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America's Other Army


AMERICA'S OTHER ARMY: Inside the Foreign Service

Diplomacy adapts to new threats

By Nicholas Kralev

It was well past the official close of business at NATO headquarters in Brussels on September 11, 2001, but the chamber of the North Atlantic Council, the alliance's political decision-making body, was anything but dark and quiet.

Hours after the terrorist attacks in New York and suburban Washington, Secretary-General George Robertson had gathered the ambassadors from all 19 member states to discuss how the events that were still unfolding live on television affected the organization and what NATO might do in the immediate aftermath.

"After the meeting, the Canadian ambassador, David Wright, took me aside to ask if Article 5 should be considered," Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador, recalled last week, referring to a clause in the 1949 Washington Treaty that created the alliance that says an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Initial consultations indicated that, despite the unanimous solidarity with the United States, not all members were convinced that Article 5 should be invoked, mainly because it never had been done before, said diplomats who were present."There was reluctance by a couple of members," a former NATO official said. "Although everything pointed to international terrorism, some people thought it could have been an act of domestic terrorism. They also said: 'What are we committing to? What will the U.S. ask us to do?' "

The former official said the uncertainty and urgency of the situation and the typically slow decision-making process at an international organization put the diplomatic skills of Mr. Burns; his deputy, Victoria Nuland; and the entire American mission to NATO to the test.

Once they had received Washington's approval to seek the invocation, they held meetings with allies to craft language acceptable to everyone, working late into the night, diplomats said.

The next morning, the council "agreed that if it is determined that this attack was directed from abroad against the United States, it shall be regarded as an action covered by Article 5."

The decision led news bulletins and broadcasts around the globe.

Mr. Burns said the stakes in the vote had been very high.

"If one ally had hesitated, the initiative would have failed, and NATO would have sent a signal of weakness and irresolution in the face of terrorism," he said in an interview.

U.S. and foreign diplomats said the move was crucial in securing worldwide support for the war on terrorism and the military campaign in Afghanistan the next month.

The tools of traditional diplomacy - secret handshakes and high-level negotiations behind closed doors - helped the United States to achieve an important foreign-policy objective that day. Since then, however, those instruments have proven hardly sufficient to carry out the ambitious global agenda of the world's only superpower, American diplomats say.

Winning the war on terrorism and maintaining a leading role in international affairs, they say, are goals that cannot be achieved with the help of governments and multinational institutions alone. It is vital to have support from ordinary people around the world, many of whom have never met an American and know little about the United States.

Persuading foreign governments to do things they would not otherwise do remains a significant part of their job, diplomats say. But the new demands on diplomacy require much broader engagement and more direct communication with the citizens of various countries, as well as a stronger emphasis on advocating American values and policies.

The new diplomacy

The work of American diplomats has been changing gradually since the end of the Cold War, although many of them admit that those changes have not been quick and far-reaching enough.

In order to respond adequately to the word's rapid transformation, the U.S. Foreign Service, the largest diplomatic corps on the planet, "needs to become faster and more modern," said Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs.

"Diplomacy is not only about governments any more," said Mr. Grossman, a Foreign Service officer for nearly 28 years. "Foreign policy is now a public issue - it's about individuals and human needs. It's a more democratic system."

In interviews with more than 260 Foreign Service officers at about 30 missions on five continents, many said diplomacy has changed dramatically in the past decade. They said political reporting, which used to be the main function at posts, has become "anachronistic" and badly needs rethinking.

"We devoted incredible human resources to figure out how governments worked and then sent those voluminous reports back to Washington," Mr. Burns said.

"You still need some of that, but you need to turn more of your man- and woman-hours in an embassy from the interior work of analysis to the more proactive work of communication and engagement," he said.

Mr. Burns, who joined the Foreign Service in 1982 and was State Department spokesman during the Clinton administration, served as the ambassador to Greece before taking up his post at NATO shortly before September 11, 2001.

"Instead of sending 40-paragraph cables on the internal minutiae of Greek political parties, so that three people in Washington could read them, we would much rather have an officer go to speak at a Greek high school or meet with the Communist Party and convince them to do something we want them to do," Mr. Burns said.

He said he "shifted a lot of resources" at the embassy in Athens to "support and engage with private groups," such as local American schools and Greek-American organizations, because they had "a greater long-term, more deeply rooted impact on our relationship with Greece than what my 532 colleagues and I at the embassy were doing."

Craig Kelly, executive assistant to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said a diplomat today should be "a mixture of foreign correspondent and lawyer," reporting developments overseas to Washington and "advocating the U.S. agenda."

Some Foreign Service officers argued that advocacy also should be directed at Washington, to make sure that their voice is heard when policies toward their host countries are crafted.

"If you only report and don't advocate back to Washington in the reporting structure, then you haven't done your job," one senior officer said. "A lot of missions are not doing that. They are not having as much impact as they should."

Dozens of officers said they spend most of their time in the office and conduct business mostly by phone or e-mail instead of going out and meeting people, either in private or in public.

"That's bad - there is no question. It's an occupational hazard, and it goes back years," said Mr. Kelly, who has been in the service since 1985.

