ABOUT 100 SEASONED State Department officials recently got perhaps the nastiest shock of their professional lives. Headed for long-awaited cushy assignments in the fleshpots of Europe, they were suddenly reassigned to such developing countries as Kenya and Pakistan. The word is that another 500 officials scheduled for moves later this year will get the same news.
However frustrating these orders are for Foreign Service veterans looking forward to restful years in Paris and Rome, the transfers signify an important and long-needed transformation of U.S. foreign policy.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear in a speech this month at Georgetown University, the world has changed, and the State Department needs to change with it. The United States, Rice pointed out, has as many diplomats in Germany -- population 80 million -- as it does in India -- population 1 billion-plus. In China, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Brazil, there are cities with millions of inhabitants -- and few U.S. diplomats have set foot in them or even gone near them. Across Africa, Asia and the Muslim Middle East, there are failed and failing states in which terror organizations are springing up, global pandemics are brewing and from which, increasingly, the United States' new immigrants are coming.
Yet until recently, U.S. foreign policy was mostly about Europe. The confrontation between Washington and Moscow over the future of Europe was the main preoccupation of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.
Everything changed on 9/11. Danger and opportunity now lie outside Europe. Short term, U.S. foreign policy is centered on the Middle East. Longer term, East and South Asia will probably shape the new century's agenda. When Rice calls on the State Department to move its personnel out of Europe and into the new frontiers of world politics, it is one part of a larger and more historic shift -- U.S. foreign policy is now non-Eurocentric. But there's more to it than geography. Rice wants the State Department to practice a new type of diplomacy.
In the old days, striped-pants cookie pushers -- as U.S. diplomats were sometimes derisively known -- focused on governments and elites. There was no need to learn such languages as Urdu, Farsi and Arabic because English was the language of high places. Why bother speaking to common people?
Yet the old style of diplomacy no longer works. Television and the Internet are creating new and sophisticated channels of communication around the world. Democracy is shifting power from the suites to the streets. Accordingly, U.S. diplomats must learn how to engage the large majorities in most countries who don't speak English, who have never attended a foreign university and who get their information about the United States from Hollywood movies and their local media. I noticed this on a recent trip to India. English is one of India's official languages, and an estimated 150 million Indians speak it. But the more important number is the estimated 900 million who don't. These people vote, and unless U.S. diplomats connect with them and give interviews in the proliferating native-language electronic media -- a 24-hour all-news, all-Bengali channel is starting up this year in the communist-ruled state of West Bengal -- our ability to work with the Indian government will be limited.
At an Islamic high school I visited, students wanted to know if Americans lived like the characters they see in movies. They were surprised to hear that Hollywood movies and American life are no closer than Bollywood movies and Indian life. Indians don't break into singing and dancing every time they have an emotional moment, and Americans don't fire guns whenever we disagree. The students didn't know that opinion polls consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that God exists and will judge our souls, that religion is important or very important to most Americans and that 67% of us pray every day.
Part of the problem is that U.S. diplomats spend so much time locked in embassies and consulates that are blocked off and guarded. Sad experience shows they need protection. More than 200 people were killed in 1998 when terrorists attacked U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. But that can't be the end of the story. Especially in developing countries, the United States needs a bigger diplomatic presence outside embassies. When Rice calls for a greater emphasis on public diplomacy and on outreach, this is part of what she is talking about.
Much of President Bush's foreign policy is controversial. But even in a time of polarization and partisanship, Rice's effort to make the State Department less Eurocentric, and her advocacy of broader public diplomacy in a democratizing world, should not be seen as either conservative or liberal, Republican or Democratic. Those who disagree with everything else in the Bush foreign policy can and should support this piece of it.