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Embassies are the vessels through which diplomacy
They are the physical manifestations of countries
abroad are they are crucial tools in the field
of international relations.
These can range in size from tiny, like the
UK embassy in Mongolia which only has a handful
of staff, to enormous, like the US embassy
in Baghdad—a complex physically as large
as the Vatican City which reached a peak of
16,000 staff during the Iraq War.
Big, influential countries will have embassies
to almost every other country—the US, for
example, has diplomatic missions to every
UN recognized country in the world except
St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica,
St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada,
Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Bhutan, and North Korea.
Smaller, less influential countries, on the
other hand, might only have a few embassies—Tuvalu,
for example, only has diplomatic missions
to New Zealand, Fiji, Taiwan, the European
Union in Belgium, and the United Nations in
You see, there are embassies to non-state
organizations—namely the UN and EU.
You can even have embassies to agencies of
the UN—there’s one US diplomat in Rome
with the lengthy title of, “United States
Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies
for Food and Agriculture.”
Even traditionally closed off countries like
North Korea have representation abroad.
The DPRK has embassies in some quite western
countries like Germany, Sweden, and the UK
and these three countries also each have embassies
in North Korea.
Now, part of the way these embassies can exist
in even the most different and opposing of
countries is because of how they are codified
in international law.
Every UN member state except for South Sudan,
Palau, and the Solomon Islands has signed
the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
This sets out a number of laws on how embassies
Perhaps the most significant and well known
is Article 22—“The premises of the mission
shall be inviolable.”
Unless invited by the ambassador or their
government, any representative of the host
country’s government—be it a police officer,
government official, member of the military,
or even firefighter—cannot enter the embassy.
This, of course, is how Julian Assange stayed
in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for seven
He entered in 2012 when he was wanted in the
UK for extradition to and subsequent arrest
Assange stayed in the embassy while his request
for Ecuadorian political asylum was reviewed
and, once it was granted, normally the next
step would be to go to Ecuador.
Outside the embassy, though, waited British
police and so he would therefore have been
arrested if he ever left.
In the end, though, after seven years inside,
it was the British police that arrested Assange
as the Ecuadorians decided Assange had overstayed
his welcome and invited the police inside.
The Vienna convention also lays out a few
other important rules for embassies—the
diplomats and the embassy are exempt from
all taxes in the host country; the diplomats
are allowed free movement around the host
country; an embassy can have diplomatic couriers
carrying diplomatic bags which cannot be seized
or searched; diplomats are granted diplomatic
immunity; the residences of diplomats are
also treated as an extension of the embassy
and cannot be entered without permission;
diplomats cannot work or earn a profit when
in their host country except for with the
embassy; and then there are plenty of other
even more minor rules
Now, one big misconception about embassies
is that this is an embassy.
It’s not, this is a chancery—the building
in which an embassy is located.
The, “embassy” is not the building, its
the group people that work inside the building.
It is the group of workers that represent
the country abroad.
Another big misconception about embassy buildings
are that they are the sovereign territory
of the country they represent.
This is not the case.
It is also not they case that embassy buildings
are in a state of extraterritoriality—that
local laws don’t apply there as would be
the case in the United Nation headquarters
or on many foreign military bases.
In the case of embassy buildings, it’s not
that the laws of the host country don’t
apply there, it’s just that many of the
people that make up the embassy, the diplomats,
cannot be prosecuted for violating those laws
and those that enforce the law, the police,
Now, diplomats almost always follow the rules
of their host country as failing to do so
would be unproductive for the very nature
of their job, but when they don’t, this
can have serious implications.
As an example, in April 1984, two students
in Tripoli, Libya were hung for publicly opposing
In response, a protest was formed by a major
political opposition group outside the Libyan
embassy in London.
On order from Gaddafi, an individual inside
the embassy building fired into the crowd
with a machine gun, wounding eleven.
One of those wounded was Yvonne Fletcher,
a young policewoman, who later died in the
hospital from her injuries.
Within 10 minutes of the shots going off,
the embassy building was surrounded by British
police, blocking anyone from going in or out.
