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Diplomacy in the 21st Century: Dead But It Won’t Lie Down

Anthony C.E. Quainton

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000

Almost twenty years ago at an ISA Conference in Philadelphia, I presented a paper entitled, “The State Department dead but it won’t lie down”. My thesis then was that it would be possible to disaggregate the various bureaus of the Department and give away their functions to other government agencies and that no one would notice their disappearance. Consular work would go the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Narcotics Matters to the DEA, Diplomatic Security to the FBI, Political Military Affairs to ISA at the Pentagon, etc. Even the geographic bureaus, I argued, could have their functions formally assumed by the National Security Council, which at the time seemed already to have usurped the regional and bilateral policy functions of the State Department. At the end of the day all that would have been left, like the smile on Alice’s Cheshire cat, would have been a protocol office to act as the official meeter and greeter for foreign visitors. This fantasy has, of course, not come to pass, notwithstanding recent efforts of the Clinton Administration to reinvent government. Even so, the erosion of the Department’s (and the Secretary of State’s) authority has continued over these 20 years, to the point where a foreign government official bent on influencing American policy might be justified in thinking that protocol had become the only currently useful and visible function of the Department.

Those of you who have recently visited American embassies abroad may have heard a similar complaint from Foreign Service Officers, to wit, that they are left with little more than housekeeping and protocol functions as other agencies have moved in on what used to be the exclusive turf of diplomats. Foreign Service Officers complain that even for those negotiating functions which other agencies have not assumed, visiting State Department firemen from Washington have taken over. It was certainly my experience as Ambassador to Peru in the early 90’s that Washington officials expected to do all the heavy lifting in the US – Peruvian relationship. Itinerant diplomacy is now the rule, when once it was the exception. It is not an accident that the current Secretary of State has already logged many hundreds of thousands of miles of foreign travel, and proudly notes that she has traveled even more than her relentlessly peripatetic predecessor, Warren Christopher.

What then has become of diplomacy, that refined art of negotiation, representation and analysis. To a significant extent it has been trivialized, romanticized and marginalized. I was struck by the trivialization of diplomacy, when I went to the web recently to do some research in preparation for this paper. What did I find: sixty-four entries, over 50 of which were about the board game: Diplomacy. None of the entries would have led me to Harold Nicolson or any of the other great practitioners or scholars of diplomacy. Diplomacy is a popular game, to be sure, but it is one played on a geopolitical board that has little to do with the real world of international relations today. In the current unstable and unpredictable global environment, diplomacy ought to be far more than a parlor pastime.

Diplomacy is also trivialized when it is romanticized. It has always been seen as a glamorous profession. The popular media perpetuates this image even today. Whenever I pick up a copy of the Washington Post and read about diplomats, it is usually in the context of some glittering White House reception, the Viennese Opera Ball, or an intimate soiree in Georgetown. If diplomats appear in films, they are invariably bumbling nitwits, with fluted glasses of champagne in their hands, attempting to seduce implausibly gorgeous women. The image of the striped pants, cookie-pushing diplomat dies hard. The only diplomats who do real work are those in John le Carre’s novels when they are engaged in the darker arts of clandestine or covert operations.

This gilded image of diplomacy is quite surprising when one actually looks at the world in which diplomats must operate. That world is a very dangerous one. Six American Ambassadors have died in terrorist incidents or violent local turmoil in the last twenty years. Four of them were kidnapped and then brutally murdered: in Guatemala, the Sudan, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Embassies in Beirut and Kuwait were massively bombed in the 1980s, as were missions in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi only eighteen months ago. During my tour of duty in Peru the Embassy was twice rocketed and our home bombed with loss of three lives and over $300,000 in damage. The list goes on and on. The traditional receptions and dinners also still go on, but against a background of gunfire and explosions, which diplomats a century ago could never have imagined. A visitor to the State Department or any of our Embassies today will enter a world of barriers, barbed wire, metal detectors and cameras, where security is tighter than at most military installations.

A far more serious problem is the marginalization of traditional diplomacy. When the Rogers Act of 1924 created the modern Foreign Service, America had only one hundred diplomatic service officers and 600 consular officers. This small cadre carried out the entire range of American interaction with the world. With the exception of a few military attaches in major posts, diplomacy was the responsibility of the Department of State and the 700 men of the Foreign Service. They were expected to manage the bilateral relations of America, promote trade and provide visa and passport services. Washington officials did not travel; mail arrived slowly usually by sea; the telegram was an expensive luxury. In this environment Ambassadors had very considerable autonomy in carrying out their instructions. They were, as their titles proclaimed, “extraordinary and plenipotentiary”. Washington relied on them to be the focal points for America’s international relations.

