Monday, 30 March 2009

Drumroll please.... Number 1) More Diplomats

As you will no doubt remember, throughout the Bush administration the center of gravity in US foreign relations was shifted significantly away from the State Department and towards the Department of Defence. Routine operations that would normally be conducted by diplomats were handed instead to (then Defence Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld and his team. Since the mission of the Defence Department is to prepare for and lead wars, and the mission of the State Department is to work towards peaceful resolution of conflicts and to ensure successful and prosperous interactions between our nation and others, the tenor of US policy under this system was unsurprising. Put simply - more wars, less peace.

But it’s more complicated (and worse) than that suggests. Defence is understandably interested mainly in those nations and regions where we currently have troops stationed, where we are currently fighting wars, or where we expect to fight wars in future. But State is responsible for considering also America’s economic relationships, alliance building with trusted allies, and for longer term relationships with States that are not currently in conflict with but may be in future. For instance, the Defence Department has minimal interest in sub Saharan Africa, but the State Department by necessity does keep embassies there and monitors the situation closely. Defence is active in Europe in terms of maintaining our bases there, but State also works to foster economic cooperation and trade. Neither department is doing anything wrong by working in this way – the DOD is making a good tactical use of its resources with these priorities. But by shifting the balance of power away from State and towards Defence, American foreign policy has shifted in the same direction – leading to uneccesarily tense relationships with our allies and a distinct lack of action in problem areas such as Darfur, or on global issues such as Climate Change.

From early on in the campaign, Obama has been signalling a desire to return to a foreign policy that prioritises diplomacy over military power – not because there isn’t a place for American military power but because, as we have learned to our great cost, it can’t solve our problems on its own. Military power is just one tool in America’s arsenal, and we’ve been tying our hands behind our back refusing to use the other tools available to us – economic and cultural influence, strategic alliances, interest-based dialog and negotiation.

Regional commanders oversee policy in their regions because no one else can. They have staffs of thousands, forces numbering in the tens of thousands and vast financial resources. These generals tower over civilians who share responsibility for securing American interests abroad: ambassadors, regional desk officers and assistant secretaries of state.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recognizes the imbalance and has called for increasing the State Department’s budget.

International diplomacy is the very definition of a highly skilled business. One experienced staffer argues:

Beyond the baseline numbers, we don’t train our diplomats in anything except languages. In the course of a military career, a top officer spends about seven years being educated for the expanded responsibilities their subsequent jobs entail –- that’s in addition to the training for their current job that is part and parcel of their routine work. A comparably senior diplomat will have had less than a year. That our diplomats are as admirably capable as they are is a tribute to their individual excellence.

The State Department didn’t teach them to swim; they threw them in the water and promoted the ones who didn’t drown. Requiring virtuoso individuals to make the system work in an average way is a sub-optimal (and often disastrous) way to structure an institution. Bureaucracies are supposed to support and enable better performance, not inhibit it. I've worked in both Defense and State, and the difference money makes on the culture just screams out at you.

In this budget, President Obama is asking for money to significantly increase the size of the diplomatic corps and the staff of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department will significantly expand the scope of its operations to help us become the global leader America should always have been. With this money we can recruit and train people with language skills, cultural knowledge, economic savvy and strong diplomatic ability to lead our efforts around the world.

And for those of us who are Americans living abroad – the value is even greater. Because the State Department provides embassy and consular services that not only build relationships with our host countries, but also provide essential government services to us directly. If you are an American living abroad and you need to renew your passport, get tax advice, register a birth or death or claim the protection of your government in times of unrest, it is the embassy that will provide these services. In fact, one of the things Obama talked to us about during his campaign was his hope to conduct a census of Americans abroad in order to better serve the needs of our community.

So in short, with the money set aside in this budget for beefing up staffing in the State Department and USAID, we can:

· Prevent wars in hostile regions
· Strengthen our economy through international partnerships
· Help avoid destabilisation in volatile areas
· Offer vital service to US citizens abroad
· Restore American leadership in the global community.

I’d say that’s money well spent.

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