Once it had been confirmed through forensic
autopsy that the shots did indeed come from
the embassy, negotiations began.
The British tried to get permission to enter
the embassy building.
You see, only some, but not all of the 30
people in the building were diplomats meaning
that some, if they were found to have committed
the crime, could be arrested for it.
The Libyans, however, would not grant access.
Therefore, after five days of surrounding
the embassy, the British severed diplomatic
relations with Libya, giving them another
week to leave the embassy and country.
This, you see, is what countries can do when
They can’t go into the embassy building,
they can’t arrest diplomats, but they can
kick them out of their country.
After this incident, diplomatic relations
between the two countries didn’t normalize
for decades and, even today, in 2019, the
case is still actively under investigation
and its quite possible an arrest could happen
in the future.
Normally, though, embassies are more concerned
with building diplomacy.
Typically, but not always, embassies are headed
up by an ambassador.
Sometimes, though, there are lapses where
one goes without an ambassador for a period
of time and other times, a country might choose
to recall their ambassador as a sign of displeasure.
Now, the job of ambassador is tough to define.
In the simplest since, an Ambassador is there
to represent their country but what that entails
varies wildly from person to person and post
There’s often a perception that all that
ambassadors do is schmooze and booze but,
to be honest, that’s part of the job.
They’re there to build and maintain relationships
with those that can help their country—politically,
economically, or otherwise.
That’s just part of diplomacy which is what
the embassy’s job as a whole is.
This can be direct diplomacy, where the ambassador
might meet directly with a head of state,
or soft diplomacy.
Soft diplomacy can be things like China sending
pandas to foreign zoos, the US funding scholarships
for foreign students, or France setting up
a branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
They are more subtle ways that a nation can
curry public favor with another.
On a smaller scale, embassies will often have
a portion of staff dedicated to promoting
and exhibiting the art and culture of their
country in the region.
You’ll often see embassies financially supporting
and sponsoring concerts of their country’s
music, for example.
Now, in addition to these ways of representing
one’s country, the embassy also represents
its homeland through its actual building.
As the public face of one country in another,
it’s got to look the part.
For example, some of the world’s most impressive
and important embassies are in Washington,
DC given that nearly every nation has a diplomatic
The Chinese embassy building was designed
by the children of I.M. Pei, a Chinese-American
regarded as one of the world’s greatest
architects, and evokes the same sense of clean,
contemporary grandeur and opulence common
with the greatest buildings back in the People’s
Republic itself while still adhering to Feng
Just down the street there’s the embassy
building of the United Arab Emirates—a perhaps
even more opulent structure clearly incorporating
aspects of Islamic Architecture.
This building seems to purposefully command
a presence with its open sightline from the
street allowing one to look in and up.
Then there’s this section of the British
Embassy complex nearby—a structure resembling
an old English Country Manor.
While countries like China and UAE might be
more focused on pushing their modern image
as newly wealthy nations, countries like the
UK might draw more attention to their long
and storied past.
There’s then the whole realm of the architecture
of American embassy complexes themselves.
With necessity, after countless attacks on
its embassies through history, the architecture
and design of American embassy buildings evokes
Whether its the one in Berlin, Beijing, Bern,
or Bangkok, they all have the look of a compound.
They’re mostly modern, innovative designs,
a conscious choice to associate these values
to the nation’s image, but they’re still
mostly hidden behind tall walls and fences.
There are still some, though, mostly in places
where security is less of a concern, reflecting
the earlier architectural style of the US
such as the Georgian House of the US Embassy
in Canberra, Australia—a building that would
look right at place in the American south.
But when embassies are in certain places their
buildings can’t just be compound-style.
They have to be compounds.
As the physical representations of countries,
embassies are the clearest targets for those
wishing to send a message to a country.
During wars, though, there is often more work
than ever for embassies to do in a country.
This is why, as mentioned earlier, the US
embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, ballooned to over
16,000 staff during the Iraq War.
The embassy building was built in the Green
Zone—a highly fortified area along the Tigris
River in Baghdad.
