Listen to the diplomats

IN a world that may see movements growing beyond the reach of traditional national institutions, created out of the bitterness of nihilistic youth, and threats to the human condition beyond national boundaries, new approaches to international relations may be necessary. The struggle between the Soviet Union and the West may become less central as both camps look over their shoulders at circumstances outside their experience. The United States has successfully maintained its position in the world without paying major attention to what others were saying or caring. As a Kenyan writer has said, ``Americans have had their hearing aid turned off.'' The hearing aid has indeed been turned off - not only to what others were saying, but to much of what US diplomats have been saying as well. New potential trends of change, terrorism, disintegration, and violence no longer allow that luxury.

Despite a casual if not occasionally hostile national attitude toward diplomacy, the representatives of the US have established access and respect around the world. They have learned difficult languages and have become experts in newly important regions. They have negotiated difficult agreements in the national interest. They have explained and defended policies and rounded off the rough edges of unpopular US actions. But diplomacy cannot be totally separated from the attitudes and priorities of a nation. The reports of the most astute observer of a foreign scene are of little value if unread or discounted.

US diplomats must live with democracy's anomalies, explain them, and enthusiastically defend them. The process can work; it has in the past. Diplomacy in American democracy will continue to be vulnerable to different voices, to the competition for credibility with a free press and legislature, and to the inefficient consultation on policies with fellow democracies. To recommend that these aspects be changed is to recommend the destruction of democracy.

If change is required, it must be in the attitude toward other nations and their interests on the part of the American people and leaders. In a world that may be increasingly chaotic and threatening, democratic leaders cannot afford illusions of influence where influence does not exist; they cannot afford the search for more comforting assessments when confronted with unpleasant news. The luxury of ideology, whether from the left or the right, cannot be permitted to drive out an objective, professional approach to the conduct of relations with other countries. The issues are too serious.

The world is not prepared to tolerate indefinitely an insensitive and overbearing US just because of what the country may represent. The result will be less American influence on critical international issues, greater hostility for the US abroad, and less security for the nation.

Confronted with the prospect of serious reverses abroad, Americans like to suggest internal reorganizations of the policy process or a more strident information effort. These are not answers. The answer lies in policies that can be coherently explained and credibly defended. Diplomacy can then add the needed skills of implementation in the knowledge of other cultures, the skill of negotiation, the art of persuasion, and the power to observe the report.

Diplomacy is neither a capricious luxury nor an outmoded anachronism; it is and must remain vital to the security of the nation. In a world growing ever more complex, the warning, the skills, and the advice of the diplomat are an indispensable insurance against disaster.

American diplomats must continue to listen to other societies, to sense the differences and the similarities. In so doing they can do what many Americans have so often done: convey an interest in another people, another culture, without losing the perspective of the outsider.

More and more in the future, as the world occasionally erupts and fragments, the diplomat will need a balanced sense of those eruptions, the interests of the American nation involved, and the opportunities that may exist to contribute to peace. Diplomatic adversaries will be tough, aggressive, devious, and resolute. The American diplomats will require even more patience and a stronger sense of perspective. Americans have, in the past, effectively demonstrated both.

Although major conflict has been avoided, the world today is far from friendly. The US must pursue its interests in an arena of both friends and adversaries, but with the knowledge that it still remains for the greater part of the world's people a symbol of hope and freedom. Leadership in Washington can create the policies that will give meaning to national objectives, but the implementation of those policies will depend upon the skills of men and women prepared to accept the responsibilities and the risks and to pursue the art of diplomacy.

Excerpted from ``Diplomacy and the American Democracy,'' recently published by Indiana University Press. David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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