Thursday, January 19, 2006

Out of Kilter

Speaking at Georgetown University yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice outlined some of her proposals to implement transformational diplomacy.

It's going to be a real challenge. Bill Odom wrote for us in 2001, outlining his pessimism about Russia's ability to really make significant breakthroughs in reform, and discussed "path-dependence" and "lock-ins"--that choices, once made, are difficult to alter once bureaucracies, institutions, and habits have developed around them.

And the real test comes in terms of funding change. The Pew Research/CFR polls indicate only 25 percent or so of Americans favor the U.S. playing a strong role in the world; 42 percent say the U.S. should "mind its own business." I don't see the groundswell of public support for new appropriations for diplomatic reform, language training, supporting new regional studies programs, etc. And I think that "virtual" solution (having people "talk" to U.S. diplomats via cyberspace) can only go so far.

This leads to another problem: if the U.S. doesn't want to fund diplomatic initiatives, study trips, educational programs--who will--and will other funders have U.S. national interests at heart? The January 23, 2006 issue of Time lists "Six Ways to Fix K Street" but notes that a ban on lobbyist-paid travel now be considered might be circumvented by "an exemption for 'educational' trips sponsored by policy groups and friendly foreign countries." Similarly, as U.S. institutions cut back funding for regional studies, foreign governments are happy to pick up the bill.

There's nothing wrong with this--as long as we keep our eyes open. But let's not be naive--if Country X pays to bring members of Congress to visit, sponsors study programs, and so on--it does so with a clear purpose of promoting X's national interests--which may or may not always align with those of the United States. If we continue to outsource more of our intelligence and diplomatic work in vital areas to friendly "third countries", the same caveat applies. But saving money at home comes at the risk of losing the ability to independently assess matters abroad.


For the problem with the proposed language buildup, see the comments here:

It may also be difficult for existing Foreign Service personnel to take on long-term development tasks if they continue to rotate out of each country every two years. However, I think the best response would be to approach Dr. Rice with a set of positive ideas that builds on what is most innovative and economical in what she proposes.

The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs has online discussions for Canadian students the results of which are forwarded up a level for summary and comment. If students in a foreign country could have online debates with each other on a local U.S. embassy website, on a topic that changes every eight weeks, with summaries of all viewpoints sent to the embassy staff and commented on regularly (but not in real time), you would have a much better exchange than just letting people harangue our diplomats face to face in chatrooms. What we really want is for students to debate each other in a civil manner, feel that someone on our side is listening, and learn things they may not have known (and we may not have known).

More broadly, we could also place less emphasis on bringing foreign students to the United States and more on bringing higher education to larger numbers of less affluent students abroad. I earned my own BA degree by self-study and then by passing a series of examinations, for a total cost of about $400; there should be a way for more foreign students to do the same. US libraries could be supported to digitize foreign language works that serve as resources to foreign students studying in their own languages. For those who want to improve their English, the US could reimburse American students who practice conversation and text messaging with English learners in Asia via cellphones, which are everywhere now. Dr. Rice is a former university provost and she ought to be encouraged personally to organize this side of our outreach in conjunction with American universities and colleges and credit-by-examination programs.
Forgot to include the Canadian discussion page, which is here:

The discussions we support on our embassy websites could focus more on bilateral relations and US policy generally, but I wouldn't limit the topics to these.
Not clear from the entry whether poll numbers on Americans opposing "a strong role in the world" refer to a military or to a more diplomatic posture. I think the diplomatic side has been significantly underutilized in the past few years, in many arenas. There's a lot more that could have been accomplished by a more balanced military-diplomatic posture in the post 9/11 world.

And today's announcement by Secretary Rice on reconfiguring diplomatic resources to better synch up with the contemporary geopolitical scene makes a lot of sense, and is a good start.
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