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Condi Challenges “Old Diplomacy”

In a speech at Georgetown University on January 18th, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threw down the gauntlet at the State Department bureaucracy by expounding “transformational diplomacy” to shift the priority and direction of the department in the post-modern, post-Cold War era.

Noting that the State Department has almost as many employees in Germany, with a population of 82 million, as those in India, with a population of 1 billion, Secretary Rice announced that as much as a third of Foreign Service positions could be relocated from cushy and coveted European capitals and Washington to China, India and other, presumably less desirable, hot spots of the 21st Century.

The speech was not simply an announcement for a superficial makeover plan for a department long considered archaic. After all, what determines an organization’s priorities is not so much its purported objectives statement, but its promotion criteria. Secretary Rice, indicating her seriousness, declared that only those with regional expertise, fluency in at least two languages (especially “exotic” ones like Chinese, Urdu and Arabic) and willingness to accept dangerous postings would be promoted into senior ranks.

In a classic diplomatic understatement, this transformation is said to be causing “some distress” among the department careerists.

Conservatives have long viewed the State Department as a hostile territory where disloyalty to Republican administrations is routine. They are responding favorably to this declaration of war on “old diplomacy” and bureaucratic intransigence, still mired in the traditions of an era when Europe was the mistress of the world and the lingua franca of diplomacy was, well, still French. Indeed the department’s European Bureau has long considered itself first among equals, and also second and third.

The institutional culture of the State Department is frequently contrasted unfavorably with that of the Defense Department. Whereas the dominant ethos of the latter, being of a military outlook, is said to be “action,” especially in danger zones around the world, that of the State is contemptuously said to be “talk,” mostly in posh European capitals. One observer who worked with both departments relays a common, but telling stereotype: “Defense takes in ordinary people and achieves the extraordinary; State takes in extraordinary people and achieves the ordinary.”

While the Department of Defense has been hardly free of bureaucracy and conventional thinking, it has had a fair share of prescient thinkers who have looked beyond the Cold War paradigm. It was, after all, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who advocated prior to the 9/11 attacks — despite much unpopularity at the time — military “transformation” and “net-centric” warfare, an organizationally and doctrinally agile military that could respond flexibly to new trouble spots of the post-Cold War world.

Considering that the Cold War ended over ten years ago, the proposed transformational diplomacy is not just timely — it is tardy. Nevertheless, this is a classic case of “better late than never.” The State Department ought to move many of its personnel from heavily fortified, but isolated embassy compounds in capitals to smaller cities and foster closer, more immediate interactions with indigenous populations. Enabling this kind of “net-centric” diplomacy will require a structural change in the department’s overall personnel policy.

However, the Department of State is not solely responsible for its outmoded personnel policy. It has long been recognized that, while some of the best ambassadors and senior officers were political appointees, so were some of the worst ones. There has been a strong resentment in the Foreign Service against appointees based mainly on political patronage, especially campaign contributions.

In struggles with the State Department over ambassadorial appointments, both Republican and Democratic administrations in the White House offered the rationale that their political candidates possess superior “administrative skills” over State Department career candidates. They argued that the politically appointed ambassadors could simply rely on their staff for regional and linguistic expertise. It is in response to this internal political reality that the State Department began stressing administrative skills in its own promotion programs in order to compete with political appointees for choice ambassadorial posts. In one case, an ambassador claimed such a background from his prior work in running the department’s motor pool.

Thus, Secretary Rice faces a difficult twin task: that of transforming the outlook and modus operandi of an entrenched Foreign Service bureaucracy, and reforming the way in which the White House supplies political appointees to the former in vital overseas assignments. These political appointments should be screened rigorously for foreign policy effectiveness in addition to the inevitable criteria of political loyalty to, and ideological kinship with, the White House.

Such improvement of the White House-State Department relationship is necessary to convince the “distressed” careerists to adopt the transformational diplomacy as their own. Many conscientious Foreign Service officers will, indeed, privately cheer the new direction, because emphasis on regional knowledge and language skills squares with their original motives in joining the Foreign Service. More such people will survive the “up or out” mid-career process with the new promotion criteria in place.

But institutional foot-dragging is a greatly underrated force. Unless Secretary Rice can bring her considerable influence to bear on both the White House and the State Department to achieve a two-way reform, her ambitious and laudable objective of transforming American diplomacy may languish.

James J. Na, Senior Fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute in Washington D.C., runs “Guns and Butter Blog” (gunsandbutter.blogspot.com) and “The Asianist” (asianist.blogspot.com).