Sunday, May 25, 2008

Previewing John McCain and the Foreign Service

I figure this is a good time as any to look into the next four years of the Foreign Service. The Democratic nomination process is winding down, the veepstakes is cranking up in both parties, and in about eight months, the White House will have a new resident. And the State Department and our Foreign Service will have a new boss, a make-over and a “new way forward,” as they like to say inside the beltway these days.

I have to add here that upon entering the Foreign Service, employees had to swear to support the policies of the U.S. Government. And as public servants, they must publicly defend U.S. Government policy, despite personal reservations. There is an internal channel (Dissent Channel) through which an employee may present dissenting views on specific foreign policy issues. If an officer cannot publicly defend official U.S. policy, he or she has the option to resign. In simple terms, you can go on Fox News or CNN to defend US policy on country XYZ, but you cannot go on air, on TV, Youtube, etc. or write an Op-ed for NYT, WSJ, WaPo, etc. and say something bad about what we’re doing in country XYZ. Even if such policies make you want to - you know, puke. There are other requirements to becoming a diplomat, but in my view, this is the most challenging; to put aside one’s personal views while getting the job done is only easy when seen from the outside. If you think you have the grit to do this, do please check out the FS career homepage.

Okay, now that I got that out of the way - I want to highlight Fareed Zakaria’s column in Newsweek (April 26, 2008) where he writes: “Amid the din of the dueling democrats, people seem to have forgotten about that other guy in the presidential race—you know, John McCain. McCain is said to be benefiting from this politically because his rivals are tearing each other apart. In fact, few people are paying much attention to what the Republican nominee is saying, or subjecting it to any serious scrutiny.”

Zakaria was talking about the foreign policy speech that John McCain gave on March 26 in Los Angeles that was billed as his most comprehensive statement on the subject. Zakaria points out that “It contained within it the most radical idea put forward by a major candidate for the presidency in 25 years. Yet almost no one noticed.”

My brain went on vacation on March 26, so I had to go and dig up the speech recently (you can read the entire text here). And I quote below Senator McCain's most interesting ideas:

League of Democracies (LoD aka: New UN club?)

"We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact -- a League of Democracies -- that can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests."

Truest Realism (Is there any other?)

"We can no longer delude ourselves that relying on these out-dated autocracies is the safest bet. They no longer provide lasting stability, only the illusion of it. We must not act rashly or demand change overnight. But neither can we pretend the status quo is sustainable, stable, or in our interests."

New G-8 Club (Special Invite Needed)

"We should start by ensuring that the G-8, the group of eight highly industrialized states, becomes again a club of leading market democracies: it should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia. Rather than tolerate Russia's nuclear blackmail or cyber attacks, Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization's doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom."

So - if the 2000 Straight Talk Express guy becomes the new POTUS in November, what does this mean for FS folks? I like looking into the future so I borrowed a crystal ball and below is a more or less muddy preview:

-) If you’re in a public diplomacy career track, hang tight in there. The next four years would hone your skills as you focus on more than one hundred democratic nations to “advance our values and defend our shared interests,” and of course, as you help recruit members for the new “LoD” club. Those working on non-democratic nations – you’re out of luck buddy; you’ll be in the out-group, at least for the next four years.

-) If you’re bidding now and in '09 for your next assignment, consider the countries that were mentioned in various foreign policy speeches. I imagine they would come up again and perhaps more often, in the next four years under a McCain administration. Brazil – check; China – check; Argentina (note to self: monitor all future speeches); Fiji (sorry); Egypt – check; Pakistan – check; Iraq – double check…

-) If you’re currently in Russian language training, good luck and be prepared to be “globally repositioned” in another year or two. Senator McCain says G8 “should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia.” I supposed with that, we won’t really need too many Russian speakers, do we? Review your career plan B – Miguel de Cervantes’ sweet language would not be bad, and neither would Urdu or Hindi.

-) If you’re an old Egypt, Pakistan, or Saudi-hand – don’t fret. Although Senator McCain talked about “outdated autocracies,” he did say “We must not act rashly or demand change overnight.” That means, those countries are still important, the ambassadorial posts are safe, and the chances of being “repositioned” is not quite as imminent; after all change cannot happen overnight.

