Buoyed by a groundswell of global good feeling after the election of Barack Obama, current and former U.S. diplomats see a new chance to advance American interests if the next president keeps his promises to devote more resources to the diplomatic corps and foreign aid.
In e-mails to The Washington Times, diplomats from four continents said good will toward the United States has increased dramatically since Mr. Obama’s election and is already making a difference in their daily work.
John K. Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, said it was crucial to bolster the resources devoted to diplomacy to sustain the positive new feelings.
“The expectation of the Foreign Service is that President-elect Obama will follow through on his campaign pledges by asking Congress for additional funding for diplomacy and development assistance,” Mr. Naland said. “Those funds are needed because, without adequate numbers of properly resourced and well-trained diplomats and development professionals, no amount of personal diplomacy by the president, vice president or secretary of state will single-handedly restore our nation’s role as the world’s leader in global affairs.”
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The Bush administration, initially bolstered by foreign support after Sept. 11, lost overseas backing after it invaded Iraq. The U.S. image also has suffered from the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and because of security measures that have made it difficult for foreigners to visit the United States.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama made a number of promises to boost diplomacy.
In March, he said he would “invest in our civilian capacity to operate alongside our troops in post-conflict zones and on humanitarian and stabilization missions. Instead of shuttering consulates in tough corners of the world, it’s time to grow our Foreign Service and to expand [the U.S. Agency for International Development].”
Mr. Naland said the U.S. “foreign affairs agencies are hobbled by a human-capital crisis.” He cited a report last month by the American Academy of Diplomacy - a body including all living former secretaries of state - that recommended that staffing be increased by 43 percent at the State Department and by 62 percent at USAID.
The current shortages make it difficult for diplomats to take time off for training, he said. At the same time, more training is necessary given the expanded duties assigned to diplomats in recent years, from nation-building to lobbying for free trade.
“Try something completely new and different, learn a complicated language in 15 minutes, parachute in and instantly hit the ground running, get to know everyone immediately, get everyone to do everything perfectly,” was how one Foreign Service officer in Iraq described the expectations for U.S. diplomats today.
A Foreign Service officer in Latin America said he would “certainly look forward to a significant increase in staffing.” He also urged the next administration to show greater support for multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations.
American diplomats are eagerly awaiting a new secretary of state. Democrats mentioned for the post include Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Several former and current U.S. diplomats cautioned that high hopes about the next U.S. president overseas may dissipate quickly if U.S. policies remain the same.
Perhaps the greatest challenges lie in the Middle East, where attitudes toward U.S. policies have been negative.