Foreign Policy Blogs

Relocating the US Embassy in London

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United States Embassy in London, England (Alastair Grant/AP)

The State Department announced last week that it will move its Embassy in London from its charming location on Grovesnor Square across the Thames to a more secure location. The International Herald Tribune reports that:

“The demand for more space, greater security and better energy efficiency have prompted the United States to plan a move from the smart (read: wealthy) Mayfair district to the Nine Elms Opportunity Area in Wandsworth, just south of the River Thames.”
“This has been a long and careful process,” U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle said in a statement yesterday. “We looked at all of our options, including renovation of our current building in Grosvenor Square. In the end, we realized that the goal of a modern, secure and environmentally sustainable embassy could best be met by constructing a new facility.”

As the UK daily The Guardian points out:

The US state department spent $15m (£8.5m) last year trying to upgrade security at the Grosvenor Square embassy, erecting high fences and concrete barriers and generally offending the aesthetic sensibilities of the neighbours. But the building remained a relatively easy target for a determined truck-bomber.

It was opened in 1960, at the start of the Kennedy era, and its wide glass expanses reflect a more innocent age. Now they are a security nightmare. Efforts to have all the surrounding roads closed failed due to opposition from the local council. Some local residents, fearing they were living next door to one of the world's most enticing terrorist targets, sold up and moved out.

The new embassy will be on a more spacious site at Wandsworth's Nine Elms “opportunity area” between Battersea power station and the MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross. Not quite as glamorous an address as Mayfair, where John Adams, America's first envoy to Britain and its second president, set up house in 1785. But as the current ambassador, Robert Tuttle pointed out, the new site will actually be closer to the heart of British government, with views of parliament.”

An article in Time magazine relates some of the current building's historical significance:

“The move marks the end of a storied relationship. Over two centuries, five presidents, four vice presidents and ten secretaries of state have served at Grosvenor Square. In the late 18th century, John Adams, America's first Ambassador to the Court of St. James, opened a diplomatic post there, and in 1938 the Square became home to America's main diplomatic mission to Britain. During WWII, the Square earned the nickname “Little America” when Dwight D. Eisenhower placed his military headquarters on its leafy grounds.

The Embassy's relations with its neighbors began to sour after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Although the State Department started a program of heavily fortifying its embassies against terrorism, some residents saw the Grosvenor Square site as vulnerable. In 2006, a neighborhood association, the Grosvenor Square Safety Group, bought two-page advertisements in The Washington Post and the Times of London that accused the Metropolitan Police and local governments of a moral failure for not closing the two roads adjacent to the embassy. Russian Countess Anca Vidaeff, who lived across from the embassy's side entrance, even held a three-day hunger strike to protest what she claimed was inadequate security. “My property is my pension but I cannot rent or sell my house and my life is in danger,” she told the press.

The result was a $15 million security upgrade that included raised concrete flower beds, six-foot-high blast walls, guard shacks and traffic-blocking structures. Enhanced screening facilities were also introduced to catch suicide bombers. Yet all those physical measures ‚ which must be removed as part of the move ‚ have not entirely resolved the embassy's security challenges.”

The Canadian national daily, “The Globe and Mail” had some harsh words for the decision to move the embassy. From an editorial titled “Siege Diplomacy,” published today:
“The announcement last week that the United States will relocate its London embassy from Grosvenor Square, in the heart of the British capital, to an out-of-the-way spot south of the River Thames may be good news for property developers, but should concern almost everyone else.

The London move is the latest and most dramatic example of a worrying trend toward vastly scaling down American public diplomacy abroad, abandoning embassies that were once beacons of American culture and openness in favour of walled suburban fortresses. (Canada, meanwhile, has shuttered missions in key cities including Milan, Osaka and St. Petersburg).

The United States is on an embassy-building spree, having constructed 56 new diplomatic facilities abroad in the past several years, with dozens more on the way. Almost all such structures are now set back at least 30 metres from the street, often surrounded by high fences and designed according to a charmless standardized template. The highest-profile U.S. embassy to open recently, in Berlin, was pilloried as a hideous “lump” in the German press, despite years of wrangling over its design.

It is all a far cry from the last great era of American construction in foreign capitals, after the Second World War, when a confident country hired some of its best architects to present itself to the world. They produced a series of spectacular structures, generally in the glassy International Style and almost always in prominent places. They included libraries and other facilities designed to share American culture with the locals….

Bunkered and isolated embassies are hardly the best advertisement for Washington's role in the world, and will remain a lasting hangover of the George W. Bush's prickly attitude toward much of the planet long after he leaves the White House.

The U.S. has, admittedly, come by its new preferences for embassy design honestly. The bombings in 1998 of its missions in Kenya and Tanzania horrified American diplomats, and made obvious the continuing risks to their safety in many countries.

But there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Security concerns can be addressed within attractive and accessible structures, and Washington should think long and hard about what a new generation of embassies that ignore this fact will say to the world about the United States….”

Public Radio International's “The World” program hosted a US historian, Thomas Naftali, for a discussion about the embassy's move. Naftali calls the decision a shame, and that it sends an unfortunate signal. He said: “The embassy should be our front door, a way for foreigners to get to know us… when our embassy is not as public our presence is not felt as much. What it comes down to is this: is an embassy a front door or a front line?”
What are your thoughts on the move? What might the implications of the move be for the conduct of U.S. diplomacy?

 
  • mp

    I came across this article purely by chance after writing a blog post of my own a few days ago lamenting the construction of new fortress-like embassies across the globe, having witnessed the effect of this on the host country’s people’s general view of the United States in at least two countries (Sierra Leone and Singapore).

    http://solyaris.net/2009/04/africom_peacecorps/

    I never thought I would see the day when this happened in London, a place I’d lived (being an American) for about 18 years. My thoughts are expressed in my post above, but I’ll post the relevant snippet here:

    “I’d seen almost the exact same thing happen in Singapore in 1996 or 97. The people who make the decisions to build these new-and-improved outposts have good intentions – safety, better resources, etc – and they ultimately signify greater commitment on the part of the US to the country in which they are built. But ironically it can do more harm than good from a public relations standpoint. It can look arrogant, patronizing and threatening from the vantage point of the local population, even in a sophisticated, international city-state like Singapore where Americans abound, let alone a place like Freetown.”

Author

Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.

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