Monday, June 28, 2010

Musical Deck Chairs, or The Bureaucratic Shuffle

Drawing on his public diplomacy and State Department background, my colleague Joshua S. Fouts analyzes the bureaucratic implications of my "Pragmatic Overdose" essay on how the Obama administration is struggling to articulate a coherent global development policy. His comments are reposted from The Imagination Age.

From Evan's essay:
Security Should Not Define Development

Obama's advisors want to energize U.S. development policy by framing it in terms of American national security, calling development a "strategic imperative." This makes it sound important, but in reality it will backfire. The common wisdom is that poverty breeds instability. The problem is that scarce development dollars are not necessarily best spent in conflict zones. In fact, American development policy is hampered by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, which attract a disproportionate share of expertise and resources. These three countries are nowhere near the wealth threshold above which democracies tend to stabilize. They would be risky development investments even without conflict. The tradeoff is thus development projects where they might better flourish.
Evan's point is well-made. But it's an issue that will be challenging to the culture of the State Department, where I used to work. Development policy is closely related to cultural relations work (sometimes called public diplomacy) which suffers from a similar dilemma in these kinds of bureaucratic associations.
New Values, Not New Bureaucracy

As it stands, Obama's "New Way Forward" is more bureaucratic shuffle than fresh ethical vision—coordination between departments is necessary, but not sufficient. His team must dig deeper into the fault lines of American foreign policy and take advantage of a crucial chance to redefine America's global engagement.

We won't see a new way forward until the United States views other nations as equal peers in the quest to realize a good life, instead of treating them as instruments in pursuit of American national security or favorable trade. To achieve this, the State Department must stake out its own values—beneficial immigration flows, fair trade, and regional green energy innovation—instead of cutting turf from Defense and other departments.
Herein lies the dilemma. The State Department's "own values" are clouded by layers of historic turf wars fighting for the level of financial investment and support it needs to do its work. After decades of decreasing budgets relative to that of the Defense Department a culture of insecurity has been bred in the State Department. When I was there in the 1990s, the insecurity and desire to demonstrate relevance compared to the well-funded Defense Department was palpable.

The rhetoric hasn't changed much since I left in 1997, as I discovered last week when I was inducted as a Next Generation Fellow of The American Assembly. During round-table discussions about US cultural outreach efforts throughout the day with other fellows and observers, one participant, a public diplomacy foreign service officer, declared that we "should not have another discussion about bringing back the USIA." The dissolution of the USIA is a topic that gets brought up constantly during such discussions.

For readers who don't know, the USIA was the State Department's quasi-independent cultural outreach arm, which was dismantled in 1999 when Congress and the Clinton Administration decided (incorrectly, as the events of September 11, 2001 would soon prove) that we had won the war of global public opinion. The remaining parts of USIA that survived were folded into the new Public Diplomacy cone of the State Department.

Since then, the public diplomacy officers with successful careers are those who adopted the rhetoric quoted above. The logic is simple in an organization as bureaucratic as the State Department: Where you stand depends on where you sit.

The USIA, in theory, was a great agency, but the fact is that it always remained beholden to the State Department and was thus limited in its ability to influence perceptions of the United States. The debate about bringing back the USIA is a time consuming one during events aimed at enhancing cultural relations and, further, completely misses the point, namely that influence can no longer be imposed by rhetoric in the modern world. If an agency is created to address this need, the United States and global community would be far better served by a new method and approach.

Wouldn't it be more innovative, creative, productive, and, yes, more American, to champion investment in intercultural dialogue programs be they independent or governmental? The fact of the matter is, US government investment in cultural relations relative to defense is, at best, an afterthought. Worse, it is a joke, compared to the efforts of other countries. No US foreign service officer should be proudly defending the State Department from creating another USIA. They should be demanding increased funding for cultural relations by any means necessary.

Evan's essay is yet another reminder that bureaucracy does not change. I used to believe that the work of cultural relations and development were well-placed in the State Department. I now believe that we would be better served adopting the UK model by creating an independent cultural relations entity like the British Council. (Dancing Ink Productions is currently collaborating with the British Council on the development of a global creative space within the digital culture for real world cultural relations benefit.)

Based on an earlier report by retired foreign service office John Brown, it sounds like the Obama Administration agrees: Obama's Public Diplomacy Chief of Staff recently told Brown that people interested in doing applied cultural relations work should not look to the State Department for careers but should go to NGOs.

Encouraging passionate US citizens who are concerned about improving ties with other cultures to take their work elsewhere is entirely self defeating for the United States and will cripple us further in the global arena. The Obama Administration needs to support cultural relations financially as well. Government investment in fighting wars overseas should be considered just as important as preventing them by improving cultural understanding between people.

Sadly, there is no domestic constituency for cultural relations work in the US. So the likelihood of increased investment in this critical part of our interaction with the world will be left in the hands of others.


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