to switch funds to building military bunkers posing as diplomatic posts in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. These are often situated in “green” zones and include bomb-proof pads and full-service food courts.
Consular services throughout the world have been marginalized by governments believing that informative websites and use of social media can replace front-line officers dealing with the public. That is certainly cheaper but it does not always work. People find that their credit or debit card doesn’t work on the site dedicated to getting you a new passport, or they get timed-out as they wrestle with the issues of moving a photocopied document from the printer to the desktop computer. Were embassies invented to raise blood pressure?
During the current Corona pandemic, one British lady in Pattaya actually tried to phone the embassy to ask them to issue a letter permitting her to travel urgently to Bangkok overnight during curfew hours. She wanted to explain that her elderly cat was very ill and the only veterinary practice she would use was located in the metropolis. Perhaps happily, she did not manage to speak to a human being rather than a recording.
Conferences are continually being held worldwide to try and tease out how embassies must change in the future on a reduced budget. There is talk of sharing resources and staff with other local countries which is presumably bad news for newly-isolationist Britain. Some academics speak of the formation of “virtual” embassies which the Americans tried in Iraq in 2011. Others would like some embassy functions transferred to international companies, travel agents or overseas banks. Do we really need an embassy at the Vatican by the way?
Yet the traveller stuck in a foreign country during unprecedented health pandemonium would likely prefer simply to access phone numbers which have a human voice at the other end. This is something that crisis management courses of the future need to address if feedback means anything these days.
But the past can provide inspiration. Sir Jeremy Bowes was British ambassador to Russia in the late sixteenth century. He succeeded in persuading Ivan the Terrible that they should conclude a mammoth business deal and he personally planned and opened an ice-free port to boost Anglo-Russian trade. In his spare time, Sir Jeremy freed a British widow whose Dutch husband had been roasted to death. Carry on London.