That model of autonomous, State Department directed diplomacy survived until the end of the Second World War. But then, as the world changed so did the practice of diplomacy. Not only did diplomats have to accommodate the stringencies of the Cold War and the intense competition with the Soviet Union, but they had to confront the consequences of the final liquidation of the great European colonial empires. Beginning with independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 through to the breaking of the Soviet Union, new countries extended the international arena with breathtaking speed. From the few dozen Embassies which existed before the war, the United States’ overseas representation grew to the point where today we have over 160 diplomatic missions, not to speak of the 250 consulates which support them.

The 40 years of the cold war were obviously, in many respects, unique. Ideology converted diplomacy into a zero sum game. Whatever we gained, they lost and the reverse. Every country, no matter how insignificant became a battle ground between us and the Communists. Winning the hearts and minds of peoples around the globe became an essential dimension of US foreign relations. To carry out that task new agencies were created: The United States Information Agency to promote American values and policies through public diplomacy; the Agency for International Development to provide resources to the developing world to promote our vision of free market, non-statist development; the Defense Security Assistance Agency, to make sure that wavering militaries bought their weapons and got their training from us and not from the Soviet Union and its satellites. In addition, the closed nature of the Soviet government and society and the strategic nuclear threat which the Soviet Union posed, meant that we were constantly in search of reliable information about the dynamics and inner workings of the Soviet system and the intentions of the Soviet government. To meet that need Congress created three agencies: the CIA, the NSA and the DIA. By the end of the 1950’s American embassies were already crowded with representatives of these new agencies, who outnumbered the traditional diplomats of the Foreign Service. Government to government relations ceased to be a monopoly of the State Department, although Ambassadors continued to have critical roles advancing US interests, promoting trade and managing crises. They retained an ability to exercise interagency control and coordination on behalf of the President and the Secretary of State because almost all electronic communications on policy matters between Washington and the field passed through State channels.

However, even before the Cold War ended, this already complex system became even more complicated and convoluted as the agenda of American Foreign policy expanded to embrace a vast array of new transnational issues. The intensity of the Cold War and the need to line up individual countries on our side at the United Nations and in other international fora often obscured the impact these new issues were having on traditional diplomacy. With the end of the Cold War these transnational issues have come to dominate our foreign policy as can easily be seen from the President’s speeches at the UN General Assembly. These new issues: drugs, terrorism, transnational crime, nuclear proliferation, the environment, population control, among many others, reflect the projection of domestic, politically sensitive subjects onto the Foreign policy agenda. Issues on the street in America became issues in the halls of diplomacy, particularly those that related to the prosperity and domestic security of our citizens. As Americans became increasingly preoccupied with drugs in the inner city, with terrorism at the World Trade Center – Oklahoma City, with illegal immigration and crime, and with the ambitions of rogue states, it was almost inevitable that these issues would become more salient.

For few of these issues were diplomats prepared. Formed in another age; trained in the traditional skills of political science, history and economics, Foreign Service Officers found themselves ill-equipped to handle this new agenda. The result has been a further proliferation of non-Foreign Service Officers’ agencies overseas, notably from the law enforcement community: the FBI, the DEA, Customs and the Immigration Service. Unlike their Cold War predecessors, these law enforcement agencies do not have permanent cadres of officers dedicated to overseas work. Instead they assigned street agents to these new quasi-diplomatic tasks.

They also do not rely on State Department communications. Modern encryption technology now makes it possible for each agency to maintain autonomous secure communications with its headquarters in Washington. The advent of the Internet has simultaneously made it possible for other agencies such as AID, which do not require secure facilities, to communicate directly. The result has been a steady erosion of both the central information coordinating function of Ambassadors and of the Foreign Service’s intermediary role in dealing with governments. Today less than 40 percent of the US officials serving in American Embassies come from the Foreign Service and, of those, well over half perform administrative support functions for other agencies or engage in consular work.

Technology has reduced the role of diplomacy in other ways and is likely to do so more in the future. The CNN factor is often alluded to - the fact that fast breaking news is available on CNN and other electronic media long before an Embassy can report it. Indeed the extraordinary proliferation of publicly available information has, to a significant degree, rendered obsolete the traditional diplomatic reporting function. In addition, although diplomatic connectivity is still in its infancy, it is only a matter of time before foreign ministries, and other government departments, are electronically linked. There is, in fact, no good reason today why the French desk officer in Washington should not be on line every day with the American desk officer at the Quai d’Orsay. There is no reason why demarches should not be made electronically. Similarly teleconferencing between and among governments should begin to replace some, if not all, of the in-country interaction now performed by diplomats. The existing practice of telephone diplomacy has already moved diplomacy to a new level.