In the trenches

Being stuck in an office is certainly not a complaint heard from the more than 130 State Department employees serving in Iraq. Although no one expects that kind of work - building a country's institutions from the ground up - to replace traditional diplomacy, it offers a glimpse of the challenges many U.S. diplomats will face in the future.

"Foreign Service officers in Iraq are helping to establish provincial councils, mediate disputes and defuse tensions," said Jonathan Carpenter, a midlevel officer who served in Baghdad from early September until late December.

"They are helping to educate Iraqis, get their schools up and running, start businesses and organize politically," Mr. Carpenter said.

He noted that, as a senior adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ron Neumann, the ambassador to Bahrain, "is helping Iraq develop its own indigenous capacity to do diplomacy - not to build it in the American image, but to help create a professional diplomatic corps."

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that the Foreign Service, like all other government agencies, "was not prepared for the day after hostilities ceased" in Iraq last year.

Earlier this month, Mr. Lugar's committee passed the Post-Conflict Readiness Initiative, which he said "would provide, under the State Department's leadership, for about 250 people to be prepared for whatever may occur in terms of nation-building."

Foreign Service officers said their job has become physically more difficult since the September 11 attacks, although many of them had lived through their share of hardships before.

Carolyn Johnson, now at the embassy in Brussels, was hijacked by terrorists in Sri Lanka in 1988.

Stephen M. Schwartz, a political officer in Pretoria, South Africa, was beaten up and carjacked in Burundi in the mid-1990s.

Victoria Alvarado, who is serving in Caracas, Venezuela, left her office at the embassy in Jakarta in August 1999 and headed to East Timor as violence was breaking out over the country's vote for independence.

But even without the increased threat to their lives, many officers said that being an American diplomat in today's world is no easy task.

"When we are as powerful as we are, we carry a huge burden," said Warren Christopher, the first secretary of state in the Clinton administration. "So often our foreign colleagues - out of jealousy or simply finding it hard to react to our power - find us very arrogant."

An officer in Europe said the Bush administration had fueled that perception by the manner in which it dealt with many countries at the beginning of its term.

He said instructions from the White House did not say, "Negotiate a solution to this problem." Rather, they read like commands: "This is what we are going to do, and tell everybody that they will have to do it with us."

Many officers said that attitude had changed in the past year, but that it could have happened earlier if other governments had made an effort to learn more about the personalities in the administration and the effect the terrorist attacks had on its vision of American power.

"While I personally have really strong misgivings about the way we've handled some things - especially with allies - I think it's unfair and just stupid of those same allies not to work harder to better understand the American psyche and temperament after September 11," a senior officer in Asia said.

A midlevel officer in Africa said, "It has become increasingly difficult for American diplomats to sell our view of how the world should work, because the world is responding to us and many countries see us as the biggest challenge.

"The world wants us to lead, but also to compromise. After World War II, we were among the founders of the U.N. and NATO. We committed money and shared power. These are the structures through which we lead," the officer said.

"You can't organize 200 countries unilaterally. The more we move away from collaborative efforts, the harder it is for the world to follow. They don't just want to salute."

But Tom Boyatt, a retired career ambassador and president of the Foreign Affairs Council in Washington, said that kind of thinking does not fit 21st-century realities.

"We have a whole generation of Foreign Service officers who grew up during the Cold War, and the policy was containment, static alliances and nuclear balance of power," Mr. Boyatt said.

"I don't think they can break out of that intellectual mold. But [President] Bush has - he's saying that containment, static alliances and arms-reduction negotiations are irrelevant in today's world."

Foreign Service culture

About a quarter of the officers interviewed said the service is not as intellectually challenging as the primary organization carrying out the foreign policy of a superpower should be.

"We sometimes become so specialized that we lose intellectual vision that we need for our foreign policy," one senior officer said. "I'm not saying that there aren't people in the Foreign Service who fit that bill, but they are not enough. I would identify that as our great weakness."

Robert Pearson, director-general of the Foreign Service, said it has "become more of an operational agency."

"The trend is that we are more operationally inclined than before," he said in an interview. "We try to select people who can get the job done. Ambassadors are now more managers, with all those other agencies at posts."

Mr. Powell, who by all accounts has improved management and morale at the State Department, said he was concerned when he assumed office that many senior officers had received almost no training since they joined the service and lacked leadership skills. He wanted to make sure that they knew "how to take care of people" and "how to accomplish a mission."

"That's what leaders do," he said in an interview. "They don't sit around writing papers. They solve problems."

A vast majority of the interviewed officers described the Foreign Service culture as risk-averse, and some said it lacks an "entrepreneurial spirit."

"I have a phrase: pre-emptive capitulation," a senior officer in Latin America said. "There are a lot of officers who, if they know they are going to run into a problem, retreat from their position. You shut your mouth because you know it's going to make trouble for your career."

An officer in Europe said the service sometimes "resists infusion" of ideas and people from outside, such as political appointees, although most officers have learned to work well with them.

Madeleine K. Albright, Mr. Powell's predecessor, said Foreign Service officers "need to understand the value of political appointees," because, "no matter how brilliant they all are, a political appointee, when strategically placed, represents the views of the president."

"In another life, I would have been a Foreign Service officer. I come from a diplomatic family," she said. "I have the highest respect for the Foreign Service, but they are not the sole keepers of America's diplomacy."

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