During his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, President Barack Obama will likely talk about his administration’s ambitious diplomatic agenda for the year: negotiations aimed at democratic transition in Syria, troops in Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran’s nuclear program, as well as complex multilateral trade negotiations across the Atlantic and Pacific. Military efforts, most certainly, will be a discussion point, but that won’t be the case for the efforts of U.S. diplomats and aid workers abroad. What will make it to the president’s teleprompter, of course, will be the issues that are seen as funding priorities. And if you think that civilian foreign-policy efforts even come close to making this list, think again.
Over recent months, Congress has postponed sequestration constraints for the Department of Defense that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have already met. That’s despite the fact that diplomacy is a relative bargain — civilian foreign affairs spending totals under 10 percent of the Pentagon’s budget and less than 1.5 percent of total U.S. government spending. For the past 50 years, foreign aid has been steadily dissipating. While half of Americans think it represents 25 percent or more of the federal budget, it is in fact well under 1 percent.
Sure, taking a hint isn’t always easy. But it’s time for the State Department and USAID to do so and start asking some tough questions on whether these civilian institutions, in their current state, are worth funding. Are they configured to meet present and future needs, or are they trapped in the past?
America is a young country, but it has an old governing system. When created in 1789, the State Department was originally the Department of the State — that is, the grab-bag department that handled everything the other three (War, Treasury, and the Attorney General) did not. Much has changed since then. Today, State is a traditional, 19th-century-style foreign ministry running several hundred missions abroad. USAID, founded to help fight the Cold War, focuses on poverty alleviation and economic development. How those missions contribute to American national security requirements — except in the most general sense that a more prosperous world will be safer for everyone — remains foggy.
This isn’t to say that State and USAID are unnecessary. WikiLeaks demonstrated that U.S. diplomats are paragons when it comes to reporting. Their incisive descriptions of foreign leaders and careful parsing of their conversations were widely admired among foreign diplomats — in fact, their reports of corruption and abuse of power may even have helped precipitate the 2011 Arab uprisings.
But these traditional reporting and assistance functions are no longer enough. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the challenge posed by terrorists worldwide have strained State and USAID, which struggled to deploy the expertise needed in a timely way. Meanwhile, the architecture of these institutions has remained static. American diplomats are still deployed as individuals (rather than teams) for several years to large fixed diplomatic missions that house dozens of government departments in Rome, Sarajevo, Baghdad, and other capitals that are no longer the nation’s top priorities. The budgets of these sprawling embassies are difficult to fathom, because they are obscured in the agencies other than the State Department that provide most of their staff. An embassy of 800 people in Rome (half Americans and half Italians) — the same number as before the end of the Cold War, before the delegation of many sovereign functions to the European Union in Brussels and before the stationing of U.S. forces much farther east — is clearly excessive. Even when I served there as deputy chief of mission more than 20 years ago, there were hundreds of people tackling projects and assignments that could have been handled from Washington, D.C., or during short visits.
Relations between states are still important, but so too are America’s relations with foreign publics. Nonstate actors such as private voluntary organizations, think tanks, religious institutions, and universities are now important players in international affairs. Wars between states have become rare, while wars within states are now much more common.
Traditional diplomacy focuses on communicating with sovereign governments, while 21st-century diplomacy focuses on ensuring that governments represent their people. Today, conventional diplomatic and foreign assistance institutions in the United States have fallen short in six specific areas that are vital in a world in which states are less important and publics more important.
1. Preventing war. The sloppy and hesitant American reaction to the Arab awakenings, in particular in Syria and Libya, left U.S. diplomatic agencies vulnerable to violence and extremists. Too often, State waits too long to respond to situations — thinking it is playing it safe — when, in fact, proactive diplomacy could have been the solution. For example, earlier action to bolster the nonviolent opposition in Syria and to help Libya establish law and order after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi could have enabled more orderly transitions to democracy.
2. Reforming foreign security forces. The Egyptian Army learned nothing about its proper role in a democratic society, while Washington sent it more than $1 billion annually for decades. It would be surprising if the Yemeni forces that are getting lots of U.S. counterterrorism training and equipment were learning much more, even if human rights protection is included in their training. When the U. S. military provides military assistance to foreign governments, it should include training (like that run by the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces) for parliamentary and executive officials in maintaining oversight, restraining security forces from involvement in politics, and ensuring that they respect human rights.
