Penny wise and pound foolish on Embassy Row

DEPUTY Secretary of State John Whitehead recently warned that the United States faces a ``national-security crisis'' stemming from the budget cuts being debated in Congress. Mr. Whitehead, naturally, took the ``macro'' view of the problem; that is, he concentrated on the big-ticket items, explaining how the budget cuts would decimate our economic and security assistance programs to such important friends as South Korea, Thailand, and Turkey. But there is also a ``micro'' aspect to this crisis, for the budget reductions on the scale being considered by Congress would have an equally profound, if less obvious, effect on the day-to-day activities of each of the United States' 141 embassies around the world.

Of course, I can only speak for our embassy and consulates in West Germany, a key strategic ally and economic partner. This year the US Embassy in Bonn has had to absorb cuts of more than 10 percent; next year, if Congress has its way, the cuts will be far greater. But the problems we face in Bonn are similar to those being confronted by my colleagues nearly everywhere. Here in West Germany, as elsewhere, the budgetary crunch is having the following effects:

Lowering the US profile: In late June we closed our consulate in Bremen, the oldest one on the Continent. To make matters worse, this is the second time in five years we have taken this step, which naturally leads many Germans to wonder whether the US knows what it is doing. More important, if the current budget picture fails to improve, we will have to close more consulates next year. This will mean a major blow to US influence in a country as diverse and decentralized as West Germany. It would deprive us of a presence in such important centers as Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Munich.

Our cultural presence is also under threat. German-United States binational institutes have played a crucial role in cementing ties between our countries in the postwar period by fostering cultural exchange. Yet the institutes, in five major cities, are in jeopardy because US funding for them has been cut by 90 percent in the last year.

Diminishing our access to the German people: US diplomats are hardly able to travel in West Germany any more. This is a real problem because when John le Carr'e wrote that Bonn is ``a small town in Germany'' he was right: West Germany can no more be understood from Bonn than the US can be understood from Washington. Thus, the understanding of US diplomats of what is happening beneath the surface of this complex society is slowly being compromised.

This stands in stark contrast to what the Soviets are doing. While we could afford to send only two of our Bonn-based diplomats to the principal opposition party's recent national convention last August, the Soviets sent six, including their ambassador.

To compound these problems, we have been compelled to reduce our subscriptions to German newspapers and magazines by 50 percent. Economies such as these are bound to impair seriously our understanding of West Germany and its society. Can you imagine foreign diplomats in Washington not being able to read the Washington Post or the New York Times?

Reducing our services to the US: Having less money has meant a reduction in consular and commercial services to US citizens and companies. At our consulate in Frankfurt, for instance, US service men and women had to wait up to six weeks last summer to obtain routine passport services and to report the birth of their children. Normally, passports are issued the same day the application is received, while reports of birth are completed within 10 days.

Our commercial operations have taken even more drastic cuts. At a time of staggering trade deficits, our commercial officers are sitting in their offices rather than out helping our nation's companies sell their goods. Money has become so tight that soon, my commercial counselor tells me, we may not even have the money to return phone calls, let alone promote our exports.

Impairing our ability to communicate: For the last two months of the fiscal year we had to halt language training for nearly all embassy employees. Of course, many of the embassy's personnel already speak German. But others need this program to improve fluency.

For the embassy support staff, the program has meant an opportunity to learn the rudimentary German necessary for day-to-day life. A two-month suspension of training can be absorbed, but a longer cutoff could leave our diplomats talking mainly to Germans who speak English. These aren't the ones we need to reach!

In a nutshell, we can't continue doing business this way. Whether we like it or not, the United States since World War II has been a great power, with great-power responsibilities. But seen from my vantage point in the field, we seem on the verge of discarding these responsibilities; not as a conscious act of withdrawal, but as an incidental, perhaps unintended, byproduct of the budget debate.

I recognize that it is important to come to grips with the deficit. The importance of this task, moreover, is well understood by our friends over here.

In talking with my German contacts, however, many have concluded that the US is lessening its interest in Europe and the world beyond. Some even believe that the Western European allies are being punished for a lack of support of US policies.

I have assured them that neither perception is correct, that our declining presence is a consequence of steps being taken to balance our budget. This they understand.

What they can't understand is how we could compromise our ability to comprehend foreign events and influence them.

What they can't understand is how we could lower our profile in a country crucial to our national security and economic prosperity.

What they can't understand is how we could reduce our effectiveness in a world often hostile to our interests.

If we persist in running down the United States' ability to protect its allies, its interests, and itself, I doubt history will prove any more understanding.

Richard Burt is US ambassador to West Germany.

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