Of Military Bands and Diplomats

by Bud Goodall

What would you rather have for your tax dollars? (A) A first-class military band that can play funky versions of “The Stars and Stripes” and “Hail to the Chief.”  (B) A world-class communicatively and culturally savvy diplomatic corps that can reduce tensions, build support for U. S. foreign policies, and improve our status around the globe.

If chose option A, then congratulations.  You, too, can join in the Congressional chorus now refusing to increase allocations to the State Department to fill over 1,000 vacancies. In today’s NY Times, Nicholas Kristof provides some revealing statistics:

The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats.

This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service.

More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane.

In short, the United States is hugely overinvesting in military tools and underinvesting in diplomatic tools. The result is a lopsided foreign policy that antagonizes the rest of the world and is ineffective in tackling many modern problems.

It may be that members of Congress favor DoD funding over DoS funding because weapons of mass destruction offer more bang for their buck (sorry) than do weapons of mass persuasion.  Or it may be that Congress is simply not impressed by the results of the political appointees who currently lead the diplomatic corps.

We need to reassess not only funding levels for a depleted DoS, but also what skill sets are required for a new era of diplomats.   Women and men who work for our interests abroad must must be communicatively and culturally savvy, new media adept, and understand fully the idea that meanings are not in how messages are designed and repeated, but instead in how they are interpreted locally.  That would mean revamping the current “echo chamber” bureaucracy and bringing into DoS people who are actually trained as 21st century communicators.

That said, I’m not holding my breath for either Congressional approval of additional funding to hire diplomats, or for a new generation of communication savvy folks to don blue suits and go forward into our less than welcoming world. One reason is what diplomats are encouraged to read.  Last week, the American Foreign Service Association Summer Reading List was released to the press.  It is an impressive list for historians of diplomacy past, but does little to improve knowledge and skills necessary for diplomacy present and future.  Unless and until those whom we trust to communicate our image abroad and contribute to a more stable political world learn to read in the skill set they will actually use, their conversations may continue to be rich in political theories and the quotations of Winston Churchill, but inadequate to the task they have before them.

And meanwhile, the band plays on . . .