Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Difficulties Facing the Foreign Service, from the Inside

The Foreign Service is changing in its demands of and by its Officers, and it has been evolving steadily for the past decade. That's no surprise to any of us in the Service, and it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to the rest of you. If you'd like to read more on what's being called "Transformational Diplomacy", read through this link from or check behind the cut tag.

Condoleezza Rice wants to transform diplomacy. But first she'll have to deal with the diplomats.
Condoleezza Rice is cold. It's a searing June morning in Washington, and on the streets outside her handsome 7th floor office suite at the State Department, damp passersby are reminded why this muggy neighborhood at the edge of the Potomac River is called Foggy Bottom. But Condi Rice is cold, because the air conditioning is set so high the room feels refrigerated.
In her house in northern California, Rice explains, she never needs to turn on the AC. The climate is temperate, never freezing, never scorching. One of her aides jokes that they could move State's headquarters west, and Rice enthusiastically backs the idea. This is the second time in half an hour that she has compared aspects of her previous life, as an academic, to her new one as secretary of State. Each time she came down favoring the old days. "The best job I ever had was provost of Stanford," she says.
Rice has never been afraid to say, diplomatically, that being the highest ranking member of the president's Cabinet, the third in line to the Oval Office, isn't her dream job. This is, after all, the woman who repeatedly declared that her highest aspiration was to be commissioner of the National Football League. When Paul Tagliabue announced he would resign this year, Rice was seriously considered to be a potential replacement.
So if, in a perfect world, Rice would be somewhere else, if she misses the old days, why is she embracing the role of the State Department's chief manager? When so many of her predecessors eschewed the thankless task of corralling a far-flung bureaucracy and stuck to the glamour job of counseling the president, why does she speak of the Foreign Service's need to transform? And why is she devoting her time and reputation to changing a diplomatic corps that, for most of its existence, has outlasted the whims of political administrations?
Because some old days, Rice thinks, are gone for good.
"We've fought two wars," she says, meaning the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. "We had the biggest terrorist attack in American history. The old order is gone. The kind of pre-9/11 order is gone. And so we're in the process of trying to help reconstruct a new order, and it's got to be one based on democratic principles.
"I'll be very straightforward about it," she continues, leaning forward slightly in her chair. "We want to see well-governed democratic states. We don't want to see well-governed dictatorships, and we don't want to see poorly governed democracies. And so we have a view: The world is going to be better off if the world is a network of well-governed democratic states."
It is, at base, neither a controversial nor an especially original concept. "United States foreign policy has been encouraging democracy for almost 100 years. And you know what, it's been a huge success," says Thomas Boyatt, a four-time ambassador and president of the Foreign Affairs Council, a nonpartisan group that assesses the management of diplomacy.
The Bush administration chose to animate its vision for a democratic world by overthrowing undemocratic regimes. But it found that Western liberal thinking doesn't always spring up from the ashes. Recently, the administration has described a new path: People must embrace democratic values and systems on their own, and the United States should go to those countries and work with them, serving as an example and an ally. It's a longer-term proposition, to some observers an obvious one, and Rice is its guiding force.
Transformational diplomacy, as Rice calls it, is her central vision for U.S. foreign policy. Its success or failure will in large measure shape her legacy. The question is, will the people who actually have to implement her idea - Foreign Service officers - go along?
"This is a period of time when diplomacy can really matter," Rice says. But some things have got to change. "When you have a president who says we want to imagine the day when tyranny no longer exists, that's hardly status quo," she says. "And if the Foreign Service had, I think, an image problem, it's that it was always defending the status quo."
A New Kind of Diplomat
Rice wants Foreign Service officers to be the front-line evangelists for democracy around the world. Sounding almost chastened by the wars, she looks at the string of developing or emerging powers the United States wants to influence - especially China, India and Indonesia - and says, "We can't take over the work of these governments. All we can do is to be out among the people helping to assist these governments."
