Back in the fall of 2003, I was in London for an conference and I took a stroll around the neighborhood near my hotel. At one point I turned a corner and saw a massive, looming building, surrounded with various barriers and fences and looking for all the world like an updated version of a medieval castle. "What's that?" I wondered, and wandered over to investigate. It was the U.S. Embassy, of course, and I was struck by how forbidding and unwelcoming it was. It seemed to me to be a vivid physical symbol of a powerful Empire striving to keep the outside world at bay.
I thought of that moment today when I read the Times story on the winning design for a new U.S. embassy in London. Lord knows I'm no architecture critic, and I think my wife was too harsh when she said the winning design looked "like a big ice-cube," but the sketches in the Times don't show a building that invites the world in, or that conveys a sense of openness and confidence. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal security measures with adroit landscaping, the overall image is one where security concerns predominate: a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm's length.
What troubles me is what this tells us about America's place in the contemporary world, and the tensions between its global ambitions and its willingness to accept the consequences of them. On the one hand, the United States defines its own interests in global terms: there are no regions and few policy issues where we don't want to have a significant voice, and there are many places and issues where we insist on having the loudest one. But on the other hand, we don't think we should get our hair mussed while we tell the world what to do. It's tolerable for the United States to fire drones virtually anywhere (provided the states in question can't retaliate, of course), and Americans don't seem to have much of a problem with our running covert programs to destabilize other regimes that we've decided to dislike. We also aid, comfort and diplomatic support to assorted other states whose governments often act in deeply objectionable ways. But then we face the obvious problem that some people are going to object to these policies, hold us responsible, and try to do what they can to hit back.
So we have to build embassies that resemble fortresses, and that convey an image of America that is at odds with our interests and our own self-image, and especially with the image that we would like to convey to foreign peoples. We like to think of our country as friendly and welcoming, as open to new ideas, and as a strong, diverse and confident society built on a heritage of pluck and grit. You know, we're supposed to be a society built by generations of immigrants, pioneers, and other determined folk who faced adversity and risk with a smile and a bit of a swagger. Yet the "Fortress America" approach to embassy design presents a public face that is an odd combination of power and paranoia.
Don't get me wrong: states in the modern world do have to worry about security for their representatives, and we ought to take all reasonable measures to ensure that our diplomats are adequately protected. But as with dangers (such as extremists with explosives in their underwear), it's possible to go too far in the quest for perfect security. Trying to blast-proof everything may even be counterproductive, if the damage done to our global image is greater than the damage that violent radicals would do to a slightly less-fortified global presence