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The risks of proactive US diplomacy

US foreign service officers should encourage elections, not shape them.

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Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice wants the United States to move into what she calls "transformational diplomacy."

This, she says, "is rooted in partnership, not paternalism - in doing things with other people, not for them. We seek to use America's diplomatic power to help foreign citizens better their own lives, and to build their own nations, and to transform their own futures." [Emphasis in original State Department report.]

The secretary proposes to do this through organizational changes. First, she is going to redeploy the foreign service so that more serve in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa and fewer in Europe and the United States. Of those redeployed, more will be in one-person posts in large cities where there is now no American diplomatic presence. Second, she is increasing the State Department's control of the foreign aid program by giving the USAID administrator another hat as a deputy secretary of State, that is, second only to the secretary.

On the surface, these moves appear to be no more than reshuffling bureaucratic boxes on organization charts; but taken together, to the extent they are implemented, they will have a profound effect on the involvement of the US in the rest of the world. This is the objective of transformational diplomacy.

There are good reasons to beef up US representation in the third world, especially in the behemoths of China and India where economic growth is creating more business and consequently more problems for the US. But if we establish one-person outposts as satellites of embassies, what does that one person do for support? He can rent space; he can hire a local secretary; but unless he acts as his own code clerk, all his messages to and from Washington, as well as his embassy, might as well be public. And what about security? No wonder the secretary said that these missions would be dangerous.

The State Department says these outpost officers will move "from reporting outcomes to shaping them." That is the point at which the US moves from diplomacy to intervention. There was a time 50 years ago when this scenario would have been assigned to the covert action officers of the CIA who successfully shaped events in France, Iran, Italy, and Guatemala, among other places. There was nothing wrong with this so long as we recognized it was part of the cold war and didn't talk about it. When it got to be dangerous was when we bragged about spreading democracy. In some places (France, Italy) we preserved democracy. In others (Iran, Guatemala) we kept communists at bay, or thought we did.

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