The idea is for diplomats to interact less with their foreign counterparts and more with nonofficial actors - nongovernmental organizations, activists, religious groups. "More and more of the life of these big multiethnic countries goes on outside the capital, and American foreign policy will be ill-represented and ill-conceived if it all is sitting in [capital cities]," Rice says.
Thus, Foreign Service officers no longer can be promoted without serving in hardship posts - places such as Ethiopia or Iraq, where Western creature comforts are scarce or nonexistent - and in unaccompanied posts, where personnel work alone and without security and cannot bring their family members because it's too dangerous. Diplomats also have to learn more so-called "hard" languages - those such as Mandarin, Arabic and Pashto, which are difficult for Westerners to master - if they want to rise in the ranks. And their promotions will be based on how effectively they communicate America's message on television and in public gatherings, and whether they can set up effective aid programs such as HIV clinics or programs to enfranchise women.
To some extent, these changes were in the works before Rice took the helm at State. Her predecessor, Colin Powell, expanded leadership and management training courses, and emphasized public interaction and more intensive language instruction. Powell laid the groundwork for a diplomatic corps that paid more attention to managing American diplomacy actively, on the ground, rather than simply reporting back to Washington on what they saw happening around them.
But Powell couched change in tactical terms. He spoke of the Foreign Service as his troops, and focused his management agenda on securing more resources for them - money for better computer systems, more training and tighter embassy security.
Rice has kept Powell's reforms in place, but she has pinned transformational diplomacy, and its attendant demands on the Foreign Service, to the Bush administration's democracy-building policy objectives, observers say. Internally, Powell fought for the department's needs more than the president's, and the Foreign Service adored him for it.
Rice "is taking a more radical line," says Andrew Natsios, who was administrator of State's Agency for International Development until last year. She wants to train good policy analysts, he says, but also expert managers of programs and aid, the tools the United States will use to influence countries to turn toward democracy.
In a speech at Georgetown University in January, Rice said diplomats must become "first-rate administrators of programs, capable of helping foreign citizens to strengthen the rule of law, to start businesses, to improve health and to reform education." That's not the Foreign Service's customary role. "The State Department has traditionally been an information-processing institution," Natsios says, with diplomats reporting on political trends and bureaucratic minutia in their host countries. Transformational diplomacy "is going to meet a lot of resistance," he says.
"What she has done is to realign the organization behind the policy," says Prudence Bushnell, a two-time career ambassador who was, until last year, the dean of the Foreign Service Institute's Leadership and Management School. "That is her prerogative. But it's also the responsibility of the career people to look at her priorities and say, 'This is what we need to get them accomplished.' It comes down to a respectful negotiation between career and noncareer leadership, shorter-term agenda and longer-term needs."
Shock to the System
As Rice's transformational diplomacy takes hold, the Foreign Service has shifted dozens of positions out of Western European nations and into developing ones, most notably China, India and Indonesia. Rice wants to move more. But some complain that the realignment has been rushed. About 25 Foreign Service officers saw the positions to which they already had been assigned - in more traditional locales - abolished in order to add more slots in the new hot spots, according to a State Department official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity surrounding personnel matters. This number included about half a dozen people who were undergoing long-term language training, which can take officers away from their posts for up to two years, the official says.
This disruption to diplomats' lives and careers upsets Rice's critics. Why not move employees to new positions as they become vacant, rather than upend the system because of a political imperative, they argue?
Of course, this is part of the "status quo" that Rice says the Foreign Service has spent so much time defending. "It's a major change," Rice says of the new policy. "We have more hardship and unaccompanied posts than at any other time, in some very difficult places, and so we're trying to be sensitive to how to prepare people for that." But, she adds, "I think it's exciting. Most people came into the Foreign Service because they wanted to change the world, not because they wanted to sit behind a desk. And this is a period of time in which the world is changing very dramatically, and you have to be on the front lines."
