The problem is that, primarily because of security issues, embassy staff don't get out much these days. They spend too much time stuck in high-security offices, communicating with Washington on high-security networks.
Unless you've lost your passport on a foreign trip, you've probably have never had the chance to visit a U.S. embassy. I have. As an itinerant academic who's worked on U.S. government-funded programs in Central and Southeast Asia, I've had to check in at several embassies. I used to look forward to it. No longer.
In the mid-1990s, I spent over a year on a Fulbright Fellowship in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. The embassy in the capital, Bishkek, was housed in a modestly sized but elegant 19th-century Russian-style house on a leafy boulevard, just around the corner from our apartment. My wife and I stopped by a couple of times a week to check out videos from the library, read week-old U.S. newspapers and find out about expatriate social events. The staff welcomed us. The place bustled with visitors. Security was thorough but unobtrusive.
Today, the U.S. embassy is located on a flat, open area of land south of the city with no other construction permitted nearby. Its thick, high walls are topped with spikes and monitored by security cameras. It's a long bus ride from downtown, so no one just stops by anymore. It looks like a prison, not a diplomatic mission.
This one-size-fits-all architectural model is repeated in other countries. Even in an unfamiliar city, it's easy to spot the U.S. embassy because it's more fortified than most government or military installations. In the local language, it's usually called "Fortress America." It's expensive to build, maintain and staff.
Today, security has trumped diplomacy. After several visits to Fortress America in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, last year, I learned the rules:
Make an appointment with a staff member. Unless it's a real emergency, you can't just show up and expect someone to help you (as at other government offices). You are not allowed to leave the security gate area unless accompanied by the staff member. No electronics. Remember those school exams when all you were allowed to take into the room was a notebook and pencil. The same rule. You have to leave your laptop, flash drives and cellphone with the security guards.
Mould, an emeritus professor in media arts and studies at Ohio University and a former newspaper and TV journalist in the U.K., now lives in Charleston.