Uncle Sam needs more diplomats
David Shorr
The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
Last week, the US State Department notified 250 of its staff that they are prime candidates for openings to work in our embassy in Iraq. This move signaled the possibility that, unless people stepped forward to volunteer, foreign service officers will be ordered to Iraq.

The staffing difficulty says something not only about the hardships of working in Iraq but also about glaring gaps in America’s overall capability to relate to the world.

The diplomatic corps has certainly played a part in Iraq; more than 1,200 foreign service officers have served there. But even the positions that are the focus of this recent move are a fraction of the political and economic jobs that have needed to be filled. The point is often made that the only real solution in Iraq is political rather than military. However, with a shortage of civilians to help rebuild and stabilize Iraq, our military forces have had to fill the vacuum and work with city councils and local elders to keep the water running, clinics stocked with medicine, schoolhouses open, roads maintained, trash picked up, etc.—clearly civilian, rather than military, functions.

It’s no accident that the military is stepping in. They have the personnel, and the money. By now, Americans realize that addressing acute social conditions in Iraq and elsewhere is important for our interests and the kind of world we seek. In other words, working with the rest of the world to make sure that kids are in school and that young people can work and contribute to the interconnected world economy is good for the United States and the right thing to do.

The current discussion of foreign policy reflects a growing awareness of these issues, yet our budgets and international outreach do not.

All Americans want our military to have what it needs. We can and do debate what those needs are and the proper level of defense spending. But as our military leaders themselves are saying, they cannot and do not want to handle all of America’s engagement with the world. We need more money for civilian efforts, but as a nation we aren’t even asking how much that more should be. And it shows. Our military budget is 20 times as large as the budget for civilian international affairs. Given what we know about the challenges of a shrinking planet—where disease, carbon emissions, refugees, and hostility toward the United States all move easily across borders—does this seem like the right proportion?

From the creation of the United Nations to President Bush’s efforts to combat HIV/ AIDS, the United States has a long history of contributing toward global progress.

Americans are proud of their optimism and bold vision.

If, as the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, we want to help build a more peaceful and prosperous world, it will require a significant new investment.

In these days of low international opinion of America, the only countries where public sentiment has shown an uptick are places where the United States provided help in a time of dire need, in Indonesia after the tsunami and Pakistan after the earthquake. But we can’t rebuild our credibility by chasing natural disasters or count on dramatic good works to solidify relations, even with these particular nations.

We will have to roll up our sleeves and work with public health authorities to stock clinics with malaria drugs and help interior ministries to catch terrorists (and not shortchange the former for the latter). We need to patiently build coalitions to stop would-be nuclear nations and show what we’re prepared to do to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. We also have to make sure that the American “brand” doesn’t become unpopular in the global marketplace of trade. In sum, the United States needs to get back in touch with the rest of the world, listen more, and issue fewer commands. And we will need people and money to do it.

Like any good investment, stronger civilian budgets and agencies will pay dividends over time. A wide consensus exists among policy experts and the public that the need is urgent. There are even political leaders who highlight the issue. But it will take significant political will to mount a serious response.

David Shorr is a program officer at Muscatine’s Stanley Foundation, a nonpartisan, private organization focusing primarily on peace and security issues and advocating principled multilateralism.

This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.