Making the Diplomats for the 21st Century
For all its awesome military capabilities, the United States is a terribly weak diplomatic actor. Washington simply does not give enough attention to the compromise, negotiation, and relationship-building that are necessary for success in forerign policy. Instead, American leaders emphasize “containing” enemies, destroying “evil” regimes, and forcing change through “situtations of strength.” If the last decade has taught anything, it is that overwhelming strength and force are woefully insufficient — often self-defeating. Even the most powerful nation must learn to compromise and negotiate with despised adversaries. Americans are, sadly, poorly prepared for this kind of basic diplomacy.
Part of the problem is the American worldview — the emphasis on overwhelming strength, on “wars to end all wars,” on morally clean solutions to tangled and enduring problems. More fundamental, over the last fifty years the United States has systematically undermined its diplomatic institutions, just as it has enhanced its military capabilities. Before the Second World War, the U.S. had a small, fractured, and largely disparaged military establishment. The State Department was also small, but it commanded respect and authority among powerful political figures. Since 1945 all of this has reversed. The National Security Act of 1947 created a unified military, through the Department of Defense, and it gave the military — for Cold War purposes — broad national political clout unmatched by any other American institution. At the same time, the State Department found itself orphaned as a part of the Cold War American foreign policy-making structure with little access to the key information, resources, or personnel who would govern decisions about war and peace.
Since 1945 the United States has built a military that is larger than all of its international peers combined. The State Department has simultaneaously shrunk in size and influence. There are, believe it or not, more people in American military bands than in the entire U.S. diplomatic corps. American music has soared, but the nation’s diplomacy has suffered in every region of the world.
American diplomacy needs more than money. It needs to attract the best talent from around the country and put it to work in ways that will have an immediate impact. This cannot happen with a large cumbersome bureaucracy, a Foreign Service examination system that discourages applicants to the State Department, and a job rotation that sends the best recruits to stamp passports rather than contribute to policy. Simply stated, the State Department must become more dynamic, flexible, and entrepreneurial. It must take more calculated risks for greater policy achievement. American diplomacy needs the same youthful energy that has transformed the military since its years of despair after the Vietnam War.
American diplomacy will only achieve the serious status it deserves (and the world needs) when it draws on the most promising people in American society. The State Department must start at the grass roots, opening a process of recruitment and training that reaches the most talented college students who are committed to global change, but uncertain how to plan their careers. Today, these talented students most often go to the military, the Peace Corps, or a non-governmental organization. The State Department should develop a track to recruit and retain them in large numbers.
The military has done exactly this through its Reserve Office Training Corps (ROTC) programs on most college campuses. These programs provide scholarships and organized community for talented students who, in return, promise to serve for a fixed period (often five years) in a specific military service. In my experience, these ROTC students are often the most motivated, mature, self-confident, and successful. They have a sense of direction, a purpose, and a job when they graduate. They are confident in their personal success and their contribution to public service.
The State Department needs its own ROTC program. The key institution for American diplomacy could select the most talented college students, provide them with scholarships, and prepare them for immediate contributions to American foreign policy after graduation. Think, for example, of how the nation and its allies would benefit from more talented, idealistic, and hard-working trained young experts on the Middle East traveling to that region for assistance with reconstruction and nation-building efforts. Think how the nation and its allies would benefit from more young people trained in Chinese and other Asian languages, working for the American embassies in that vitally important region. The State Department needs more talent and it could inexpensively recruit and nuture that talent though a program of college scholarships with limited service requirements. This has worked so well for the American military; it would work even better for the under-staffed and frequently disparaged American diplomtic corps.
The new diplomats of the 21st Century will determine the future of our world. We need to recruit, train, and inspire the best young people for these vital roles. The present State Department bureaucracy will not do this. We need a diplomatic ROTC program to reform the institution and revitalize the nation’s global diplomatic role. A State Department ROTC program will cost little and pay enormous dividends.
What are we waiting for? The students are ready. They are knocking on my office door every day, asking how they can make a difference. Isn’t it time to give them a chance? Every State Department and Defense Department official that I have met agrees with this argument. Do we have the political will to do what is obvious for future policy success?
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.