Visits to permanent diplomatic missions, otherwise known as embassies, are an inevitable part of international travel for most of us. Whether you’re renewing a Schengen area visa or have overstayed your travel visa, locating these buildings is part of the process. But just how exactly do these buildings, sitting on territory that’s immune from local law, end up where we find them today?
The truth of the matter is it’s a lot like purchasing a new house, except with politics, explosives security, and global prestige taking precedence over how nice the bathrooms are.
Embassies Are Over 500 Years Old
The modern emergence of embassies is the ad-hoc result of early European empires attempting to keep open communications and alliances with one another. That system didn’t work well back in 1455, when Milan sent the first such permanent representative to France. (But didn’t let the French send their own diplomat because they were suspicious of their motives.) In 1815, the first set of modern diplomatic ranks were established, and then Europeans fought over what those meant until they were formalized by The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961.
So diplomats predate embassies – with diplomatic relations traditionally being opened by the visits of foreign envoys – usually at the end of a war to surrender or declare peace. Envoys were given protection from being shot and stabbed (so they would actually deliver their messages) and thus diplomatic immunity continues on today. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations extended immunity to diplomats’ families (Article 37) and forbids a host country from entering another country’s embassy unless invited in by the head of the building (Article 22).
The Politics Of Placement
Embassies don’t simply exist for functional purposes but also speak large volumes to the relationship between two nations. Take for example the United States embassy in Cairo:
Issues like these are the subject of serious debate in the world of embassy design, where architects try to construct buildings that will, in good times and bad, represent American values while they withstand the force of bombs. For the people who build embassies, that’s a difficult balance, and one that has shifted many times in the last few decades between two competing schools of thought: isolation and civic engagement. [The Atlantic Cities]
Generally speaking, embassies in busier parts of a given city tend to blend in better than withdrawn compounds. And placement isn’t without other security considerations as well. It’s easier for others to monitor who’s entering and leaving an embassy when it’s more remote; a serious consideration when scoping a place for an embassy. Embassies also tend to show off a country’s heritage, prestige, and culture for visitors of all sorts, including travelers obtaining visas and foreign dignitaries attending formal events.
Embassy Row And Who You Know
Many capital cities around the world have an “Embassy Row“, where the host nation places many foreign diplomatic missions. Placement along these strips is usually done much like many standard real estate transactions, with the foreign nation purchasing private land and property. (Sometimes from other countries, like when Finland purchased Sweden’s old U.S. embassy in 1971.)
Embassies, those within city centers, tend to be located in prime real estate and subsequently more expensive than less visible locations. Cost and availability are primary concerns when it comes to a country deciding where to place its embassy. The countries that have money – e.g. America, England, Russia, France, Germany, China – tend to show it, with large complex-style buildings. Sorry Zimbabwe, your $217 isn’t going to get you the best spot in London.
Rich countries also have to invest more in building security since they can be targeted for violence (the host country is only responsible for security outside of the embassy grounds) plus set aside room for staffs of varying sizes. Finally, countries with close ties to one another or looking to cozy-up a relationship will work on making those political alliances visible with larger embassies in important parts of capital cities.
When Embassies Move
From time to time countries decide to move their embassies, to more secure or conspicuous locations for example, and when they do they simply sell the property privately or back to the host state. Such a sale might not be easy in the case of a $750 million dollar embassy complex and in worst case scenarios, countries don’t recoup their investment. Another modern trend is for nations to share embassies, as in the case of France and Germany in Bangladesh.
Most countries host over 200 embassies and even more consulates (for which the diplomatic real estate process is nearly identical) and you can locate each one next time you need to renew your visa using previously mentioned Embassy World.
I really enjoyed this article on embassies and will be clicking over to the e.diplomat site to read more about the history of these entities.
When traveling in Europe, I enjoy walking down Embassy Row or stumbling upon the location of various embassies. It may be the closest I’ll ever get to some countries. I do recall seeing the security team at work checking for explosives under a service truck entering one complex in Paris. Disturbing to have that small visual reminder of potential for deliberate harm in our world.
this is so refreshing – i never thought so much is involved with embassies
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Very interesting, great piece
Great post very interesting, I’ve always had some many questions about embassies, I think I may look into it further. When I got my passport stolen while I was in portugal, my home countries embassy was useless.
I love it especially as a student
I wonder if U. S. Embassy can get personal information from the applicants?