Nowhere is the front line more demanding, and more dangerous, than in Iraq. The department has assigned more than 1,000 employees to Iraq over the past three years. There are nearly 200 Foreign Service officers in Baghdad alone. All this comes amid the broader realignment of positions, and it has actually slowed that process and strained the Foreign Service overall, critics contend. "Iraq has trumped all other priorities," the State Department official says.
State is setting up posts outside Baghdad in cities and provinces where American presence is not as strong. These provincial reconstruction teams are akin to military forward-operating bases. They are vulnerable, dangerous and provide the foothold among the masses the Bush administration wants to have.
As of April, State had been able to fill only 12 of the 35 slots assigned to provincial reconstruction teams. The delay was due partly to a fight between State and the Pentagon over who should protect personnel stationed at the posts - the military or private security guards. Ultimately, the military agreed to take on the job, although private security still will be required in some cases, Rice says. As of June, State had increased the number of positions to 43 and had managed to fill most of them. But Rice also added 28 positions, and had identified only five candidates for filling those. Rice says she wants to find the right mix of newer and more seasoned officers, but undoubtedly the process is slowed by diplomats' realization that, by working on the reconstruction teams, they're risking their lives.
Foreign Service officers are not strangers to dangerous work. It's an old saw among their ranks that more high-ranking diplomats and ambassadors have been killed in the line of duty than generals have died in combat. And there obviously are Foreign Service officers who are willing to volunteer to go. But some question how deep that pool of candidates really is. The number of people willing to return to Iraq after one tour is small, the State Department official says: "Very few are willing to tempt fate twice."
A New Policy?
It would be inaccurate, indeed, unfair, to say there's a careerist rebellion against Rice's vision for diplomacy. Foreign Service officers agree they should get out of ministries and into the field more often. One diplomat, who is on her second overseas tour and working at the hardship post of Adis Ababa, Ethiopia, says she can't imagine finding as much professional and personal fulfillment working in a comfortable Western European capital. And neither can her bosses, who've been in the service for decades, she adds.
"The people with the most experience seem to be the most willing to put on the blue jeans and go to some crazy place where Americans haven't been in 15 years," she says. The image of the tweedy diplomat on the embassy cocktail circuit is foreign to a huge number of diplomats. "I've actually never seen that person," she says.
Rice agrees that old stereotypes no longer apply. "It's been a long time since being a diplomat was really that way," she says. On that point, she and her skeptics agree. But, they say, she doesn't seem to recognize that the Foreign Service already was transforming before she arrived. "There are some very interesting, and possibly even overdue changes in how we staff ourselves around the world that I think are good," Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, says of Rice's policies. "But I think it's wrapped up in a package that makes it sound grander than it is. There's a slight hyperbole that this crowd operates under."
Bodine comes from a class of diplomats who spent their careers working in difficult locales and learning hard languages. She was second-in-command at the U.S. embassy in Kuwait when the country was invaded by the Iraqi army and spent more than four months under siege. Like many longtime diplomats, Bodine thinks the Foreign Service started evolving years ago.
"The issue of having a certain level of language competency, we've had that," Bodine says. "We said you had to have one hard or two soft languages to get into the senior Foreign Service. . . . The requirement that you have to spend some time in hardship posts - we've had that for a very long time." Diplomats also have recognized that developing nations were starved in favor of Western democracies. "Our posts in the developing world are almost impossibly small," Bodine says. "We don't have the people; we don't have the resources." (The dearth of language expertise is especially pronounced. As of last September, the most recent period for which the State Department has figures, there were only 42 Foreign Service officers considered fluent enough in Arabic to present U.S. policy on television, in a media interview or at a public forum.)
The Foreign Service began adapting to the post-Cold War era not long after it began. In the early 1990s, the State Department opened approximately 20 new embassies in the former Soviet states and transferred employees from Western Europe to staff them. After the fall of communism, the department turned to fighting other pressing problems, notably the spread of official corruption in Africa. Rice doesn't contest this. But she wants to see the Foreign Service go further. "The Foreign Service is becoming more expeditionary in what it does," she says. Rice points to the military model of an effective, well-supported expeditionary force. And that makes some diplomats nervous.
