Why Diplomacy?

by Ronald E. Neumann
American Academy of Diplomacy

It’s essential to the successful pursuit of national security, foreign policy and economic goals.

Why should Americans pay for diplomacy… or care about a 28-percent cut in the State Department budget? The answer: because diplomacy is America’s first line of defense—of security for U.S. citizens and advancement of economic interests.

The Many Faces of Diplomats
When Ebola raged and threatened to touch off a pandemic that would have inevitably spread death to the United States, it was America’s diplomats in West African embassies who stayed at their posts to create the base into which multi-agency teams could deploy to staunch and finally end the crisis. When the Islamic State suddenly appeared in Mali, it was the diplomats on the ground who provided the knowledge to know the Islamists from other disaffected elements that could be brought back into a political framework to begin stabilizing the country with international military support.

It is diplomats who provide the political and economic insight essential to policy formulation in countries where people will express themselves frankly only face to face. This is work that cannot be done by email, phone or Facebook. These are places where U.S. journalists do not visit before a problem starts, and rarely have the deep background or language skills to understand what is happening once the crisis begins.

It is the diplomats who must strike the balance between the vetting to keep terrorists out, and letting in the flow of tourists and students who spend billions of dollars in America. And when things go bad, whether an earthquake in Haiti or the desperate need to evacuate U.S. citizens from Libya, it is the diplomats who are on hand to respond to frantic calls from home to find out what has happened to their loved ones or to safeguard survivors. When evacuation is required, it may be the military that provides the transport, but it is the diplomats who organize the evacuation and are the last to leave—if they leave at all. Often their work goes on.

When diplomacy fails and war comes, the diplomats often remain, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or other global hotspots, to put the pieces back together. They often work without military protection in countries from Nigeria to Tunisia, where terrorism must be confronted and friendly governments supported. This work is not always safe or genteel.

One hundred eighty-one diplomats have died abroad since the end of World War II, most the victims of violence. In my own career, I have been rocketed, mortared, threatened by assassination, had an embassy stormed by mobs, and narrowly missed a bomb in a restaurant where I was to have met a friendly foreign diplomat, himself working under the same conditions.

A Proud Tradition
Not all the work is dangerous. American Foreign Service Officers and their Foreign Service colleagues from the Department of Commerce advance economic interests. Sometimes this is a matter of introducing small or new-to-market U.S. firms to the country. Sometimes it is a long-term, concentrated effort by the whole embassy team, led by the ambassador, to secure a major contract for a U.S. firm. And sometimes it is the little-known work to negotiate product standards that keep markets open to American business. In broad terms, U.S. commercial work returns over $350 in sales for every dollar spent on our diplomats.

Economic assistance and development responds to disasters, human and natural, to relieve suffering, but also to mitigate conditions that might well spawn radicalism if left unaddressed. American aid rebuilt Europe and Japan, by resisting Communist intrusion, but also in rebuilding states that have become important trading partners. This was true in South Korea and in Thailand as well; nations once desperate for help are now major markets for American goods and services.

And diplomacy is cheap on a comparative basis within the national budget. Barely one percent of that budget goes to economic assistance. The total strength of Foreign Service Officers, America’s diplomats, is only 8,165—fewer than the total of those in military bands, and just a bit more than one full-strength Army brigade. They are deployed in 275 diplomatic posts around the world, providing security, knowledge and support for citizens and business.

It is a proud tradition that reaches all the way back to Benjamin Franklin negotiating for French support essential to America winning our freedom. Today, it is diplomacy that holds together NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan after 16 years of war—where more than 26 nations are fighting terrorism side by side with American troops. Diplomacy is also part of the reason over 60 nations are helping with the cost of economic projects. So the next time you wonder, “Why diplomacy?” perhaps this short article will provide some of the answers. It is a good question. And it has a good answer. iBi

Ronald E. Neumann served as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan (2005–2007), Bahrain (2001–2004) and Algeria (1994–1997).