Friday, October 31, 2008

Previewing Barack Obama and the Foreign Service

At “A New Beginning” Remarks in Chicago, IL | October 02, 2007, Senator Obama says:

"It's time to make diplomacy a top priority. Instead of shuttering consulates, we need to open them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world. Instead of having more Americans serving in military bands than the diplomatic corps, we need to grow our foreign service. Instead of retreating from the world, I will personally lead a new chapter of American engagement.”

Frankly, after several years of cowboy talk that has relegated diplomacy to the wood kitchen, it is nice to hear somebody’s plug to make diplomacy a top priority again. Indeed talk of diplomacy has came back with a vengeance in the last several weeks of this election campaign, with both candidates talking about engagement, intervention, aid, and dealing with other world powers (when they’re not talking about Joe, fill-in-the-blank, that is).

Iran, Dangling a Grand Bargain - Check

David Sanger writing recently for NYT: “More than any previous presidential candidate, Mr. Obama has emphasized the idea of soft power — the ability to lead by moral example and nonmilitary action — and his challenge if elected, his advisers acknowledge, is to convince the world that an untested young senator also has a steely edge.” And also this, “Mr. Obama does seem more willing to dangle in front of the Iranians a “grand bargain” that would spell out benefits — diplomatic recognition, an end to sanctions — as a reward for halting its enrichment of uranium and allowing full inspections of the country. Richard J. Danzig, considered a candidate to be secretary of defense in an Obama administration, said Mr. Obama was willing to “put out a more positive side to the agenda to lead the Iranians toward making the right choices here.”

The idea of talking to our enemies (specifically Iran) has been one of the many subplots in this election season. Yet, as Warren Strobel also reports for the McClatchy Newspapers, President Bush, himself has authorized a more direct approach to Iran, sending Undersecretary of State William Burns to participate in six-nation nuclear talks with Iranian representatives in Geneva in July. Strobel further writes: “The Bush administration will announce in mid-November, after the presidential election, that it intends to establish the first U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran since the 1979-81 hostage crisis, according to senior Bush administration officials.[…] The proposal for an "interests section," which falls short of a full U.S. Embassy, has been conveyed in private diplomatic messages to Iran, and a search is under way to choose the American diplomat who would head the post, the officials said.”

If you’re not up to speed with Persian yet, don’t worry. Even if they find a diplomat to head the interest section in Tehran in two weeks, they’ll need more, eventually. So don’t give up on Jalāl ad-Dīn Muammad Rūmī’s poetry yet. You will have some used for it. Iran is an old civilization with a long cultural history that does not include Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And like the rest of the region, a long history on the art of the bargain, so get up to speed on conducting bargains, small or otherwise.

Renewing America's Diplomatic Muscle - Check

Obama’s foreign policy platform includes Renewing American Diplomacy - by talking to friends and foes, seeking to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a key diplomatic priority, expanding our diplomatic presence, embracing the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty around the world in half by 2015, strengthening NATO, and seeking new partnerships in Asia.

That’s an awful lot to tackle for what is currently a very anemic Foreign Service. But I imagine that an Obama administration would seek new Congressional authority to expand the diplomatic service, including USAID. How big an expansion remains to be seen; I guess, we’ll all be watching.

Without being too jaded about political promises, I’d have to say that Obama’s platform sounds good for diplomats in terms of possibly fixing State. I mean we still need hammers, admittedly, this is a dangerous world. But at least, he’s not looking out as if the world at large is made up of nothing but nail heads. I suspect that money will be found, despite these hard times, to equip us with other tools besides hammers.

A Real Seat at the Table - Check

I am presuming (bad, presumptuous me!) that under a President Obama, our diplomats would no longer be relegated to the wood kitchen, at least not for the next four years. And that they will have real seats at the table instead of folding chairs. Whoo-hoo-hoo! Wouldn't that please everyone who hates the wood kitchen and these folding chairs that are too frail for tushies?

Below are some more of my unscientific take for the Foreign Service under an Obama Administration.

On Nuclear Weapons: Obama’s priorities are to secure loose nuclear materials from terrorists, to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and work toward a nuclear free world. At his “Remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs,” Obama says: We know that Russia is neither our enemy nor close ally right now, and we shouldn't shy away from pushing for more democracy, transparency, and accountability in that country. But we also know that we can and must work with Russia to make sure every one of its nuclear weapons and every cache of nuclear material is secured. And we should fully implement the law I passed with Senator Dick Lugar that would help the United States and our allies detect and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction throughout the world.”

Look - if your functional expertise has anything that says “nuclear,” you won’t be looking for another exciting job soon. It sounds like you will be kept busier than a bee; the same for FSOs with regional expertise on the Korean Peninsula, Iran and Russia. Engagement in multiple fronts means - more work. But it also means that the organization will not be super glued to one or two grand issues. Perhaps the rest of the diplomatic missions would finally get an Iraq tax cut. And maybe we could afford working cell phones again, and paper clips, and oh, I don’t know – lighting our hallways again?

