When Syria was hit by the tide of change sweeping across the Middle East in the spring of 2011, US Ambassador Robert Ford left behind the comfort and isolation of his Damascus embassy office and took to the streets.
He stood with the Syrians demanding change from their authoritarian leader and delivered a message of American support. He used the Internet to connect with groups he could not physically reach. Even after the revolution turned violent and Ambassador Ford was called home, he turned to Facebook to inform the Syrian military that the United States and indeed the whole world were watching, and that those committing crimes against humanity would be held accountable.
Ford was practicing a new diplomacy his forebears of just a decade or two ago would have hardly recognized, a kind of international statecraft that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likes to say will be practiced "as much in work boots as in wingtips."
It's the kind of diplomacy the US must practice more, experts say, if it is to further its interests and spread what it considers to be universal values in a world of expanding democracy and a diffusion of power beyond governments to communities and organizations. But it is also a problematic and even risky form of engagement, as recent anti-American violence across the new democracies of the Middle East suggests.
US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens epitomized the people-oriented approach of this new diplomatic style (see story, page 34). But the fact that he lost his life in an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi is already dampening efforts to put US diplomats in closer contact with local populations.
For centuries diplomacy was the stuff of (mostly) men in a few seats of power receiving information from abroad and communicating positions back to others in power, friend or foe. That began to change post-World War II, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet empire. The shift accelerated with the rise of new countries and powers, of new technologies facilitating global communication.
"The traditional diplomacy of governments and aloof statesmen handling everything behind the scenes no longer exists, and it's been replaced by the 24/7 world of media coverage, social networking, and people pressing their demands in every part of the world," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State who now focuses on South Asian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The factors behind this swift change in the practice of international relations are indisputable: "Democratization, globalization, digitalization," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was in charge of policy planning under Secretary Clinton before returning to Princeton University in New Jersey last year to teach.
"These three forces create the elements of a global village," Dr. Slaughter says, "and that makes connections among people across the globe much more important. Of course, diplomacy is still about government-to-government relations," she says, "but now we have to do government-to-society diplomacy, and society-to-society diplomacy."
Some diplomats and experts say the world is changing faster than diplomacy, that the days of démarches and the overseas cable are still the reality for too many diplomats and embassies.
"We need 'doing people' rather than 'reporting people,' " says Daniel Serwer, a former US diplomat and expert in postconflict reconstruction who worked in Iraq and the Balkans. "Diplomacy has been completely upended, and I don't think most diplomats understand or appreciate that."
Dr. Serwer, who teaches conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, says too many Foreign Service officers are tasked with the traditional job of information-gathering, for example, when the government's sources of information have exploded, from international organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to local citizens groups focused on issues as varied as food security and the impact of rising oceans.
"The diplomatic establishment is misconfigured, misconceived, and it's doing things that aren't what we need to be doing anymore," Serwer says.
The American Foreign Service is still too focused on the traditional diplomatic capitals of Western Europe, many international affairs experts say, even when the world has witnessed an explosion in the number of countries in recent decades – from 160 in 1990 to nearly 200 today – while new regional and indeed global powers are rising in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
Serwer recalls when he was deputy chief of mission in Rome in the early 1990s, in charge of 800 diplomats and other officials from a long list of US agencies. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts came to visit and told Serwer he wanted to cut back on diplomatic assignments to Rome.
"I said, 'Senator, you can zero out my [State Department] budget, and this mission will still have 700 people, with all the folks that everybody from Justice to Agriculture has here,' " Serwer said. "It's all legacy," he adds, meaning it's all the plum assignments that have built up over decades. "The distribution of where we have people is extremely cockeyed and doesn't match today's world and needs," he says.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice advocated a restructuring of the US diplomatic corps in 2006 and aimed to shift assignments away from Washington and Western Europe to the developing world and emerging powers like China and India. The initiative ran afoul of conducting two wars.
More recently, Clinton initiated the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), the first installment of which came out in 2010. It called for enhancing the use of "soft power" by beefing up efforts in civilian priorities like health, food security, and governance. It calls for better coordination and more flexibility in working with the nongovernmental organization community and civil societies.
Princeton's Slaughter, who headed the team that delivered the QDDR, says it took crucial steps to refashion US diplomatic efforts for the 21st century by elevating the place of development work and laying out a plan for State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reform.
The review also recognizes the fact that diplomacy, broadly speaking, is no longer the domain of government alone, Slaughter says, but includes the vast community of NGOs and private business.
"The world of ... foreign service is changing quite fast, and much of it is generational," she says. "Young people think more in terms of five- to seven-year chunks in the three areas of government, the private sector, and NGOs, and they choose to specialize by sector – the environment, or human rights, or conflict resolution."
The names of new schools of international affairs in Berlin; Budapest, Hungary; and Oxford, England, she says, reflect this world of multiple actors: "They call themselves schools of 'governance' rather than 'government,' " she notes, "and that says a lot."
Is the change to a new diplomacy happening fast enough?
Slaughter chuckles. "Change never is fast enough, especially in established bureaucracies," she says. But she turns serious and says, "I think we're due for the 100-year change in the Foreign Service." Such reform would require the participation of Congress, she says, which means that "getting there is going to take a while."
SAIS's Serwer answers the same question with an emphatic "No," adding that incremental change won't be enough.
Noting that the Bible cautions against "putting new wine into old bottles," Serwer says he's about to publish a new book that calls for abolishing the State Department and USAID and starting from scratch. In their place, the former diplomat envisions a new "foreign office" that enhances the role of US civilian power in development, democratization, and in a broadened conception of national security.