One of the other distinguishing features of this new world of international relationships is not only the multilateralization of diplomacy but its deinstitutionalization. It is evident that most of the transnational issues which have come onto our foreign policy radarscope can neither be solved on a bilateral state to state basis, nor by a single foreign territory. Global warming, refugee flows, terrorism or crime involve an elaborate network of foreign governments and domestic agencies. All must be involved if effective results are to be achieved. In some circumstances it, may be possible to aggregate bilateral agreements to achieve policy goals, but in many other situations, for example in the evolving world of electronic commerce, multilateral or multinational agreements are going to be necessary. No one country has all the answers.

Even more striking is the entry into the world of diplomacy of non-governmental actors. The successful lobbying for the landmine treaty was achieved almost entirely through the efforts of NGO’s, who mobilized publics and lobbied governments using the internet. In Seattle last December the world saw for the first time the direct impact of civil society groups on diplomacy. Organized groups disrupted a major international meeting, and, more importantly, prevented agreement on a substantive agenda which governments might, in other quieter circumstances, have reached agreement on. The State Department, the US Trade Representative, the White House were unprepared for this transgression of established diplomatic negotiating norms.

Well you may ask, if all the work is being done by others, if the traditional reporting and representation functions are becoming obsolescent, if bilateral relations are becoming less important, and foreign ministries are being marginalized, what are diplomats supposed to do? Why will we need them? Are they the 21st century equivalents of buggy-whip manufacturers making a product which no one needs or wants. At one level it is evident that bilateral balance of power diplomacy is dead, but relations between states and among states must still be managed. Personal interaction is still needed. Technology can not do it all. However, a new diplomacy will have to be created to replace the old.

The core function of the new diplomacy, as of the old diplomacy, is the ability to understand and analyze the cultures, societies and institutions through which and in which the United States seeks to advance its values in the world. The day to day programmatic implementation of American policies will often be in the hands of non-diplomats. But the FBI agents, the environmental specialists, the trade promotion experts who will be handling specialized tasks, will not be able to succeed in carrying out their assigned missions if they do not have an understanding of the social and political dynamics of those with whom they are dealing. For that to happen these other agencies must have at their side, a cadre of Foreign Service professionals steeped in the languages and cultures of the world, with excellent analytical and interpersonal skills, who can provide the context for programs, negotiations, and other forms of interaction. Those skills were as needed at Camp David, at Dayton and at the Wye Plantation as they are in routine exchanges in capitals around the world. These diverse skills however, are not routinely being produced by America’s universities today. The erosion of area studies points in the opposite direction.

These “new diplomacy” officers will also have to be skilled in public diplomacy. Secret diplomacy, so scorned by Woodrow Wilson, is no longer an option in the open world of the internet and the world wide web. Diplomats are going to have to be able to deal with the media on a daily basis, to work closely with NGO’s and PVO’s, and know how to influence civil society organizations, which in turn will be actively trying to influence our and other governments. The 21st century diplomat will have to be sufficiently sophisticated about the new complex foreign policy agenda to be able to provide meaningful help and guidance to those responsible for program implementation in the field. New multi-disciplinary courses of study are going to be required which will integrate long established economic and political science skills with an understanding of law enforcement, scientific, and environmental issues.

But even if we are able to train and recruit this new breed of diplomat with the skill base required for a new diplomacy, will we be able to retain their services. This is not a frivolous question. We all know that relatively few young men and women are prepared to make lifelong organizational commitments. In recent years, the State Department has been facing the reality that a disturbingly high number of its ablest middle level officers decide to leave the service. The talents which they possess are in high demand in the private sector. The skills that they have acquired through service abroad at their first posts are being lost and are not easy to replace. But the problem is not merely one of institutional loyalty. The personal insecurity created by repeated acts of terrorism against our Surbanes , and the constraints of security under which diplomats and their families must live, the lack of adequate educational and medical facilities overseas, the problems of providing professional opportunities for both members of a two career family all add to the difficulty of retaining skilled diplomatic personnel. Particularly poor levels of pay, uncertain promotion opportunities, and the up or our sword of Damocles, which hangs over every officer’s head, further complicates the situation.

There is no magic bullet that will solve all these problems. But it is absolutely clear that they must be addressed if we are to have Foreign Service capable and willing to serve on the front lines of our national security. Resources will be needed, and the parsimonious attitudes on Capitol Hill and in the Office of Management and Budget will have to change if embassies are to be made secure, if interoperable communications systems are to be developed, and if diplomats are to have the training and family support that they need to operate in the 21st Century. If resources are not forthcoming, we may well come to say, at the end of the next decade that American diplomacy died for lack of support. For some of its critics, giving Foreign Service artificial life support is an unattractive option. Senator Helms seems at times to favor euthanasia.

But the truth remains, diplomacy is our national first line of defense. It must be reinvented, reinvigorated, re-equipped not be allowed to die but not be allowed to die. We will all be the losers if it does.