IN his recent speech before the United Nations, President Bush advocated an overhaul of the US Agency for International Development (AID), yet did not address a more immediate task - revamping the US Foreign Service. Despite the end of the cold war, America's State Department officers have been permitted to languish in the past.
As a product of the old Eastern establishment that has traditionally constituted the Foreign Service, George Bush perhaps has not realized that our diplomatic corps needs a new set of marching orders. Given the fierce economic competition, this elite structure cannot continue operating as it has for the last 50 years.
Today, US embassies throughout the world do little to aid American businesses in entering new markets or expanding their share of existing trade. A dramatic illustration of this is the staffing at missions abroad. In nearly all the countries of the former Eastern bloc, the Bush administration has assigned only one individual to assist US companies. That's one commercial officer for an entire country. In the case of Russia, that equals one person for a market of 150 million people.
Other countries, such as Germany and Japan, employ many more individuals abroad to assist their companies in developing new markets.
In practice, a single commercial officer in a given country cannot help more than a minuscule number of American companies. Today the State and Commerce Departments maintain separate services that station individuals abroad. Despite the end of the cold war neither has been altered, restaffed, or redeployed to promote American businesses. Expanded foreign trade means jobs at home, yet the facts show that currently nothing tangible is being done with government personnel to promote US exports.
Four key elements are required for the Foreign Service to lead a resurgent US business community into the next century.
1. A new vision. The underlying vision of the US Foreign Service must change to place US business interests on an equal footing with American diplomatic objectives. Leadership at the top, from the president to the secretaries of State and Commerce, must promulgate a vision for a new economic mission abroad.
2. Redeploying personnel. A ratio of 20 or 30 political or clerical personnel to every one commercial officer at US embassies must be rectified and brought into line with the realities of the global marketplace. With the end of the cold war, no reason exists why numerous individuals in the State, Defense, and Commerce departments cannot be redeployed to assist US companies overseas. Few jobs are created by bureaucrats sitting in Washington, but knowledgeable foreign and commercial service officers on the
ground in developing markets could do wonders.
3. Innovative training. In the past, training for Foreign Service officers has ignored commercial-oriented skills. The Foreign Service Institute must develop new programs emphasizing talents like export promotion, marketing, and advertising. Our officers overseas must be foot soldiers in the global battle for market share.
4. Longer and more logical assignments. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the US Foreign Service is poorly organized. Individuals trained in a foreign language will not necessarily be assigned to the country whose language they speak. Moreover, an officer who spends 18 months in a given country, moving toward language fluency and cultural integration, can be transferred to a different nation, where he or she will again start the long process of assimilation.
An individual who speaks German can be assigned to Brazil, while the person who spent a year in Brazil learning Portuguese is then sent to France. And the French speaker will in turn be assigned to Russia, and so on. US Foreign Service officers have been criticized for a low level of language fluency in their assigned countries. Given the current assignment pattern this is unsurprising (and not even their fault).
After World War II, America could do no wrong. We were the only major industrial power left standing. Those days are gone. We have entered a new age to which America's diplomatic corps must adapt. The mission and structure of the US Foreign Service is archaic. It's time for a change.