Diplomacy for the real world

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

MUCH OF OUR national security and foreign policy bureaucracy has been designed to confront an enemy that no longer exists. Today, many of our biggest threats come not from other strong states but from subnational groups such as Al Qaeda or from failing states that create fertile ground from which they operate.

The Pentagon has reacted to the post-9/11 world by enlarging the Special Operations Command and placing greater emphasis on language and cultural education. It’s not enough, but it’s a beginning -- and it’s more than the State Department has done so far. The Foreign Service remains trapped in a framework straight out of the 19th century, producing diplomats whose primary skill is liaison work with other diplomats. That leaves Foggy Bottom woefully ill-equipped to deal with two particularly pressing challenges: public diplomacy and nation-building.

Public diplomacy -- the fancy name for speaking to the populace of foreign countries, not just to their leaders -- is more than ever necessary because of the spread of democracy. Long gone are the days when autocrats such as Otto von Bismarck and Prince Klemens von Metternich could determine their countries’ foreign policy pretty much on their own. Nowadays, getting the support of foreign leaders usually requires getting the support of their voters. But, as the run-up to the invasion of Iraq proved, that’s not something we’re very adept at. Nor, as the aftermath of the invasion showed, are we very good at nation-building. We need a new bureaucracy devoted to this area so that the entire burden doesn’t fall on the overstretched armed forces.


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has unveiled a number of “transformational diplomacy” initiatives designed to address such shortcomings. Noting that there are nearly as many State Department staffers in Germany (population 82 million) as in India (population 1 billion), she announced transfers from cushy Western embassies to more hardscrabble outposts in the developing world. This will include opening a number of one-person missions in cities of over 1 million people where the U.S. currently has no representation at all. Foreign Service officers will be required to serve in hardship posts in order to get promoted. The State Department is also opening a regional public diplomacy center for the Middle East, staffed by Arabic-speakers, and an Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, staffed by nation-building experts.

All good moves, but they don’t go far enough. Public diplomacy, for one, has suffered since the U.S. Information Agency was folded into the State Department in 1999 in a misguided deal cooked up by the unlikely alliance of then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). This led to a closing of American libraries all over the world and to a downgrading of public communications in the overall scheme of things. However much Rice or her successors may stress public diplomacy, it is likely to remain a bastard stepchild in a bureaucracy run by Foreign Service officers with other specialties. Why not reopen the USIA as a separate agency with its own staff and a big boost in funding?

And why not set up a new nation-building department built, perhaps, on the foundation of the Agency for International Development? The new Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization is doing good work, but it is unlikely to get sufficient support from Congress or its own department as long as it’s subsumed in a larger bureaucracy.

In any case, the skills needed for nation-building are more akin to those of the old British Colonial Office than to those inculcated by the State Department. We should open up our own version of the Colonial Office at USAID. Instead, the trend seems to be toward more closely integrating USAID into the State Department, repeating the mistake that was made with the USIA.

Don’t nod off. Diplomacy may not be sexy stuff, but it is vitally important if we are to deal with looming problems before they turn into a crisis requiring tens of thousands of U.S. troops to fix. We actually need to spend more and hire more people to tackle these issues. The entire international affairs budget -- which includes funding not only for the State Department and other agencies but also for foreign aid -- is just $35 billion, compared with about $500 billion in defense spending. And the State Department has just 13,000 employees, not enough to fill one Army division.

But before making a bigger commitment to diplomacy and related disciplines, we need to make sure we have the right structure in place to address the challenges of the 21st century.