The risks of proactive US diplomacy

US foreign service officers should encourage elections, not shape them.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice wants the United States to move into what she calls "transformational diplomacy."

This, she says, "is rooted in partnership, not paternalism - in doing things with other people, not for them. We seek to use America's diplomatic power to help foreign citizens better their own lives, and to build their own nations, and to transform their own futures." [Emphasis in original State Department report.]

The secretary proposes to do this through organizational changes. First, she is going to redeploy the foreign service so that more serve in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa and fewer in Europe and the United States. Of those redeployed, more will be in one-person posts in large cities where there is now no American diplomatic presence. Second, she is increasing the State Department's control of the foreign aid program by giving the USAID administrator another hat as a deputy secretary of State, that is, second only to the secretary.

On the surface, these moves appear to be no more than reshuffling bureaucratic boxes on organization charts; but taken together, to the extent they are implemented, they will have a profound effect on the involvement of the US in the rest of the world. This is the objective of transformational diplomacy.

There are good reasons to beef up US representation in the third world, especially in the behemoths of China and India where economic growth is creating more business and consequently more problems for the US. But if we establish one-person outposts as satellites of embassies, what does that one person do for support? He can rent space; he can hire a local secretary; but unless he acts as his own code clerk, all his messages to and from Washington, as well as his embassy, might as well be public. And what about security? No wonder the secretary said that these missions would be dangerous.

The State Department says these outpost officers will move "from reporting outcomes to shaping them." That is the point at which the US moves from diplomacy to intervention. There was a time 50 years ago when this scenario would have been assigned to the covert action officers of the CIA who successfully shaped events in France, Iran, Italy, and Guatemala, among other places. There was nothing wrong with this so long as we recognized it was part of the cold war and didn't talk about it. When it got to be dangerous was when we bragged about spreading democracy. In some places (France, Italy) we preserved democracy. In others (Iran, Guatemala) we kept communists at bay, or thought we did.

There are more warning lights flashing when Dr. Rice talks about moving USAID into State even if the move is only a box and a line on an organization chart. Where in the government to put the foreign aid agency has been controversial ever since the 1948 Marshall Plan for European recovery. This was run largely outside State and remains one of our few genuinely successful foreign aid programs.

When we sought to spread aid programs elsewhere in the early 1950s, the cold war was in progress, and we saw weak countries threatened by communism. Presto! We invented something called "defense support" which was used in conjunction with military assistance to strengthen a country against a communist takeover. Aid was aimed toward economic development, but it was a secondary part of the American purpose. Nowadays terrorism has replaced communism as the No. 1 threat in the eyes of US policymakers.

Economic development is a long-term project. The White House and State Department (and Congress, too, for that matter) have never been able to resist the temptation to use foreign aid for short-term political objectives. There is little reason to think they will resist now.

At least until the cold war, Americans dealt with other countries as we found them. Diplomats reported on governments, tried to predict elections (if any), and described what the consequences of various outcomes might be. Under transformational diplomacy, American diplomats will try to manipulate a country's politics so that at a minimum there will be elections. After all, elections are the sine qua non of democracy. We hope that they will produce desired outcomes, but we had better be prepared to live with the results if they do not.

This will be for the larger purpose of spreading democracy, but it will turn the US into the world's universally unpopular busybody. And on top of that, we might lose both ways. Look at Iraq and Palestine.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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