CONGRESSIONAL assaults on the State Department this month once more illustrate the vulnerability of US diplomacy to domestic political currents.
Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is holding up the confirmation of 30 US ambassadors to force administration support for a reorganization of the foreign affairs agencies.
On Sept. 12, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut the State Department budget by 12 percent and US contributions to international organizations by 42 percent.
The actions are disturbing on many grounds. They come at a time when the United States is taking on new responsibilities abroad, responsibilities directly related to our national security interests. Embassies are needed in new nations. Key post-cold-war agreements with Russia must be implemented. Trade is expanding. Our influence in multilateral forums is at stake.
The cuts raise serious questions about congressional priorities. As the committee was cutting $1 billion from foreign policy support, it was adding $6 billion more to the defense budget than requested by the Pentagon. This anomaly occurs despite great uncertainty over how US armed forces will be used in the future and the US public's clear unwillingness to risk military lives abroad.
The most frustrating aspect of all, however, is the extent to which these moves denigrate the importance of US diplomacy. They say to the world that it does not matter whether the US is adequately represented in key world capitals. The cuts are justified by repetition of the perennial stereotype of the luxuriously supported ''striped pants'' diplomat. Larry Neal, a spokesman for Sen. Phil Gramm, spoke of the State Department's need to ''trade in some of their Cadillac limousines for Fords.''
Every recent secretary of state has spent long hours on Capitol Hill arguing the national interest involved in State Department budgets. Other officials have escorted members of Congress overseas to illustrate, on the ground, the needs and limitations of US diplomacy. But all efforts to convince lawmakers of the importance of US overseas representation seem overshadowed by cliches.
Ironically, some of the members of Congress most vociferous in their attacks on traditional diplomacy are the first to complain when US missions abroad lack the personnel to meet them at an airport; or embassy facilities are inadequate for their needs; or transportation is not available for sightseeing or shopping. The same congressional committees that slash State Department budgets are often those who take to task foreign policy officials who may not have predicted events that affect US interests.
Embassies abroad are costly and imposing, in part, because of security requirements imposed by legislative fiat. Staffs have grown in part to meet obligations placed on US diplomacy by legislative micromanagement. Specific congressional interests have at times prevented the closure of marginal consular offices.
It is difficult to believe that serious and responsible members of Congress want the US to be represented abroad by second-rate facilities, or that they want US ambassadors to drive their own low-priced cars on diplomatic business, lining up behind the chauffeur-driven Mercedes and Cadillacs of smaller nations. It is equally difficult to accept that such members want to diminish the US ability to monitor events in a changing and dangerous world or Washington's capacity to influence the decisions of inte rnational organizations.
The State Department, working more with foreigners than with Americans, has always been an easy target for political rhetoric. What is especially disturbing is that such rhetoric could prevail at a time when the need for effective diplomacy is greater than ever.