SOD – Save our diplomacy

As Israelis return from vacation, all eyes are focused on the increasingly toxic election campaign.

Bilahari Kausikan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bilahari Kausikan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Israelis return from vacation, all eyes are focused on the increasingly toxic election campaign. As we mostly stare at our own navels, it is easy to forget that hurricane-force global gales are blowing in today’s world that buffet small countries, like Israel, and even large ones, like the US and China. Japan and South Korea trade blows, the US and China engage in trade wars, Turkey threatens to invade Syria, Russia disrupts elections, nationalism is on the rise everywhere, migrants flood out of Central America, and Iran disrupts the flow of oil in the Strait of Hormuz.
A nation’s foreign diplomats are like global weather forecasters: their feet on the ground all over the world bring valuable information, which is reported back to those policymakers whose job it is to prepare for, or at least react to, global trends, in a timely manner.
That is why I find it so distressing that Israel’s foreign service and the dedicated people who staff it are being degraded, marginalized and humiliated. In my travels I’ve met many of them, especially in Asia. They deeply impressed me. The Netanyahu government, perhaps in its last throes, is systematically and willfully ruining Israel’s foreign service.
The Foreign Ministry Workers Union went on strike briefly in July to protest the ministry’s minuscule budget and starvation wages paid to diplomats. Over the past two decades, every ministry’s budget has risen – except the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), whose paltry 1.3 billion shekel budget ($367 million) is less, as a proportion of the total government budget, than in any other Western country. No wonder the number of applicants to the MFA cadets’ course in 2017 was half that in 2012.
“Lately, we don’t have budgets for activities,” Hanan Goder, non-resident ambassador to South Sudan, told The Times of Israel. “We don’t have money to buy new ink for our printers. There is no money for coffee. There is no money for trips. Our envoy to Helsinki cannot buy a ticket for 60 euros to make the 20-minute trip to Tallinn,” the capital of Estonia, to express solidarity after the Jewish community’s cemetery there was desecrated. “I am the ambassador to South Sudan. I don’t have money to fly to South Sudan.”
As a civil servant, Goder cannot criticize the government. But clearly, it is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself who is responsible. He failed to appoint an MFA minister for years, holding the job himself. Earlier this year, he appointed longtime Transportation Minister Israel Katz to the job. Katz’s first pronouncement: the MFA will focus on business, thus further exacerbating friction and redundancy with the Economics Ministry’s commercial attachés. I am told by a former senior MFA diplomat that Netanyahu sees MFA workers as a bunch of leftists.
I sent an urgent SOS, or SOD (Save Our Diplomacy), call for help to the wisest diplomat that I know personally – Bilahari Kausikan, senior Singaporean diplomat for 37 years. Kausikan was Singapore’s ambassador to Russia, UN representative, permanent secretary (PS) of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and for five years, ambassador at large. He is now a scholar at the National University of Singapore.
Over the years, Kausikan has regularly brought young Foreign Ministry workers to Israel to learn about it firsthand, through the soles of their feet. He is exceptionally wise about how small embattled countries like Singapore and Israel can navigate in a complex world. I last sought his wisdom nearly six years ago (see The Jerusalem Report, “A Messy World,” November 18, 2013).
In this age of instant communication, is there still an important role for the Foreign Ministry and for personal diplomacy? What case can be made for strengthening, rather than degrading, Israel’s foreign service?
Israel needs to recognize that defense and diplomacy are not alternatives but mutually reinforcing instruments of statecraft. Lee Kwan Yew once told an Israeli general who had helped us train the Singapore Air Force, in the early years of our independence, that Singapore had learned two things from Israel: How to be strong, and how not to use that strength, meaning that once stable deterrence has been established with hostile neighbors, that stability must be used to build positive relationships. Of course, Singapore never faced the level of deep-rooted hostility that, unfortunately, Israel has had to contend with, but changes in the strategic environment, both globally and in the Middle East, have now created excellent opportunities for Israeli diplomacy.
New technologies have constantly changed diplomacy, from the time when instructions took months or even years to reach diplomats abroad by sailing ship, to the current age of instantaneous communication. Social media is fundamentally changing the way we acquire and process information and confusing information with opinion. This is a tremendous challenge to all foreign ministries everywhere. But it also creates opportunities. If there is one country that is best placed to seize the opportunities, it is Israel, and I know your Foreign Ministry has already begun to do so. But your political leaders must take your many outstanding professional diplomats seriously to maximize the opportunities.
Insiders at the Foreign Ministry tell me that there is bitter rivalry between commercial attachés, who report to the Economics Ministry, and foreign service attachés, appointed and managed by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. This is complicated further when the new Foreign Affairs minister, Israel Katz, seeks to refocus his diplomats on economic and business issues. How does Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Ministry allocate responsibility between diplomacy and business, and avoid internecine wars?
