Noting that more than 25 million of our fellow citizens traveled overseas last year (not counting trips to Canada and Mexico), the Washington Post's Robert G. Kaiser wrote last week that "Americans no longer behave like isolated provincials." That's the good news.
But the bad news is that despite increasing U.S. involvement around the world, Congress and the Clinton administration continue to attempt to conduct diplomacy on the cheap. Kaiser put it this way: "At the very time the country seems to have joined the wider world, the U.S. government's participation in international activities - apart from reactive military interventions - is diminishing. The official institutions that might facilitate Americans' burgeoning worldliness ... are limping along under a heavy burden of neglect."
The federal government's spending for non-military activities abroad this year will be about $21 billion, slightly more than one percent of the federal budget. Twenty years ago that figure, adjusted for inflation, was more than $25 billion, or 20 percent higher. Kaiser wrote that although Secretary of State Madeleine Albright occasionally complains about her department's tight budget, her influence is diminishing and "no other official makes an issue of it."
Last year the Overseas Presence Advisory Panel, a high-powered group of businessmen, past and present government officials, and executives of non-governmental organizations, concluded that "our overseas presence is perilously close to the point of system failure," which threatens "to cripple our nation's overseas capability with far-reaching consequences for national security and prosperity." The panel's report was met with widespread indifference on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
Based on my own 28-year U.S. Foreign Service career, I'd have to say that official Washington's non-reaction to this troubling report represents business as usual. No one pays much attention to international issues until a crisis erupts somewhere in the world - in Haiti or Kosovo, for example - and then we send in the troops even though timely diplomacy might have prevented the military action. In many cases, skilled diplomacy represents the preferable middle ground between doing nothing and military intervention.
"The demoralized Foreign Service now has more than 400 unfilled positions around the world," Kaiser wrote. "Budget cuts have forced the State Department to close dozens of overseas posts (and) American participation in many international institutions is grudging and tightfisted." It sounds as if I got out just in time.
"We're domestically oriented," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He lamented that congressional critics of global engagement are willing to spend money on military bases that the Pentagon doesn't want, but won't support more spending for U.S. embassies around the world.
The most revealing fact is that the CIA and Defense Department budgets are doing just fine, thank you, indicating that Congress prefers using spies and soldiers to deal with international problems that should be resolved by experienced diplomats. If we had our priorities straight, the budgets would be reversed.
The current situation is so critical that the diplomats' professional organization, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), is vigorously defending a modest 2 percent increase in the foreign affairs budget request for fiscal 2001. Writing in the Foreign Service Journal, AFSA Legislative Director Ken Nakamura said the administration has requested $22.75 billion for foreign affairs and an additional $1.65 billion for Colombia, Kosovo, southeastern Europe and debt reduction for poverty-stricken Third World countries.
Within the State Department budget, the administration increased its request for embassy security from $568 million to slightly more than$1 billion, still far short of what a blue ribbon commission recommended after two of our embassies were bombed in Africa, killing 12 American diplomats and 190 Africans.
"Combined with the $800 million shortfall last year, we will be almost one year behind schedule in improving embassy security by the end of fiscal 2001," Nakamura warned. So while anti-narcotics aid for Colombia increases more than seven-fold, American diplomats' lives are placed at risk in our overseas embassies. But that's life in the Foreign Service; no one gives a damn until something blows up. Sad but true.
Although he welcomed the overall budget request increases, Nakamura said the State Department budget is "still insufficient for the expanded needs and mission of diplomacy .... There is a real cost to be paid when we lack in diplomatic readiness." The Washington Post's Robert Kaiser was less diplomatic. "America's leaders can't agree on a world role, but they can agree to squeeze the people and institutions that represent America internationally," he wrote. "It's now an established pattern. It looks dumb now, and it will look a lot dumber later." Amen!
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.