They must be pinching themselves at the State Department. Can it be that the White House wants one of the largest increases ever in the diplomatic corps? The request, revealed in the president's budget this week, shows Washington awakening to the compelling need for greater "soft power."
The condition of America's diplomatic service is not just shameful, but harmful. When even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the chief of "hard power," warns consistently about America's atrophied nonmilitary muscle, the risk to US national security must be serious.
Many embassies are staffed at only 70 percent. A new foreign service officer might arrive in Nigeria (Africa's most populous country) with nothing more than one morning of training at the Foreign Service Institute and no predecessor to help the transition.
Meeting the threats of the post-cold-war era – of weak governments, Islamist jihad, and destabilizing forces such as global warming and energy insecurity – is not just a matter of guns. It also requires the US to engage with the world, communicate (and listen), and provide nonmilitary assistance.
This is tough to do when its foreign service is so stretched it can't spare people to train for a new era.
In the proposed budget for fiscal year 2009, the White House is requesting 1,076 more diplomatic personnel. About 200 are to enhance security, but the rest will free up people to learn tough languages such as Arabic and Chinese, allow foreign service officers to study at US military colleges so they can better work with the armed forces, dedicate a small cadre of diplomats to military command posts, and build a corps of 350 experts who can assist in postconflict zones.
Over the next decade, the State Department wants to double the number of US diplomats. There are about 6,500 foreign service officers – less than an Army division. Congress should fund a diplomatic beef-up. But it's just one step in enhancing US soft power.
It has taken several years for the White House to realize it can't fight terrorism with military means alone. But a change of the guard will provide an opportunity for a more concerted effort. Think tanks, businesses, and NGOs agree, and have launched about 30 studies on this subject – many of them bipartisan.
Not all of their proposals require more spending. America would be well advised to change its often-patronizing tone and work more closely with friends and allies – adjustments begun under Condoleezza Rice and Mr. Gates. Some of the solutions involve greater American leadership, for instance, in climate change; others look outside the government – to people-to-people exchanges, efforts in world health, and charitable giving in disasters.
But there's also no avoiding the issue of government spending. The military took a huge hit after the cold war as Congress cashed in its "peace dividend." But so did US diplomacy, aid, and communication. They need rebuilding.
And what about the asymmetry between hard and soft power? The White House wants to spend $515 billion on the Defense Department (not including the supplemental requests for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) but only $38 billion on the State Department.
The presidential candidates need to think hard about soft power.