This area, guarded by soldiers and walls more
than nine feet or three meters tall, was and
still is home to much of the international
presence in Baghdad.
That included embassies of countries like
the US, UK, and Australia, but also some companies.
War is big business and the Green Zone was
home to small field headquarters for many
large, international engineering, construction,
and private military firms contracted to help
in the war.
That is to say, the Green Zone was primarily
home to a large group of civilians working
in Iraq which is why it was so heavily guarded.
Given the security threat, the US embassy
there was built to be entirely self sufficient.
It has its own generators, its own wells,
its own water filtration plant, its own sewage
plant, its own fire station, it even has its
own internet uplink to circumvent the Iraqi
It has its own phone network—both wired
and wireless—which both operate pretty much
as if they were in the US—they use the area
codes of New York and Virginia.
Unlike in most cities where embassy staff
just live in normal housing in the city, this
embassy has its own block of fortified apartments.
Even during the thick of the war, the embassy
compound had its own swimming pool, tennis
courts, fitness center, department store,
nail salon, and movie theatre.
Topping it off is a helicopter pad—used
to get the ambassador and other top diplomats
around the country when they don’t want
to confront the dangers of below.
The diplomats serving as part of the US embassy
in Baghdad do get another perk in addition
to the pool and tennis courts and movie theatre
and everything else—they get more money.
You see, when working in the US foreign service,
and its often similar when working for other
countries’ foreign service, you essentially
get more money the more foreign a place you
If you’re serving pretty much anywhere in
North America, Western Europe, Australasia,
and a few other assorted countries, you get
If you serve in a place that has an extreme
climate, poor quality of healthcare, high
crime, high pollution, or has any other factor
that makes it more difficult to live there
as a foreigner, you get hardship pay which
is a bonus that ranges anywhere from 5% to
That 5% rate includes places like Costa Rica,
the Bahamas, Malta, and Bulgaria while the
35% rate is reserved for places like the Central
African Republic, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq,
Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
That rate of hardship pay can also vary within
For example, if you served at the US consulate
in Dubai you’d only get a 5% bonus while
serving at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi would
get you 10%.
There are also some places that, well, just
don’t seem all that hard to live in but
do earn you hardship pay such as Ponta Delgada,
Portugal, a well-known vacation destination.
This is likely only included because of its
On top of hardship pay, you can also get an
additional bonus if you serve in a place that
is deemed dangerous.
For example, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, gets you
15% while places like Tripoli, Damascus, Kabul,
Baghdad, and Juba will get you a 35% bonus.
So, in a place like Baghdad, you get a 70%
bonus just for the hardship and danger you
put yourself through.
This is how they get people to work at even
the harshest of postings without forcing them.
On top of these two, there are also some other
bonuses based off things like high cost of
living, difficulty in staffing the post, and
Now, in the modern age, some have questioned
whether embassies still have a purpose.
100 years ago they very much had a purpose
as communication was difficult, travel was
slow, and countries therefore needed someone
on the ground who could speak on their behalf
to others at a moment’s notice.
Nowadays, though, messages can be relayed
instantaneously through a whole host of means
so what’s the point?
Well, ambassadors are not messengers.
Ambassadors are representatives.
They are there not only to work for their
country within political systems, but also
to promote it to the public as to increase
travel and trade with their country.
Many argue, in fact, that these small, personal
relationships of our world’s diplomats tying
together countries of hundreds of millions
or billions are more important now than ever.
If you want to work in the foreign service,
the US State Department has an extensive reading
list of books that will help to get the knowledge
you need no matter which country you’re
One book on there that I found quite interesting
was, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without
Thinking,” by Malcolm Gladwell.
The book is all about how the unconscious
brain works in making decisions with very
Blink, like so many other books, is available
as an audiobook on Audible so you can listen
to it wherever and whenever.
I find that listening to books helps me fit
in a lot more in and it helps make things
like cleaning or commuting a lot more fun.
Best of all, you can sign up for free at audible.com/wendover
or text, “wendover” to 500-500 and download
Blink, or any other audiobook for free in
addition to two Audible originals also for