Fixing the Foreign Service: Effective Forward Deployment
by Dr. Demarche
The Foreign Service has been buzzing this last week in the aftermath of Secretary Rice’s recent speech regarding the administration’s planned focus on what has been termed “transformational diplomacy” (TD hereafter). The Secretary has offered the following explanation as to what this will mean to the world:
I would define the objective of transformational diplomacy this way: To work with our many partners around the world to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people — and conduct themselves responsibly in the international systemÃ¢€¦Transformational diplomacy is rooted in partnership, not paternalism — in doing things with other people, not for them. We seek to use America’s diplomatic power to help foreign citizens to better their own lives, and to build their own nations, and to transform their own futuresÃ¢€¦Now, to advance transformational diplomacy all around the world, we in the State Department must rise to answer a new historic calling. We must begin to lay new diplomatic foundations to secure a future of freedom for all people. Like the great changes of the past, the new efforts we undertake today will not be completed tomorrow. Transforming the State Department is the work of a generation. But it is urgent work that cannot be deferred. — Secretary Rice, January 18, 2006
The idea of TD as a policy (first floated nearly a year ago with follow up last summer) is in many ways just what the doctor ordered for the Department of State and our diplomats abroad. Just as the military is often accused of preparing to fight the last war, the Department of State has been slow to react to the changes in global power and threats.
For far too long we have been concentrating our diplomatic efforts on the Cold War battlefields of Europe (and look at what those efforts have wrought). The EU, struggling under its own weight and largely powerless outside its own borders no longer demands out attention as it once did- the goals set after World War Two have been met, the Soviet giant has been slain and it is tome to shift our gaze elsewhere. Never the less, the capitals of Western Europe remain the shining gems in the Foreign Service. Our embassies in London, Paris and Berlin overflowing with senior diplomats while our missions in the places that should matter most to us, the Middle East, South East Asia and the “Stans” ( Pakistan, Kazakhstan, etc) are manned by entry level or junior mid-level officers. The Secretary’s TD plan would begin to rectify that situation, immediately stripping some of the fat from the Euro-zone missions and from Washington (approximately 100 positions) and directing them to where our need is greatest, with many more positions to follow in the future.
The TD plan, detailed here, will also redefine the manner in which our diplomats approach their work. There will be more hands-on work with local governments and a greater emphasis on public diplomacy, and an expanded use of technology to reach out to larger numbers of host country nationals. A greater emphasis will be placed on stabilization of a nation and empowering the people to shape and define their own destiny.
All of these steps are praiseworthy, and all are needed in the current practice of diplomacy, American style. The most striking point in the plan (besides human resource allocation), however, is referred to in the official TD material as Effective Forward Deployment, which is defined as “DiplomatsÃ¢€¦traveling to their area of responsibility more regularly than ever, using their expertise and experience more effectively abroad.”
This one sentence speaks volumes as to the current state and practice of U.S. diplomacy. The section heading clearly implies, and in large part is correct in doing so, that our diplomatic resources are being used ineffectively. Too many of our diplomats, even in Western Europe, are desk bound, reporting back to Washington on events that are often covered in a more timely manner by CNN and the BBC. Our embassies and consulates are foreboding and inhospitable buildings, security concerns over ride almost every effort to present a welcoming face. Those of us serving abroad have almost no contact with the vast majority of the people who live in our host countries. We are hidden away behind massive walls and locked gates in only the capitals or largest cities, locked in the echo-chamber with the governing elites. I wrote about this last year on The Daily Demarche in response to a 2003 article by Thomas Friedman entitled Where Birds Don’t Fly. Friedman describes the new consulate in Istanbul as lacking only “a moat with alligators and a sign that says: “Attention! You are now approaching a U.S. Consulate. Any sudden movement and you will be shot. All visitors welcome.” Unfortunately this is becoming the norm around the world.
As a result, simply moving positions and declaring that an officer must speak at least two languages and take an occasional posting to a less than ideal post will not solve our problems. We must be able to reach out to the people in the places where we live, and in order to do so we need to rethink the manner in which our diplomats are trained and prepared for each assignment. While there is some mention of FSO training in the TD plan, there is not nearly enough. The Foreign Service needs a concrete training continuum, including language and cultural studies at advanced levels. An entry level officer may be trained in Urdu, for example, and will have to pass a test (graded on a 0-5 scale with 5 being professional translator) to prove that she has reached the minimum level of competency before heading off to post. For most languages that level of competency is a score of 3, although it is often 2 for the “hard languages” such as Urdu. After that, however, the officer is deemed prepared for the rest of her career to work in that language (in theory certain language scores demand a periodic re-test, but if an officer is deemed successful in working in the host language in her annual review no re-test is required).
Why are our officers not expected to improve their language skills while abroad? Why does the minimum skill level required not increase in proportion with responsibility? The sad fact is that many officers actually suffer a decline in language skill while abroad, as they have very little “official” contact with the local population, dealing instead almost exclusively with the local elite who have often studied in the U.S. and speak flawless English. Compound this with the fact that many of our administrative and technical employees overseas, known as Foreign Service Specialists, receive no language training and the problem is even larger. The State Department is adamant that every overseas employee is a diplomat and carries the responsibility for representing the United States abroad. No one seems to have noticed that it is difficult to do so in an effective manner if you cannot communicate with the locals. If every employee abroad is the face of America we should be highly concerned about the perception of arrogance- it is one thing for a tourist from the heartland who has never left the U.S. to assume that speaking slower and louder in English will make the locals understand, quite another for an Embassy employee to do so. Imagine meeting a foreign diplomat in the U.S. who did not speak English, at least at a basic level. What would you think of the country that sent that person abroad?
In an age when world affairs are increasingly shaped by what the policy wonks like to call “non-state actors”- a term which covers everything from Greenpeace to al-Qaeda- our diplomats need the tools and training to effectively deal with the people who comprise these groups. Simply ensuring that a host-country government is not hostile to us is no longer sufficient. Every contact with every host country national, by every American member of every mission abroad, must be an opportunity for that host country national to form a positive image of America and Americans. We should, of course, continue to work with the governments of the world, while at the same time reaching out to the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers they represent. These are the people who have the potential to pilot airplanes into skyscrapers or to bomb shopping malls. Our best and brightest hope is that they are able to form a positive image of us through the Americans they meet in their homeland, and that they share that positive image with their friends and families. We cannot allow something as mundane as the training budget to interfere with this process. The TD plan calls for diplomats to serve as Political Advisors to our military forces- I would argue that by the time our military is involved we have already wasted our best chance to make use of our “diplomatic and regional experience.”
The bottom line is that hearts and minds can only be won with hearts and minds. The Secretary’s plan to shift resources to the areas of the world that are of greatest concern is an admirable one. What happens after those positions are shifted- who fills them, what training they receive and the marching orders they receive will be critical. The Secretary has referred to the time frame for this transformation of the State Department as “generational.” I don’t think it is a coincidence that this is the same idea that bin Laden is said to have expressed as al- Qaeda’s vision of their struggle with the West, I just hope that we have the same resolve as those who seek our destruction.
See “Diplomats Will Be Shifted to Hot Spots” for more thoughts on this policy change.