Washington: Showdown at the State Department

Rice is rocking the boat by introducing sweeping reforms that could redefine diplomacy.

condy rice 88 (photo credit: )
condy rice 88
(photo credit: )
The global war on terrorism managed to change almost every aspect of American policy, in terms of using the military to redefine friends and foes around the world. Yet only recently has this conceptual change begun to affect the way the US is conducting its diplomacy - and the role the State Department is playing in the whole scheme. Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced a far-reaching plan for reforming the US Foreign Service to make it capable of answering the changing needs of global diplomacy. When presenting her plan - named "Transformational Diplomacy" - Rice cited an example to explain why there is a need to revamp the Foreign Service. She said that in Germany, a country with a population of 81 million, the State Department keeps a diplomatic staff the same size as that stationed in India, a nation of one billion people. Doing so, she said, might have made sense 40 years ago, when the Cold War made Germany a valuable post for American diplomacy, but it has nothing to do with today's reality. This is the reason for Rice's setting out to change the way the State Department operates - in everything from shifting personnel and opening new offices overseas, to making sure that those diplomats who take the difficult posts get promoted, while those who prefer the comfort of their desks stay behind. Yet the problems facing the American Foreign Service are not only organizational. Up until several years ago, a diplomat's job was rather clear. He (or she) was in charge of keeping in touch with the leadership of the country in which he was stationed; making sure the US's view was heard and understood; and conveying messages between the two governments. But this job description no longer fits. First of all, in a technological era of cell phones and e-mail, the need for a professional diplomat to convey messages is not as important as it used to be. Take the case of Israel, for example. Though diplomats on both sides of the ocean are kept busy, whenever the US president needs to say something really important to the Israeli prime minister - or vice-versa - he picks up the phone and says it directly (not to mention that advisers of the Dov Weisglass variety can always hop on a plane and personally deliver messages to the White House). Secondly, the other main task of diplomats - maintaining good relations between the two countries (what former secretary of state George Schultz once called "the work of a gardener") - is becoming obsolete, as it is increasingly difficult to see where one garden begins and the other ends. If the US wants to deal effectively with anti-American sentiments in the Muslim world, for instance, the question of political boundaries is less significant than that of regional and cultural ones. More important, placing the dialogue between America and the world in the hands of the leaders now seems to be an archaic practice that lacks effectiveness. In dealing with the Arab world, it makes much more sense for American diplomats - whether in Riyadh, Cairo or Baghdad - to talk directly to the people, not to their leaders or politicians. THE CURE for these newfound ills is seen in promoting two, previously marginal, aspects of foreign relations - public diplomacy and international development. The first has to do with explaining America's views to the world; the latter deals with supplying needy societies with assistance in a wide range of economic fields. Critics of public diplomacy say it is a euphemism for propaganda, but the events of the past years demonstrate that no matter what you call it, the US needs to deal with the fact that it is not understood and is widely disliked in much of the world. The US has tried many approaches to public diplomacy, from outright propaganda on TV and radio, to subtle public relations. Most of these attempts have been unfruitful. In her reform plan, Rice intends to put much more emphasis on public diplomacy: to make it a higher priority and to change the attitude within the State Department, which tended to view public diplomacy and development as of secondary importance. Rice delineated several immediate measures, and some long-term moves, aimed at updating American diplomacy, among them: transferring diplomats from US headquarters and from Western posts to hot spots such as Baghdad and Kabul; conditioning the promotion of Foreign Service officers on their willingness to serve in dangerous places, and on their obtaining expertise in certain regions, including proficiency in at least two foreign languages; sending officials from the State Department more often to the regions they are in charge of; and promoting language education, especially in Arabic, Urdu and Chinese. In the long-term, Rice would like to see American representation in every city with more than a million people, a downsizing of embassies in the West and a boost to the staff of those in other regions, mainly the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa. If the Rice reform really works, the future model of the successful American diplomat will not be that of the well-mannered, French-speaking Paris representative chatting with officials at the Quai d'Orsay, but rather that of a diplomat who is not only fluent in Arabic, but who has taken the risk of serving in places where American diplomats are seen as targets for militant groups - one who sees his mission as reaching out to the people, not necessarily to the government. THE TRANSFORMATIONAL Diplomacy plan has its critics both within the State Department and without. Naturally, it was not received too well by employees who do not wish to risk their lives for the Foreign Service and who see their career possibilities as being significantly limited. The State Department is not the military and cannot force anyone to take a post in Iran or in Lebanon, but after this becomes an official priority, it will be more difficult to say no and almost impossible to move up the organizational ladder without agreeing to serve in a dangerous zone. Others criticize the plan for being too all-inclusive - for trying to broaden the responsibilities of the State Department into areas of public diplomacy and development which were taken care of by other agencies. As is often the case with overwhelming reform programs, big plans can't always contend with realities on the ground; so it remains to be seen what parts of this one will actually be implemented. Still, it does enjoy the president's support and is considered as an attempt to deal with the question America has been struggling with for more than four years now: "Why do they hate us?" Where the Middle East is concerned, the plan signifies a change in attitude, not in policy. Its call for many more Middle East specialists and Arabic-speakers in the Foreign Service and for greater openness to the people will not affect American policy in terms of the region's conflicts. But it might help ease some of the tension - something that's always seen as a positive step in the Middle East.