Monday, December 17, 2007

A real hardship post: U.S. diplomatic efforts at a crossroads

Diplomatic posts at the State Department and U.S. embassies worldwide will be cut by 10 percent next year because of heavy staffing demands in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington Post warned last week.

The problem is that Congress has not provided the State Dept. with the proper funds to hire new people to fill the growing number of open posts, and on top of that, hundreds of positions are presently needed for the enormous embassies of war-torn Afghanistan and warring Iraq.

Something else is at play, also.

Transformational Diplomacy steps in
A few years ago Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a speech on Transformational Diplomacy promised to move State Department diplomacy away from Cold War-era parlor games in Europe and fancy Asian capitols and transfer diplomats where they could be of more use to the realities of the 21st Century. The glaring statistic was that the same amount of State dept. personnel worked in Germany (population: 82 million) as in globally important India (population: more than one billion). “We will begin this year with a down payment of moving 100 positions from Europe and, yes, from here in Washington, D.C., to countries like China and India and Nigeria and Lebanon, where additional staffing will make an essential difference,” Rice said at the time.

It’s been nearly two years since that speech, and you only have to look at this chart to see the U.S. remains very Euro-centric in the way it carries out diplomacy. Not only does the State Dept. count more embassies in Europe, but my guess is the embassies are more abundantly staffed than posts in other parts of the world. For example, here’s a list of major positions at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

· Minister Counselor for Management
· Minister Counselor for Agricultural Affairs
· Minister Counselor for Commercial Affairs
· Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs/Consul General
· Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs
· Minister Counselor for Political Affairs
· Minister Counselor for Public Affairs
· Defense Attaché
· Office of Defense Cooperation
· Counselor for Scientific, Technological and Environment Affairs
· Tax Attaché
· NASA European Representative, Space Attaché
· Head, N.S.F. Europe Office

I dub thee: Space Attaché
Some of these positions are obviously not slotted from the State Dept., but a majority of them are. My guess is that below each Minister Counselor for Whatever Affairs lies a large warren full of smaller and lesser Minister Counselors and their appropriate minions.

State Dept. position or not, the U.S. embassy is still responsible for finding housing for all these diplomats, making sure their paperwork is correct to get their kids in school, providing them with desks and computers and chairs, and hopefully even a job for the spouse. A whole warren its own under the Minister Counselor for Management is busy every night making sure these people are well feed and bed.

But Paris is not the extent of the U.S. diplomatic relationship with France. The U.S. government enjoys the following bureaus throughout the country.

· Consulate General, Marseille
· Consulate General, Strasbourg
· APP, Bordeaux
· APP, Lille
· APP, Lyon
· APP, Rennes
· APP, Toulouse

In Marseilles, the Consulate General has five main tasks:

1. Assisting American citizens via the provision of consular services.
2. Promoting U.S. businesses and greater trade between the U.S. and the south of France and Monaco.
3. Articulating and advancing official United States Government positions and American values.
4. Supporting the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet in connection with ship visits to Mediterranean ports in France and Monaco
5. Conducting diplomatic relations with the Principality of Monaco.

For this work, the Counsel General is assisted by five Americans and 21 local employees.

For those who think the term American Presence Post, APP, sounds vaguely like a brothel, they’ll be happy to find out that the three missions of APP Bordeaux are:

  • To provide assistance to American citizens (notarials, passports, reports of birth, local lawyers, doctors, and translators, …) It should be noted that these services are for U.S. citizens only. All visa questions and applications should be referred to the consular services in Paris.
  • To explain American policy, society and culture.
  • To support American business (by helping them to enter French market, information to French companies looking for American goods and services)

Part of the APP Bordeaux mission is to build bridges between French and American companies in the following economic sectors:

  • Aeronautics and defense
  • Electronic components
  • Agriculture, food processing and wine
  • Chemicals and pharmaceuticals
  • Biotechnology
  • Tourism

Blood brothers
I think it a positive statement that the U.S. government has a very close relationship with France, one of its oldest allies. However, in these times of instant communication, of multi- multi-national organizations, of ministerial-level meetings held every few months, how easy is it for a high ranking U.S. official to speak directly to a high ranking French official? Very easy, indeed.

As the country turns the calendar over to year seven in the seemingly unending Global War on Terror, anyone can make the argument that the average French person should be well aware of Uncle Sam’s good aims and intentions. At the expense of whom, however? As much as the average French person may gasp at this, the U.S. and France pretty much share a common culture. This is not just a product of the history of Christendom or of American cultural imperialism as much as 21st century globalization. It is an understanding of the major differences that exist between those two countries and the majority of people in other nations like, say, Pakistan or Afghanistan or Nigeria.

This is a zero-sum game: Every APP, every Consulate in France bleeds U.S. resources from countries much more critical, much less understanding of U.S. policies and motives. The question the U.S. government must ask itself: How much more important is it that a French person hears about U.S. customs directly from the APP in Toulouse than a Nigerian in Kano understands U.S. policy initiatives?

End corporate welfare as we know it
This does not nullify the argument for a heavy U.S. presence throughout the French countryside. Many Americans reside in France and many more vacation there. Also, France and the U.S. share many business contacts, and the U.S. government makes no bones about its responsibility to promote U.S. business interests overseas. In a time when business concerns often trump even the most political interests, a majority of State dept. overseas positions fulfill the task of helping businesses navigate foreign labor practices, civil rights laws, environmental codes and corruption issues.

In my view, it only makes sense that the U.S. business community begins supporting the State dept. to fund these positions. Extending the government-business partnership and underwriting certain posts could guarantee that U.S. business interests are fully realized in other countries. It could also guarantee that positions are full in embassies in countries now politically and economically important to the new world order.

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