It is my view, undoubtedly eccentric and not shared by everybody in Singapore, that the skill set required for business promotion does not come naturally to individuals who chose to become diplomats, or indeed civil servants, in general. After all, if we had these skills, we would have gone into business for ourselves! But I don’t think you need worry too much about this. Israeli creativeness is so widely recognized that promotion is hardly necessary as the world – with a few exceptions that are depriving only themselves of the opportunities – is beating at your door.
But that said, it always has to be a team effort between specialists in different domains. For example, there are many countries not too far from Israel’s borders, where political connections are essential for business success. So diplomats can identify and cultivate these political connections so as to give economic specialists or businessmen the entrée. This is not something that an economic specialist or businessman can always do by themselves. Some of these political centers of influence may only want to talk to the ambassador and not some specialist attaché.
But if you don’t mind me saying so, and I am a friend of Israel who has visited Israel many times, teamwork does not come naturally to many Israelis. It’s the other side of the same qualities: the hardy individualism that makes many Israelis so creative and innovative. It’s a bit ironic because early Israelis were by ideology collectivist. This is, of course, a broad-brush generalization, and anyone will immediately think of many exceptions to this simplistic observation, particularly when strategic issues are engaged or there is an immediate defense threat. But the exceptions show that you can still work as a team when you have to. The point is to recognize that there is no choice but to do so and not just in the defense domain.
I often joke that an occasional visitor to Israel may get the impression that you Israelis are continually fighting among yourselves, and that is often the fact. But a more frequent visitor knows better than to interfere when Israelis fight because you [Israelis] will immediately stop fighting and beat up the interloper so as to be able to fight in peace.
I think you have to recognize that in the 21st century, business, trade and economics in general are no less strategic than defense. So you have to stop fighting to beat up the economic competition.
Over the last 20 years, the budgets of nearly all ministries have doubled, except the Foreign Affairs Ministry. What does Singapore spend on its Ministry of Foreign Affairs? In an age of ‘evidence-based policy,’ how can we justify investing serious resources in diplomacy and significantly expanding the Foreign Affairs’ budget?
In fiscal year 2019, spending on defense, security and foreign affairs amounted to about just under 23 billion Singapore dollars, about 28% of total Singapore government expenditure. Of this, the foreign ministry gets about half a billion Singapore dollars ($361 million), so we are the poor cousin too. But I think the bulk of money going to defense and security is understandable given our strategic environment, and, at least when I was the permanent secretary, I found this adequate for what we wanted to do, and I don’t recall anything I could not do because of lack of money. Bear in mind what I said earlier about defense and diplomacy not being alternatives but mutually reinforcing. Of course, I cannot speak for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, or for that matter, I cannot speak for our own Foreign Ministry now that I am retired, but in my observation the real problem in Israel’s case is more lack of political support than lack of money. I was fortunate not to have lacked political support when I was PS.
You brought bright young Foreign Ministry workers to Israel to learn about the complex Mideast firsthand. These trips were not inexpensive. How did you justify such expense, or investment, to the ministry? Did you have to fight for this budget?
Actually, I only had such a program for Israel – I didn’t bring them to other countries. Of course, we send young Foreign Service recruits to visit other countries, mainly in Southeast Asia, as part of their basic training. But Israel was unique in that the officers I brought were those with roughly two to three years’ experience with one slightly more experienced officer at deputy-director level. I thought that our most promising officers should see a country whose geopolitical situation was roughly similar to ours, albeit much, much more extreme. I wanted them to understand that if Israel could cope and thrive under such extreme conditions, we could deal with the less extreme situation we are in.
Fatalism is fatal for small states, and that is the lesson I wanted them to learn. Although I never told them the purpose of the Israel trip, they all got the message.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, according to my inside sources, detests the Foreign Ministry, and purposely delayed appointing a full-time minister for a full four-year term because he thinks MFA workers are a bunch of leftists, and because he loves the glory of, say, personally declaring on-site new diplomatic relations with such superpowers as Chad. How does Singapore deal with possible conflicts between the views of, say, the minister, or prime minister, and ministry diplomats posted abroad? Can Singapore’s MFA dissent and remain viable? Have you yourself seriously dissented? Did you win, or lose?
Of course, we can dissent and argue. How on earth do you think I survived and even got promoted? This does not mean we should shout our dissent from the rooftops. We should argue the case internally, and once a decision is made, it is our responsibility to carry it out irrespective of whether or not we agree with it. That discipline is necessary. But we must speak out if we don’t agree because a Foreign Ministry of yes-men is a serious liability to any country.