-) If you’re looking at what skills to upgrade, consider the following:

Point 1: Appeasement skills are so out; outdated autocracies are not safe bets anymore. As Senator McCain clearly says, “They no longer provide lasting stability, only the illusion of it.” So you need to be able to finesse things as only a seasoned diplomat could, like say - tell the octogenarian leader it’s time to jump off the ship and drown himself, while drinking sweet tea, or tell the general to suck it up or go to hell in a way that he’d actually look forward to that trip. Although “appeasement” is a bad, bad word these days and will be for a while (don’t even use it at home), don’t delete it from your skill set; you never know when you might need it again.

Point 2: Engagement skills are in; this is so tricky, because it does not mean forcing others to do things our way. It means by engaging them, you are instrumental in making them see things our way, and they’ll do things our way not because they were told to do so or else, but because they want to do it out of shared interests and mutual gain (the idea is not as convoluted as it sounds here, really). Senator McCain says that “We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them.” He further states: “At the heart of this new compact must be mutual respect and trust.” I presume that no arm twisting is required here; engagement is definitely in. Don't worry, you may only need to exercise these skills with the new LoD member states and occasionally with not so nice guys who we can no longer afford to uhm, tolerate.

Finally, Zakaria writes: “What McCain has announced is momentous—that the United States should adopt a policy of active exclusion and hostility toward two major global powers. It would reverse a decades-old bipartisan American policy of integrating these two countries into the global order, a policy that began under Richard Nixon (with Beijing) and continued under Ronald Reagan (with Moscow). It is a policy that would alienate many countries in Europe and Asia who would see it as an attempt by Washington to begin a new cold war.”

I must admit that the prospect of a third cold war is worrisome. If it should come to that, a Cold War III, that is, we’ll just have to do what we always do. But I would propose a FS theme song from The Four Tops “It's The Same Old Song” (Now, it's the same old song but with a different meaning since you been gone…). Same old song in an entirely different, realigned world with no permanent enemies, only permanent interests; a new universe requiring a new play book. Even so, we'll probably have to bring back our old cold war warriors to mentor diplomats who were mere toddlers at the end of the cold war.

Seriously, isn't it a bit troublesome, this notion of excluding non-democratic nations under this foreign policy umbrella? After all, as Zakaria helpfully points out, “International groups are not cheerleading bodies but exist to help solve pressing global crises. Excluding countries won't make the problems go away." No kidding! Besides, how does one influence these countries towards "our" position if we offer no real carrot but exclusion? We're not the only player in the courtyard anymore when it comes to these countries; they can start their own party if they're not invited to ours, you know. Sentor McCain in his speech had "pointedly excluded China from the councils of power." But we might take note that China is quietly flexing its muscle, not just in our own backyard, but also in Asia and Africa - and unlike the United States, it has a huge war chest for African deals and does not make demands for transparency or human rights (the Fast Company's Special Report on China, June 2008 is a must read). The report quoted Nigeria's president at a banquet for China's President Hu as saying: "This is the century for China to lead the world. And when you are leading the world, we want to be very close behind you". Don't be surprised if others are lining up behind him, too! I imagine that with China's 1.67 trillion in Forex Reserves, they can afford a shindig of their own without inviting us.

I don't think it would be good or helpful either to ignore (and exclude) Russia given the loose uranium and the flourishing smuggler's economy in the old Soviet states. This has nothing to do with Putin's abs, it's just one instance when using LRS (Least Reinforcing Scenario) as a policy would not work. I mean, it works well enough in zoos as I understand it (ignore the behavior you don’t want, but in a very specific way) but it doesn’t always work in the two-legged animal kingdom such as ours. Not that anyone gives a hoot what I think - I'm just saying that the IE policy (ignore and exclude) could come back to bite us. In this era of GWOT and diminishing resources - there are multiple ways where this strategy could backfire and hurt us (and not just in the party scene).

I believe in equal opportunity treatment, so I’ll have to use the same crystal ball on the Democrat’s foreign policy, and what it means for the Foreign Service. But I heard that the dueling factions are still at it even as the veepstakes are in full swing. What's up with that?

Related Item: Fantasy League - John McCain's big foreign-policy idea vs. reality by

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