Understanding the value of exchanges… including inter-agency exchange with State

Pat Sharpe at Whirled View has a timely post on a small but telling example of the lack of real transformation at Foggy Bottom.

State Department people admit that they do a terrible job of lobbying Congress, and the general population is still obsessed with the old striped pants, cookie-pushing stereotype, which is correctly seen as irrelevant in todays world. As a result of this oversight and/or ineptness, the American diplomatic function is chronically starved for money and many posts abroad go unfilled because the budget cant absorb the cost of the needed personnel.

Sometimes I think the State Department takes a secret pride in this state of affairs, as if lobbying is just too crass and ordinary people aren’t worth communicating with. Yes, gestures are made. Speakers are sent out. Diplomats-in-residence are lodged at various universities. “Citizen diplomats” are recruited to entertain foreign visitors funded by the State Department. But all this is a drop in the bucket. So the habitual refusal/inability to engage perpetuates the snobby elitist image. A perfect feedback loop.

In a way, the building of expensive fortress embassies abroad, of which the monster nearly finished in Baghdad may stand as somewhat inflated symbol, mirrors this insular habit of mind: there’s us—and the rest of you. That was the State Department attitude even when American diplomats were allowed to mingle and roam freely in the countries to which they were posted. Many hardly ever left the embassy compound; even the reporting officers seemed to spend more time reading newspapers than getting a first hand look at what the journalists were writing about. Admittedly, I exaggerate—a little.

The self-righteous reliance on the supposedly self-evident persists, it seems. A little bird told me of a recent visit to the State Department by National Security Agency interns. The group was bused in from their Maryland campus, an hour’s trip each way. They spent three hours at State, including lunch. Even though some handlers shared lunch with the interns, which allowed the burgers and pizza to be flavored with a little information, the visit contained little more than two hours of substance. All the briefers (and handlers) were NSA people working at State. Their role was to tell their young colleagues about the NSA role at State.

In short, the NSA interns didn’t have a single briefing about State or a single briefing by a State Department officer. No one, evidently, thought it important that they learn something about the role of diplomacy in today’s complex world.

It’s possible that the State Department attempted to insert some diplomatic content into the program and was contemptuously rebuffed—and yet it’s hard to believe that NSA would have refused to permit its junior officers to be exposed to a couple of hours of briefing about State by State. Given State’s self-admitted failure to maintain effective liaison with its funders in Congress, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the powers that be in Foggy Bottom just couldn’t be bothered. IF I’m wrong, please let me know.

See also Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power