A proposed increase in diplomats is an important step toward greater 'soft power.'
They must be pinching themselves at the State Department. Can it be that the White House wants one of the largest increases ever in the diplomatic corps? The request, revealed in the president's budget this week, shows Washington awakening to the compelling need for greater "soft power."
The condition of America's diplomatic service is not just shameful, but harmful. When even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the chief of "hard power," warns consistently about America's atrophied muscle, the risk to US national security must be serious.
Many embassies are staffed at only 70 percent. A new foreign service officer might arrive in Nigeria (Africa's most populous country) with nothing more than one morning of training at the Foreign Service Institute and no predecessor to help the transition.
Meeting the threats of the post-cold-war era – of weak governments, Islamist jihad, and destabilizing forces such as global warming and energy insecurity – is not just a matter of guns. It also requires the US to engage with the world, communicate (and listen), and provide nonmilitary assistance.
This is tough to do when its foreign service is so stretched it can't spare people to train for a new era.
In the proposed budget for fiscal year 2009, the White House is requesting 1,076 more diplomatic personnel. About 200 are to enhance security, but the rest will free up people to learn tough languages such as Arabic and Chinese, allow foreign service officers to study at US military colleges so they can better work with the armed forces, dedicate a small cadre of diplomats to military command posts, and build a corps of 350 experts who can assist in postconflict zones.