Reforming US diplomacy

The United States foreign affairs process - especially the State Department - has again been examined and found wanting. Two prominent Washington think-tank panels, which included four former secretaries of state, issued reports last month: "Equipped for the Future," by the Henry L. Stimson Center and "Reinventing Diplomacy in the Information Age," from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The emphasis in both is on the new world conditions in which diplomacy is conducted. Issues not traditionally part of classic diplomacy such as the environment, health, narcotics, crime, and population are increasingly important. These issues, involving non-foreign affairs agencies and often requiring special skills, demand more effective foreign policy coordination and more openness to the scientific and technical talents needed.

Much emphasis is placed on the dramatic changes wrought by the information revolution. The problem is especially grave because the Internet and e-mail have made international relations far more public, often bypassing traditional diplomacy. The State Department is urged to drop its culture of secrecy, become more open in its deliberations, and do more public outreach.

Conclusions stress improving government communications with non-state actors - international business, banks, and nongovernmental organizations.

With economics and finance ever more significant diplomatic issues, the panels suggest lowering traditional barriers between political and economic functions in the foreign service. The CSIS urges a move away from hierarchical structures in foreign affairs, while somewhat paradoxically calling for continued discipline in the process.

The conclusions of the panels are valid, but as is the case with such reports, obstacles to implementation remain formidable. Greater coordination encounters bureaucratic inertia. Take the embassy in Mexico City: 35 US agencies are represented, each with its separate budgets, personnel systems, congressional mandates, and the human desire to protect turf.

The State Department should be in the forefront of the Internet communications revolution. Yet this carries risks. The expansion of channels creates even more possibilities of unauthorized disclosures in sensitive diplomatic negotiations. Uncoordinated informal communications can lead to confusing multiple official voices. However the words are carried, those from official sources are seen as policy.

Nongovernmental actors have become significant in diplomacy. Nobel Prize-winner Jody Williams's success in pressing for a global land-mine ban is a dramatic example. Foreign-affairs agencies must communicate with these global networks.

The importance of good relations between foreign-affairs agencies and Congress is mentioned, but neither study faces squarely the negative legislative attitudes that affect the nation's diplomacy. If, as the panels urge, the State Department is to reach out more effectively to the US public, congressional restrictions on such outreach must be removed.

Budgetary problems are more serious. The international-affairs budget today represents 1 percent of the national budget. Despite the vital link of diplomacy to national security, foreign relations expenditures are one-tenth of the defense budget. As the CSIS report points out, "Compared to the decade of the 1980s, spending on international affairs has fallen 20 percent in real terms." Can a Congress, so indifferent to the diplomatic approaches to global crises be turned around to provide adequate support to a modern foreign-affairs establishment?

These reports provide valuable insights and suggestions and should be read throughout Washington - particularly in Congress. As with the many examinations of US diplomacy that have gone before, progress on the recommendations will depend in the last analysis, on political and institutional realities beyond the scope of even the most illustrious panel.

* David D. Newsom is a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state.

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