A Harder, Rougher, Tougher Road for Diplomats - Check

On Africa: to stop the genocide in Darfur, and end the conflict in the Congo. On China an even ambitious agenda: conduct candid dialogue, rebalance our economic relationship, make China a constructive partner on international energy and environmental issues, end Chinese support for genocidal and repressive regimes and press China to live up to Human Rights standards. And then there’s more: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and those are not even icing to the Foreign Service pie. Somebody actually called these countries booby traps for the next president, can you believe that?

Whatever. The way I see it, there are big ponds and small ponds; think of all the hardship assignments from Afghanistan to Timor-Liste. I think that if your skills and strengths are in the areas of persuasion, influence and strategic negotiations, the next four years would be ubber exciting. And if you also have the language skills in any of our many hotspots around the world, I imagine that you can give your career a real rocket type lift off.

[An aside here - of course, I don’t know how much it would matter. You’d get promoted and then, you’ll just go back to another Timor-Liste-like post or other H-holes in other regions. Oh yeah, I heard that some guy went to Iraq, then got offered to decamp to Monrovia. Monrovia! Some gal went to HR (in DC not Mosul!) and got offered the Pacific Coast! Sweet! It just shows that all is fair in love and in the Foreign Service].

In many ways, an Obama Presidency, which puts a premium on talk and engagement, would be a harder, rougher, tougher road for our diplomats. Talk is cheap but requires sweat, energy, imagination, creativity, and all things that do not include the firing of bullets. Things like hardship and unaccompanied assignments will most likely not get any better. Why? Simply because the state of our world has become more complex and our relationship to it, particularly in the last several years, has become more fragmented. And also because the “tough, hopeless corners” where America needs to re-engage are probably not the friendliest places for our diplomats and their families to be.

Essential Skills – Public Diplomacy, Globalized Communication Technology, Continuous Learning

Obama’s Public Diplomacy Effort: “He will open “America Houses” in cities across the Arab world. Modeled on the successful program the United States launched in Germany following World War II, America Houses would offer state-of-the-art English-language training programs, discussions, and a wide selection of current periodicals, newspapers, and literature. They would offer free Internet access and moderated programs that promote direct exchange with Americans through the use of modern information technology. Obama also would launch a new “America’s Voice Corps” to rapidly recruit and train fluent speakers of local languages (Arabic, Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa, Farsi, Urdu, and Turkish) with public diplomacy skills, who can ensure our voice is heard in the mass media and in our efforts on the ground.”

Sounds like for public diplomacy folks (shoutout to Digger), the ride will just kept on getting interesting; unless we stick to our old argument that they’re evil and we’re not, which doesn’t seem to be the guiding view of Senator Obama. I personally think that the public diplomacy cone is bound to dislodge the political cone as the tippity top cone in the foreseeable future. Media and advocacy skills as well as skills in globalized communication including the technology that powers it would be essential for the diplomats of the 21st century. In this new universe, I can’t see a future for a political counselor who grunts at his computer, screams for his OMS to get his web browser working, or wonders if a wiki is a local delicacy. Web 2.0 is here. The faster we make friends with it, the sooner it can help us get our message out.

If an Obama Administration is serious about re-engaging the world, and I have no doubt that it is, our people would have to keep pace with fast moving changes in the world, including communication. This means that we need to convert the passive mindset about training into an active mindset about learning. I hope to come back to this topic later, because I think that this journey of continuous learning is a journey with no end. I don’t want to get too far way ahead here, but I think this is an essential component in renewing the Service.

The Future of the Foreign Service?

The thing to remember is quite simple - where there are intractable problems, there are great opportunities. If Senator Obama is elected into office, he will be handed a lengthy list of problems at home and abroad. And the road “abroad” goes through the corridors of Foggy Bottom and all 268 embassies and consulates overseas. But that’ll be the easy part.

I do wonder if the next decade would be the end of the diplomatic family as representative of our country overseas. Is this the decade when the lone, expeditionary diplomat makes his/her mark? A romantic thought, certainly, one which I’m sure, would send DS into hyper shock mode.

You can read Previewing John McCain and the Foreign Service here.

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PSA: A Special Grit for This Kind of Job

Upon entering the Foreign Service, employees have 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 (if you really want to bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran, for example and POTUS is for engagement), 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 (with proper permission), 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 the USG is 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. You need a special kind of grit for this kind of job. Please see the FS career homepage if you are interested.

Gotta run - Happy Halloween!


T. Greer said...

Wonderful post.

If it is not too much work for you, I would love to see a similar post on the FS under a McCain administration.

~T. Greer, thinking that you might want to wait and see if he wins until you expend any effort on such a post.

DS said...

Thanks TG!

I just added the link to the John McCain preview at the bottom of blog post. May do another one depending on results on Tuesday.