'Virtual consulates' anchor ACPD proposal to buoy diplomacy efforts

WASHINGTON: The US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD) unveiled a series of new proposals last week to increase America's presence overseas, while recognizing 21st century dangers and federal budget restraints.

WASHINGTON: The US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD) unveiled a series of new proposals last week to increase America's presence overseas, while recognizing 21st century dangers and federal budget restraints.

Center-stage was the "virtual consulate," a web-based service that facilitates interaction between citizens of remote foreign regions and the US government. Already functioning in a handful of Russian cities, virtual consulates require no physical US presence and perform approximately half the work of a full-service consulate.

"You can do this in places where we will never have a physical presence," said consul general Tom Niblock, citing critical yet dangerous cities such as Mogadishu and Mombasa.

Besides reducing risks to US agents, the tactic costs considerably less than constructing an embassy. The five now in operation in Russia cost just $10,000 to create, according to Niblock.

Other ideas presented included the "American presence post," a single Foreign Service officer stationed in a major city who interacts with local audiences; and "American Corners," an unmanned office furnished with a US resource library and internet access.

The ACPD offered both ideas with reservations, citing the high cost of security needed at US presence posts and the lack of representation and guidance available at American corners.

The recommendations come on the heels of a department-wide reconsideration of US public diplomacy, particularly in the Muslim world. A $15 million post-September 11 ad and outreach campaign spearheaded by ex-secretary for public diplomacy Charlotte Beers met with near-universal criticism and is currently under review by a congressionally mandated advisory group that will recommend changes in the fall.

Niblock cited the need to update US interaction with overseas audiences, saying traditional methods such as building embassies were "big, heavy, and expensive." "We are not going to meet the task" without radically altering US methods, he warned.

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