Nearly six years ago, when I interviewed you at length, I asked about US-China rivalry and US newfound isolationism. This was pre-Trump. You noted the ‘global leadership deficit.’ Today, post-Trump, have your views changed? Much of what you predicted has come true. Looking into your crystal ball, what lies ahead in global politics?
I think what I called the leadership deficit will continue. It is not a question of individuals but a structural issue of how politics has evolved in an age where institutions and procedures that evolved in the 19th century collide with 21st century information and communications technologies. Social media gives us historically unprecedented access to a wealth of information. We can’t do without it. Unfortunately, it does not discriminate on the quality of information, and creates echo chambers that are loosening the broad sense of national purpose and solidarity on which all our political institutions are based.
Politics is becoming polarized everywhere, in different degrees. Governance is becoming more difficult everywhere, including in Leninist systems like China. I don’t know what the solution is because solutions in the end depend on the political institutions that are being degraded. I don’t think companies like Facebook or Google can regulate themselves because their ultimate purpose is profit, not the common good, although they sanctimoniously pretend otherwise. Geopolitically this leadership deficit is creating greater than usual complexity and uncertainty everywhere.
The “Deal of the Century” Trump peace plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unveiled in a surreal conference, at which $50 billion (none of it exists yet) was waved at Palestinians (who did not attend) and Israelis (who sent only journalists). If real diplomats, from all sides, sat down together (instead of a wet-behind-the-ears son-in-law with zero knowledge or experience in diplomacy), and if you too were at the table, how would you lead Palestinian-Israeli discussions toward a possible settlement? When such a deal would be undoubtedly win-win for all sides, why are we stuck seemingly permanently in lose-lose?
“I don’t think there is any solution to the Palestinian issue. The two-state solution is effectively dead and only awaits a decent burial. It’s not a question of being wet-behind-the-ears or deploying experienced negotiators instead. The hard fact is the leaderships of Fatah, Hamas and the Israeli hard-right have no political interest in a solution because continued low-level conflict is what keeps them in power. Any solution would be a political disaster for them; another nakba.
Think about it. A Palestinian state would very soon cease to be an International Cause written in capital letters and become just another Third World country with a flag and a seat in the UN and little else. International aid would soon dry up unless they demonstrate a better capacity for governance than they have so far shown. And do you think the Israeli right, religious or not, would be as influential as they currently are if there was a solution? I’m not saying they will be uninfluential in Israel if there was a solution. Here it’s a matter of degree. The Arab governments are most interested in Palestine only to appease their restless populations.
For Iran and Turkey, it is mainly a convenient stick to beat Israel and the Arab governments. So who has a real interest in Palestine? The Palestinian people? Since when have their wishes been an important consideration? Sorry to be so cynically simplistic, but these are my conclusions after studying the issue for many years, and I’ve always found that reducing any issue to its essential elements helps cut through all the bullshit that surrounds too much of international affairs.
None of this means that the issue cannot be better managed to reduce the level of violence and loss of life. Nor does it mean that we cannot do anything to improve living conditions for ordinary Palestinians. But those are different matters from negotiating a political solution whether by greenhorns or experienced diplomats.
Twenty-five years ago, Henry Kissinger published a wonderful book, Diplomacy. Here is a quote: “What is new about the emerging world order is that, for the first time, the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it.” Well, President Trump wants to (but can’t) withdraw from the world – the Iranians won’t let him at the Strait of Hormuz; and Trump wants to (but can’t) dominate the world – we have an emerging China and an obstreperous Russia. So how do you think Kissinger would rewrite his phrase, if he were writing a 2nd edition today?
In exactly the same way. I don’t see any need for amendment or revision. Trump represents an extreme manifestation of tendencies that have always been present in some degree in US foreign policy: a preference for unilateralism, impatience with multilateralism, brandishing the big stick, unpredictability – none of this is exactly new.
My American friends sometimes forget that the Shining City on the Hill has always cast a dark shadow, and there have always been more than one set of American values. The political dysfunctionalities and the leadership deficit that I referred to earlier is making one set of values more prominent than the other.
There is a similar phenomenon in Europe too, and in another but similar way, in China and in Russia. The trouble is, this other set of values does not sit easily with an increasingly interconnected world, and those interconnections cannot be reversed, much as some politicians would like. That’s the root cause of the greater than usual geopolitical complexity I alluded to.
After pondering Kausikan’s wise words, I said, deep in my heart, a small prayer. Let the September 17 election bring a unity government. Let this government appoint a foreign minister who deeply cares about diplomacy, doubles his ministry’s budget, recruits bright young people as his cadets, and gives the South Sudan ambassador money for printer ink, coffee and even plane tickets. And above all, let us Israelis listen to Kausikan – no better friend nor stronger wiser admirer exists abroad – and stop fighting one another, so that we can finally together begin to deal effectively with the global storm clouds gathering and approaching.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at