3. Supporting democratic transitions. America has long preferred democratic friends and allies because established democracies rarely go to war with each other and prove reliable partners in pursuing a more peaceful and prosperous world. Latin America and main U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region have moved in a democratic direction in recent decades. But in the Middle East, the United States became reliant on secular autocracies that have betrayed the aspirations of their people for dignity and prosperity. The nation’s excellent government-funded but nongovernmental organizations that support democratization — the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the United States Institute of Peace — suffer excessive micromanagement by the State Department and USAID. (This is also the case for many of the private voluntary organizations that contribute vital government-financed programs to establish the rule of law and strengthen democratic institutions, like those of the American Bar Association and Partners for Democratic Change.) These should be the nation’s first line of defense in today’s world, not the last.
4. Countering violent extremism. Local communities, not drones, are the best way to fight extremism. But the United States has been slow to empower moderates who could inspire young Muslims and non-Muslims before extremists do. More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the United States should be cooperating with and financing community-based efforts domestically and abroad to strengthen rule of law, promote tolerance, and prevent violent conflict. Recent American support for the creation of a Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, which will use public and private funds to support community-based programs to prevent the radicalization of at-risk individuals, in part through counseling by religious leaders and former militants, is a step in the right direction.
5. Encouraging citizen and cultural diplomacy. The failures of American “public diplomacy” to endear non-Americans to U.S. government policy are well documented. The considerable successes of its citizen diplomacy in building bridges to foreigners are ignored. Take, for example, Kiva, which helps Americans invest amounts as small as $25 in entrepreneurial ventures in poor countries. Total funding now amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars raised from individual U.S. citizens. Then there are the Americans who go abroad: There are 1,400 American organizations engaged in citizen diplomacy abroad, and American volunteer efforts overseas are valued at more than $3 billion. The Center for Citizen Diplomacy needs all the encouragement it can get to reach its goal of doubling the number of Americans engaged in citizen diplomacy by 2020.
6. Break from “fortress diplomacy.” All these less traditional diplomatic functions require a far more agile, expeditionary, and engaged diplomatic establishment. Diplomats and aid workers should deploy to prevent conflict and instability before it all cascades into war. But when it does, they should also be trained to deploy with soldiers and Marines — not for days or weeks, but for months and even years. There are risks inherent in this approach — there are already many security threats to U.S. diplomats abroad, and these won’t be lessened by integrating their work more closely with the military — but having a forward-deployed diplomatic corps is necessary to U.S. national security, even if that puts them in harm’s way.
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Mobilizing new diplomatic action early in crises, reforming security forces, and conducting on-the-ground diplomacy require leadership from U.S. government agencies. But the rest — countering violent extremism, promoting democracy, and citizen and cultural diplomacy — should be the mission of nongovernmental organizations working with U.S. government financing but without excessive government constraints. And all these functions need to be done cooperatively with international partners in friendly, democratic countries that share American values.
So what would U.S. civilian foreign affairs agencies look like if they were designed to meet America’s future national security requirements? The answer is simple: a single integrated foreign office, as opposed to the duplicative and wasteful division between two inadequate and sometimes competitive institutions — plus a much-enhanced partnership with nongovernmental organizations. The combination should be agile, flexible, and proactive.
The idea isn’t novel. In fact, George W. Bush brought this concept to life in 2009 when he created a “civilian nation-building corps” with a budget of close to $250 million. Two years later under Obama, the corps reached 1,000 active-duty and standby government employees from nine different agencies. Its members deployed to Afghanistan to beef-up civilian planning and training capabilities and to Kyrgyzstan for conflict prevention and reconciliation efforts, as well as to South Sudan. But since then, budget pressures have led the State Department to de-emphasize and reduce the corps, which did not fit well with State’s reactive bureaucratic culture. To save money, people are hired only when needed and deployed without the extensive experience and training once envisaged.
This is sad because the United States needs an experienced and practiced team of people with an array of missions — overseeing police forces, setting up courts and prisons, governing an open society, managing a free market economy, reconciling people who share a violent past — to help transitioning countries to become well-functioning states.
Funding should come from shrinking supersized embassies and redirecting the money to this more readily deployable corps, which would not only work closely with, but be deployed with, the U.S. military. Canada has already folded its aid agency back into its Foreign Affairs Department. The U.K., Norway, the Netherlands, and others are trying to coordinate their civilian assistance more closely with their military forces.
This is the way forward.
For those worried about American decline, the cheaper and better way to slow it is more effective civilian foreign policy. It is a vital complement to a strong military.
Daniel Serwer is a Professor of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielSerwer