The Grandpa Gazette

Location: Fairfax, Virginia, United States

Thursday, January 05, 2012

U. S. Foreign Service: The Next 50 Years

I joined the Foreign Service 55 years ago, and I retired from it 16 years ago. While that clearly disqualifies me from speaking about today’s Service, perhaps I am no less qualified than anyone else to talk about the next 50 years.
The future, of course, is unknowable. Fifty-five years ago, no one could have foreseen the degree to which instant electronic communication, in the form of computers and cell phones, has changed the environment in which we operate today. Yet there was probably more basis for predicting that, at least among the scientifically and technologically inclined, than there was for predicting the complete and utter disappearance of the Soviet bloc that so dominated world politics in 1956.
That said, there are some trends that may perhaps give us some clue about the world in which newly-minted Foreign Service members today will serve their careers.
My first observation, and the most obvious – I promise I will be more provocative later on -- is that the United States is no longer one of two superpowers, as it was when I joined the Service, or even the sole superpower that it seemed briefly to be after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I see that becoming even truer over the next 50 years. We may remain the world’s single strongest military and economic power, but we will no longer be overwhelmingly the strongest.
What is more, we can no longer afford to be. Although politicians will continue to blather about the United States being the greatest country on earth, that will be an increasingly qualitative rather than quantitative claim. I believe the United States has reached the limit of its ability to project and exercise power internationally. We have for many years neglected our infrastructure and our environment and the need for cleaner, cheaper energy, and paid for our international adventures by borrowing. My sense is that the willingness of the American people to put up with this inversion of priorities has reached its limits.
Am I suggesting that the Foreign Service will fade into irrelevance as Fortress America turns away from the rest of the world? Not at all. Regardless of which party is in power and what policies the U.S. government adopts, we are inextricably involved with the world, and will become much more so over the next half-century. That’s driven both by technology and by the nature of the issues.

A Shrinking World
Technology will continue to shrink the world in ways we can only speculate on today. Conversations via Skype, or its descendants, with friends and business partners and Foreign Service colleagues will certainly become the normal, everyday means of communication. National stock markets are already international in content; it’s but a step to being able to invest in any company, anywhere.
This means, as is patent in any news report today, that the health of every major country’s economy is intertwined with the health of our own. Reporting on and negotiating and advancing those economic relationships will be as much a major part of diplomatic work 50 years from now as it is today.
Moreover, the issues facing the world’s leaders will require more and more international cooperation. Who builds wind farms and oil wells in whose oceans. Whose greenhouse gases diminish the quality of whose air – and contribute to the loss of whose seacoast. Who regulates, and who protects, the Internet. How to divide a limited bandwidth for a steadily increasing traffic of international communications and entertainment – unless, of course, technology finds a way to make it infinite.
Another issue I think will be around for a long time to come is human rights. Some of my colleagues from my generation were not at all comfortable with “interfering in the internal affairs of other countries,” and some saw it as a peculiarly Latin American or Soviet bloc issue. But now human rights are a recognized part of the international agenda, and there’s no shortage of cases requiring international cooperation and leadership – leadership the United States is uniquely qualified to provide.

The Limits of Power
So there will always be work for the Foreign Service. But one thing I will predict: it will not be an “expeditionary” Service. The United States has done its share of nation-building following military conflicts; some of it was very successful (Germany, Japan), some of it much less so. But the idea that provincial civilian-military teams are some sort of new norm for the Service is simply nonsense. Look at Egypt, Libya or Syria, if you want to see the limits of American power in 2011. Look at Burma or Tibet. Or, in our hemisphere, look at Venezuela or Cuba.
I’m not saying that we have not, or cannot, influence events. As David Remnick has written, “a calculated modesty can augment a nation’s true influence.” We have wielded great influence, and will continue to do so throughout the next 50 years, because of our continued significant (but not monopolistic) power and, I hope, because of our continued moral leadership.
I happen to think that the United States on the whole did pretty well as the world’s policeman – with the painful exceptions of Vietnam and Iraq -- during the 60 years or so that there was no one else around willing or able to fill that role. But staying on in that job would require both a continued acquiescence on the part of other major countries and a continued willingness on the part of the American people to pay the very considerable cost in money and lives. I see both of those as steadily diminishing over the next 50 years.
But there will be no decrease in the number of crises around the world where foreign intervention is needed -- whether humanitarian, as in the Horn of Africa, or economic, as in Greece, or even military.
So who, or what, gradually replaces the U.S. as the Lone Ranger? Multinational cooperation, as in Libya. In 2061 we may – may -- still be primus inter pares, leading the organization of international efforts, contributing substantially to their funding, negotiating the objectives and terms of the intervention. But multinational agreement will not just be decorative icing on the cake. It will be the cake.
What does this mean for the Foreign Service? It means that those who seek international organization experience will have a leg up. The number of alphabet soup international agencies today may be mind-boggling, but they are going to increase exponentially over the next 50 years. Regional organizations such as the African Union will grow stronger and acquire increased responsibilities. And the United States will need to be represented at virtually every single one, in one way or another. Our diplomats will need technical specializations more than ever: financial, economic, scientific, and in areas one can’t even imagine today.
Does that mean the Foreign Service generalist is going the way of the despatch and the airgram? (If those are unfamiliar terms, please consult your nearest doddering retiree.) Yes and no. In the sense of officers with good judgment, good people skills and the ability to lead and manage, no, those will always be needed. The old adage about not putting a scientist at the head of a scientific institution is still true. But in the sense of officers who try to make up with charm alone for their lack of area, language and technical skills: yes, I see little future for them.

Islamic Studies
One critical area of specialization that will be required in the years ahead is Islamic studies. It doesn’t require much of a crystal ball to see that a largely stagnant part of the world is waking up and changing before our eyes – but into what exactly? What is clear is that there are 1.6 billion Muslims who are going to play a much more important part in world politics than they have in the last 50 years, and that we as a country and as a Service know very little about them.
This is partly because as Americans, we are not very comfortable talking about religion, or relating to people as adherents of a religion. Our Constitution forbids the establishment of any religion, and so we ignore it in the workplace. Some of the predominantly Muslim countries may in time become secular states – or they may not. We can continue to focus on the Middle East as an area and Arabic as a language, and we need more specialists in both. But I would like to see the National Foreign Affairs Training Center create a course in Islamic studies that every officer would be required to take – even Latin Americanists like myself. (The population at my last Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau post was 9-percent Muslim, and my wife and I were the guests of honor at a Muslim wedding.)
Which brings us to terrorism. The major security threat to the United States, and specifically to our embassies and diplomats abroad, is non-state sponsored terrorism, and I think that will be true as far as I can see into the future. (No, I do not think China is going to attack its best customer and largest debtor, although there are certainly some challenging times ahead as it becomes a democracy and our major economic competitor.) Although last summer’s slaughter in Norway proved that Muslim-haters can also be terrorists, for the time being most terrorist threats are related to the U.S. military presence in Muslim countries, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to the number and influence of extreme fundamentalists in Islam. All of these factors may diminish over time. The first certainly will; the others I make no predictions about. But in the meantime, we will have to deal with terrorism, and not just as a security threat.
If that undermines our ability to influence events in a major part of the world, just as that area is throwing off old structures and systems and creating new ones, then it is a political threat, as well. Knowing more about the culture and religion that the terrorists are coming from, and perverting, will help us deal with both kinds of threats.
Much as I regret and deplore the concrete bunkers that house our embassies and the security precautions that limit our ability to move around and meet people, I don’t see those going away over the next 50 years. It’s a dangerous world and getting more so, not least because technology has put us so much more in each other’s faces. But that doesn’t mean that we have to build enormous fortresses in countries of second or third-rate importance to the United States and people them with huge support and security staffs.

Who Needs Offices?
In fact, I believe we will finally begin to reverse the unfortunate decision, made decades ago, that the most powerful country in the world must have an embassy almost everywhere, in almost every sovereign country. Once we can bring ourselves psychologically to abandon that idea, there will be fewer bunkers to build. Officers can be more mobile, operating out of hotel rooms and other temporary quarters.
After all, who needs an office anymore? Officers can write their reports on their Googleberries and Podphones and tablets and one of these days will send “telegrams” (as they are quaintly called) from them too. Reports will include photographs and videos of riots and ceremonies and even interviews. The U.S. government will, of course, continue to lag years behind the private sector, but it’s just slow; it will get there eventually.
If I had been thrust into the Foreign Service of 2011 when I was first sworn in, I would have found it wondrous strange. I’m sure that any of today’s officers who suddenly found themselves in 2061 would find it just as strange an institution: wondrous in its technological marvels; discouraging, perhaps, in the persistence of unresolved problems and issues; and, I hope, reassuring in the continuity of this country as a beacon of hope and leadership -- even from a position of relatively diminished power.