An article in today’s Washington Post by the paper’s United Nations correspondent Colum Lynch gave me pause. Lynch describes the new United States Mission to the United Nations building—essentially a U.S. embassy, but at the United Nations headquarters in New York instead of abroad—as “one of a new generation of hardened U.S. diplomatic outposts.” The new building is reported designed to “endure a chemical-or biological-weapon attack,” and is more like a military base than an embassy, with an “impenetrable concrete tower…and no windows on its first seven floors.”
As Lynch writes, the construction of more secure embassies began after the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in east Africa and was accelerated following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Despite the clear imperative for American officials to be protected while doing their jobs abroad (and, I suppose, in Turtle Bay in New York), I must say that I agree with United Nations scholar Stephen Schlesinger ‘s comment in the article that the new U.S.U.N. mission building “sends an entirely wrong signal to the United Nations, and the world.” When I was living in Niger last year, I certainly felt some guilt when I would go to do an errand at the U.S. Embassy and feel as though I was stepping into a palatial fortress far removed from the realities of life in the country. For example, the sprawling and manicured green lawn stood in sharp contrast to the sandy, arid Sahelian landscape of the capital city Niamey. All this to say that appearances matter and there are a great deal of factors that go into shaping “America’s image abroad.”
And on a related note, the “U.S.U.N.” website could really use a makeover. I know Ambassador Susan Rice has much more important matters to attend to, but it would be good if she could get someone to work on the site.