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On Point

A Diplomacy of Neighborhoods


by Austin Bay
October 31, 2007

Diplomats, pack your duffel bags.

And I mean duffel bags, not garment bags. While you're at it, get a pair of boots. I also recommend several pair of work gloves and work pants with lots of pockets for cameras, extra batteries, sunglasses and your global cell phone.

Twenty-first century diplomacy isn't an office job. It is a demanding and, at times, a dangerous trade, one that requires accepting deprivation, running physical risks and hanging out in bad neighborhoods. If this echoes a field soldier's job description, it's not a coincidence.

Like it or not, the United States is engaged in a long war over the terms of modernity -- will modernity be defined by tyrants, terrorists and religious extremists, or will democratic liberalism defeat them? In this war for wealth creation (economic development) and political maturation, diplomats and skilled civilian agency specialists are soldiers of a type, and to win it means "being out there" in the difficulties.

The preceding paragraphs are the soul of a short little speech I've given numerous times, the most provocative being an impromptu performance delivered in Iraq. An energetic discussion between soldiers and diplomats (read Pentagon and State at the micro-level) over the State Department's perceived failure to "show up for the war" sparked that war zone lecture.

I won't say I was a neutral observer to the argument. In my opinion, U.S. soldiers have been fighting a complex, multidimensional war with the bare minimum of field support from most other government agencies -- our intelligence agencies and the FBI being notable exceptions. "Limited interagency participation" is the intentionally bland description of America's near-total reliance on military personnel to substitute (on an extended basis) for diplomats, agriculture experts and financial advisers.

What my short speech attempted to do in the context of the on-the-ground debate was illustrate the attitude -- or departmental culture -- I think it takes to correct the problem. State Department and other civilian agency personnel have to get dirty and disciplined, more like missionaries than soldiers, but with a touch of martial spirit. If they don't, the Pentagon and a host of contractors will eventually take over their jobs, de facto if not de jure.

Last week, the State Department announced that within the month it will order 40 to 50 foreign service officers to fill vacant positions in Iraq. Why "order"? Because State relies on volunteers to fill its Iraqi billets.

News services ran headlines touting a "State Department call-up" or "diplomatic draft," but both templates are misleading. State certainly isn't conducting a draft. Its diplomats and departmental specialists all accepted government jobs without coercion. A "call-up" implies the use of reserves, of part-timers. Our diplomats aren't reserve "weekend warriors" leaving businesses to pick up rifles. They are full-time professionals who know -- when they sign on -- that they have duty stations worldwide.

The order had precedents. In the past, the State Department has ordered reluctant personnel to take hardship assignments, with the Vietnam War being a notable example. According to one newspaper report, in the 1980s State forced diplomats to take posts in West Africa. Sweaty, humid hellholes make great backdrops for Graham Greene novels, but service in a political and economic backwater doesn't add career-enhancing glitter to a diplomatic resume.

It should. In fact, it must. If we're to win the war for modernity, civilian agencies must encourage and reward personnel who tackle boot-and-work-glove jobs. We've learned that the seeds for attacks on New York and Washington are sown in chaotic, anarchic backwaters.

"Directed assignments" (diplo-speak for forcing personnel to fill unwanted jobs) are a "quick fix" for immediate problems -- they aren't a solution. Changing organizational culture is, but that's a job that takes time, training and sustained emphasis by senior leaders. It also takes increased pay to attract and keep talent.

But we need expeditionary diplomats. Fostering political and economic development requires sweat and sustained presence. Woody Allen's quip that 90 percent of life is just showing up has always applied to diplomacy. "Showing up" in the 21st century means more than running the embassy in the capital city, it means conducting a "diplomacy that reaches neighborhoods." It's a complex requirement, but anything less is inadequate.

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