Militarizing Diplomacy
As the United States puts more resources into helping developing nations build democratic systems, it is stretching the Foreign Service, which has neither the personnel nor the expertise to manage huge logistical operations and programs, such as delivering food aid or implementing large-scale vaccination programs. The military, however, has that capacity, and has demonstrated it during natural disasters in Indonesia and Pakistan, and in various reconstruction projects in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the United States extends its influence through more aid and development programs, the Foreign Service risks becoming sidelined. "If State doesn't become more operational, it's going to be overwhelmed by the Defense Department," says Natsios, the former AID administrator. Rice seems to understand that. But her tactic has been to embrace the military as a counterpart. The shift is most noticeable in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the military is protecting diplomats and might end up living alongside them. "The concept is more to embed with our military for protection of our civilians," particularly the provincial reconstruction teams, Rice says. That rattles some diplomats; not because they don't trust or admire the military, but because they fear an erosion of Foreign Service culture.
"For all the good that Powell did, he did begin this militarization," Bodine says. He used the same techniques he learned as an Army officer to lead an army of diplomats. When Rice and others point to military support systems or hierarchies as good models for the Foreign Service, to many diplomats it's an inherent criticism of the way they work now. "To me, it's saying that we don't have value as diplomats," Bodine says. "It's saying we only have value if we're somehow crypto-soldiers. And we're not. Our values are different and our culture is different."
Bushnell, who in 1998 was ambassador to Kenya when al Qaeda terrorists destroyed the embassy there, concurs. "When I read about the debate over whether our military can go into a foreign country for covert operations without the approval of the resident U.S. ambassador, I think, 'Wait just a minute. Who's in charge here, the civilian who is the personal representative of the president of the United States or a faceless military commander?' "
"To implement transformational diplomacy - or any other policy - you need a clear chain of command and accountability," Bushnell says. "This is lacking. We don't seem to have settled the role of the military and the role of the career diplomat."
An Idealist, But a Manager
Even Rice's most skeptical critics believe that the Foreign Service must adapt. And for all the concern and often strenuous objections to the ideology behind her plan, perhaps what has kept many diplomats from rejecting her ideas outright is that they don't doubt her credentials as a manager.
As provost of Stanford, she essentially was the chief operating officer of a large institution. Managing people and programs is not foreign to her. She endeavors to swear in as many new Foreign Service classes and ambassadors as possible. She has helped develop coursework at the Foreign Service Institute, the diplomats' training school. And she has a straightforward and sensible management agenda, which she defines as focusing on "mission, resources and people."
In these ways, Rice is not so different from Colin Powell, and perhaps she knows this. She has stayed the course on his beloved management reforms, and for that reason she remained in the good graces of many career diplomats. "I don't think the core mission has changed," Rice says. "The means of delivery is what's changed." No one expects the Foreign Service to change quickly, least of all Rice. In her Georgetown speech, she said transformational diplomacy and reshaping the State Department is "the work of a generation." She implicitly acknowledged that change takes time, and that it will go on without her. But while she's here - even though she might prefer to be somewhere else - Rice has a mission, and ultimately, a sense of her own place in it. Despite visionary talk of new orders and the casting off of old ways, there are moments when Rice sounds like a policy realist.
"America is admired I think," she says, and then corrects herself. "When America's admired, it's actually not principally for its power, it's for its ideals. . . . If we're going to be engaging people, if we're going to be a part of their lives, [we can't] do it from a perch of 'America's perfect. We know how to do all of this, and we're here to teach you.' No, in fact, America's story is one of perfect institutions and imperfect people and the constant battle to make those institutions as . . . perfect as they sound on paper."
If that story applies to the Foreign Service, then Rice is in the thick of the fight. Whether she wins or loses, at least for now, she's holding her ground.

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