The Corner

American Exceptionalism in Rome

Funding for the relocation of the U.S. embassy to the Holy See, from its present site near the Circus Maximus to the compound of the U.S embassy to Italy, is included in the spending bill passed by the Senate yesterday. It’s stipulated there that the secretary of state must confirm in writing to the Appropriations Committee that the ambassador and staff of Embassy Vatican will “retain their independence from other United States missions located in Rome, including by maintaining a separate building with a discrete address and entrance.”

Plans for the move do entail the observance of the law’s letter — a separate building, address, and entrance. As for the spirit — “retain their independence” — some diplomats are skeptical.

“An exception, not the ideal, but not the end of the world” is how a Vatican official described the move. Ray Flynn and Jim Nicholson call it a downgrade and have been joined by three other former U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See in objecting to it. “It’s turning this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy,” Nicholson says.

“He may be right,” in the view of James F. Creagan, a Foreign Service veteran writing in the online journal American Diplomacy. “There is a history here. I remember it. . . . The relocation of the US Embassy to the Holy See to the grounds of the US Embassy to Italy is significant both symbolically and physically. Physical location and ‘presence’ is important.”

Creagan recounts that Bill Wilson, whom Reagan appointed as Personal Representative in 1981, “worked hard to get out from under the Embassy Rome umbrella”:

By 1984, President Reagan was able to get the Congress to support full diplomatic relations with the Holy See, including a full-fledged Ambassador. Wilson thus became the first U.S. Ambassador. Wilson knew the importance of a separate Chancery (Embassy offices), and he secured one very near the Vatican in a magnificent building associated with the family and life of Pope Pius XII. The Villa Pacelli, where I served as DCM under Ambassadors Shakespeare and Melady, was indicative of the importance the US attached to its new relationship with the Holy See. We had political officers, protocol persons and diplomatic analysts, a USIA section, our own marine guards who hung out with the Swiss guards, and so forth. . . .

Security at the chancery villa — with grounds around — was excellent as well. There were Italian police, embassy contract guards and the marines. There was no question of the Embassy to Italy being big brother or overlooking the relationship.

The current arrangement of the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Holy See is already a scaled-back version of the original operation, Creagan explains:

After the end of the Cold War and the budgetary pressures of the early nineties, the Chancery to the Holy See moved from the Villa Pacelli to more modest quarters near the Circus Maximus. It downsized as well, and that may have been right and essential for the times. However, a move now to the grounds of the US Embassy to Italy is different.

If it happens,

every effort must be made to isolate [Embassy Vatican] from the natural tendency to become junior partner to big brother, first in all the mundane administrative matters and then in matters of diplomacy and action. One can envisage the Department of State seeing merit in political and economic officers of the big embassy again wearing two hats, one for Italy and one for the Vatican. It is cheaper.

It is cheaper: Flynn and Nicholson remark that it has often been “in budgetary terms” that the State Department has justified its several attempts over the past ten years to consolidate in this fashion.

Lately it has shifted its primary justification, which it now says is the need to enhance security. Creagan doesn’t necessarily buy it. He dismisses the comparison of “the faux US Consulate (Special Mission Compound) in a lawless Benghazi” with the current U.S. embassy to the Holy See in Rome, where “full Italian government police protection” is supplemented by Marines and hired security. Since the attacks on U.S. embassies in the 1980s and 1990s, Foggy Bottom has shuttered chanceries it judged to be too vulnerable and has moved the embassies to forbidding quarters that its critics deride as fortresses, which are more secure but less suited to the business of diplomacy. That tradeoff is surely reasonable in many parts of the world. Rome isn’t one of them, though, and the State Department pays too little heed to such distinctions.

In politicized reporting on this issue, facts have been predictably spun. A common take is that, as one journalist writes, “the Vatican doesn’t mind the move and hasn’t complained at all,” which is either a naïve or a disingenuous reading of the Vatican official’s talk about “an exception, not the ideal.” Is the understatement that characterizes ecclesiastical Romanità just too hard to hear, never mind comprehend, in the noisy world of smash-mouth political blogging?

As for the assertion that “other countries have made similar moves in Rome without incident,” name them. The U.K. and the Netherlands, except that the U.K.’s decision to move its Vatican embassy into its Italian embassy in 2006 was full of incident, which included criticism from the Vatican.

Since its inception in 1994, Israel’s Vatican embassy has shared a location with its embassy to Italy, and that’s it: Of the 80 countries with embassies to the Holy See, 77 locate them separately from their embassies to Italy. The State Department’s plan to remove the U.S. from that company gives an unfortunate twist to the meaning of American exceptionalism.

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