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Bordeaux no more


Bordeaux, France -- THE U.S. Consulate in Bordeaux died last week. It was 205 years old. The oldest living consulate in American diplomatic history succumbed to a variety of ailments, including CNN disease, faxatosis, AT&T-Direct;, global integration and most of all the lingering effects of a congressional ax attack. The Bordeaux consulate is survived by the American Embassy in Paris and its sisters, the U.S. consulates in Strasbourg and Marseilles. Memorial donations may be sent to the General Operating Fund of the U.S. State Department in Washington. (It needs the money.) No memorial service is planned.

Yes, in case you missed it, the State Department announced last week that to appease congressional budget-cutters it was closing down 19 consulates and embassies, including Bordeaux. Normally the closure of a consulate with two U.S. diplomats and nine locals would not be worthy of note, but Bordeaux is a bit different. It was opened by the Washington administration -- that's George Washington -- in 1790 as America's first consulate abroad. In closing consulates like Bordeaux, the United States is turning its back on the past and the future of U.S. foreign policy for the sake of the present.

Bordeaux port was named the first consulate because it had become renowned for supplying the American rebel colonists with arms (and wine). It was from Bordeaux that Lafayette sailed off to fight in the Revolutionary War and it was Bordeaux's city father, Baron Montesquieu, who inspired the separation-of-powers concept in the U.S. Constitution.

But Bordeaux's future is also intriguing. As several Bordeaux businessmen pointed out, an increasingly united Europe is moving today from a collection of states to a collection of economic regions. And the region of southwest France, of which Bordeaux is at the center, is among the most dynamic in Europe. It includes the core of the European defense and aerospace industry -- Airbus Industrie, ATR and Dassault -- the soon-to-be-opened French nuclear-weapons simulation center, Ford and IBM plants and, of course, the cutting edge of the French wine industry. The U.S. is southwest France's biggest trading partner -- $5 billion in exports to the United States, $3 billion in imports. It's a region worth watching.

"Europe is coming together and we're going home -- it makes no sense," says Charles de Guigne, an American businessman in Bordeaux.

Only in the present does it make sense. No question that in an era of CNN and fax machines, consulates are not as critical as they once were. But there is nothing like having a U.S. consul showing up regularly at the opening session of city governments, local functions and business gatherings, keeping tabs on everything and offering more in the way of American culture than McDonald's and Mickey Mouse.

Closing a consulate like Bordeaux might be all right if the U.S. Embassy in Paris could pick up the slack, but it can't. Like all other major European embassies, Paris is being cut by 25 percent. In a rare move, the State Department this year didn't even give the Foreign Service exam to young Americans aspiring to be diplomats, because it had no job openings.

According to diplomats, the U.S. ambassadors to Italy, France, Britain, Spain, the European Union, Germany, Russia and NATO got together in March and sent a secret cable to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, signed by all of them, telling him that the "delivery system" of U.S. foreign policy was being destroyed by budget cuts. They pleaded with him to mobilize those constituencies in the United States that value the work of embassies, and volunteered to come to Washington to testify before Congress in their defense. The ambassadors got a polite note back from Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott, telling them he understood their concerns but that there was a new mood in Congress. There was no invitation to testify.

But here's the good news. The closure of the 19 embassies and consulates will save the U.S. Treasury $12 million.

"Twelve million dollars a year?" asks Robert Beynat, head of the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux. "You are doing all of this for $12 million? That is 20 percent of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce's annual budget."

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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