- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, Condoleezza Rice said U.S. foreign policy has entered a new world in which “centuries of international precedent are being overturned.” Her plan for this new era is called “Transformational Diplomacy,” and at its core are two revolutionary beliefs: what happens within countries affects U.S. security as much as what happens between them and that diplomats can promote freedom and prosperity.

We should welcome Miss Rice’s efforts. Since the end of the Cold War, the State Department has become less relevant for achieving foreign policy goals, and Transformational Diplomacy aims to reverse this. To succeed, however, Miss Rice must make three major changes in her department.

(1) Transformational Diplomacy will require the State Department — not known for fostering initiative — to empower career officials. Miss Rice has talked about this, but interference from Washington remains a major problem. Diplomats in the field are inundated with recordkeeping responsibilities and requests from headquarters. Securing multiple permissions to meet with local leaders, initiate new projects and obtain the resources to execute them wastes time and allows bureaucratic inertia to kill good ideas.

In Afghanistan, some diplomats are grateful that poor communications reduce U.S. meddling and are unsure if they can return to the regimented atmosphere of a normal post.

While career officers should be accountable to their superiors, Transformational Diplomacy must strike a new balance that shifts more power to the field. Otherwise, why bother training officers to think on their own or serve in challenging locations?

(2) Miss Rice needs a work force prepared to succeed. She has announced important new training efforts, but they are not enough. Currently, new diplomats are recruited based on assessments of several key personal traits, such as leadership, initiative and honesty, regardless of experience. The rationale seems to be: give us people with a particular personality and we will mold them into all-purpose professionals, starting with the requisite first tour stamping visas.

But if the goal is for diplomats to help reconstruct a war-torn society, arrange a village election or reform an education system, we need people who already have these skills.

Some may not want to spend their entire careers at State, nor spend years stamping visas. While Colin Powell began to address this problem, Miss Rice should approach it more comprehensively, recognizing that to attract skilled, quickly deployable professionals, the department must overhaul its personnel system completely, changing the qualifications for entry and giving key positions to non-lifetime employees.

(3) There is personal risk. For their own protection, diplomats have become increasingly isolated from the countries where they work. This is not surprising: U.S. diplomats are attractive targets for terrorists, as shown by the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. But if Transformational Diplomacy is to work, U.S. diplomats must emerge from the barbed wire and engage with real people. Miss Rice has acknowledged this, providing for American Presence Posts in which individual diplomats work outside embassies, but she must do more.

Miss Rice’s budget proposal for this year suggests she does not yet appreciate this fact. She has proposed $351 million to establish “public diplomacy centers” in embassies and other diplomatic facilities without mentioning our embassies often are isolated from the publics these centers would seek to engage.

If diplomats are to play a more valuable role abroad — particularly in centers of terrorism, poverty and crime that are likely to threaten the U.S. — they must accept greater physical risk. Their superiors must be prepared for the consequences.

Through Transformational Diplomacy, Miss Rice aims to restore the State Department’s relevance and position it for what she views as the challenges of a new era.

Carrying out this plan will be difficult, requiring fundamental changes to the department and great patience. But the stakes are high: Success will yield a revitalized and more capable diplomatic corps; failure will make it harder to conduct foreign policy and diminish America’s role in the world.

SETH SEIFMAN

Research associate

International Security Program

Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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