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Reforming US diplomacy

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The United States foreign affairs process - especially the State Department - has again been examined and found wanting. Two prominent Washington think-tank panels, which included four former secretaries of state, issued reports last month: "Equipped for the Future," by the Henry L. Stimson Center and "Reinventing Diplomacy in the Information Age," from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The emphasis in both is on the new world conditions in which diplomacy is conducted. Issues not traditionally part of classic diplomacy such as the environment, health, narcotics, crime, and population are increasingly important. These issues, involving non-foreign affairs agencies and often requiring special skills, demand more effective foreign policy coordination and more openness to the scientific and technical talents needed.

Much emphasis is placed on the dramatic changes wrought by the information revolution. The problem is especially grave because the Internet and e-mail have made international relations far more public, often bypassing traditional diplomacy. The State Department is urged to drop its culture of secrecy, become more open in its deliberations, and do more public outreach.

Conclusions stress improving government communications with non-state actors - international business, banks, and nongovernmental organizations.

With economics and finance ever more significant diplomatic issues, the panels suggest lowering traditional barriers between political and economic functions in the foreign service. The CSIS urges a move away from hierarchical structures in foreign affairs, while somewhat paradoxically calling for continued discipline in the process.

The conclusions of the panels are valid, but as is the case with such reports, obstacles to implementation remain formidable. Greater coordination encounters bureaucratic inertia. Take the embassy in Mexico City: 35 US agencies are represented, each with its separate budgets, personnel systems, congressional mandates, and the human desire to protect turf.


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