Global super-pauper

November 12, 1996|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Earlier this year, I heard a group of Japanese officials and businessmen swapping tales about American diplomats in Asia. Their stories weren't about American statecraft; they were about U.S. diplomacy going broke -- literally.

The U.S. Embassy in steamy Hanoi had to turn off its air conditioning because the Americans didn't have enough money to pay the bill. U.S. diplomats in pricey Tokyo were having trouble making their rents, because the State Department lacked the cash to pay cost-of-living adjustments.

Listening to this kind of stuff is downright embarrassing. But anyone mixing with diplomats or businessmen abroad hears similar stories -- or worse.

America's foreign-affairs budget -- the money that goes for our diplomatic corps, foreign aid, and payments to international organizations -- has been cut so much that U.S. interests are threatened.

Since 1984, the budget has dropped by more than half, in real terms, to about 1 percent of the federal budget. This is less than any other industrialized country.

The impact on our eyes and ears abroad -- America's diplomats -- is shameful.

State Department funding remains at 1991 levels, even though Washington has had to open and staff 19 new embassies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Instead of adding staff, the department has cut 2,000 persons since 1993. Embassy buildings are poorly maintained.

At home, State Department headquarters still uses 1970s-era computer systems, which can't send e-mail. The computer situation got so desperate that the U.S. intelligence community donated $2 million to upgrade the department's intelligence and research computers so the staff could access databases.

This penny-wise, pound-foolish policy raises questions among friends and potential enemies about whether America wants to stay engaged in the world. Asians and Europeans are uncertain whether America will continue to maintain troops in their regions. They conclude that America is turning inward when U.S. missions close or cut back functions.

They also draw conclusions when the State Department has to act like a beggar. With the foreign-affairs budget stretched so tightly, the department has no contingency fund for crises. When the unexpected happens, money must be snatched from other crucial programs or America must hold out a tin cup. Some examples:

America negotiated a deal whereby North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear-weapons program in return for funding for a light-water reactor. Japan and South Korea were to put up most of the money, but Washington committed $200 million. Then, it couldn't come up with the cash from the foreign-affairs budget, and had to ask Japan to advance it.

A little help from friends

America negotiated the Dayton agreement ending the fighting in Bosnia, and took on the responsibility of training Bosnian troops. But the State Department couldn't come up with the tens of millions of dollars required for the training and had to ask Saudi Arabia to front the money.

Cartoons of Uncle Sam as a pauper have become a staple for foreign cartoonists. A pauperized foreign service also hurts American business. Unlike the Japanese, who are opening new foreign consulates wherever they can promote Japanese exports, America has closed more than two dozen foreign consulates around the world that help U.S. businessmen.

Nor do U.S. diplomats have the budget to help Americans traveling abroad the way they used to. In Mexico, American consuls have stopped conducting their quarterly visits (by bus) to U.S. citizens held in local Mexican jails, often on minor drug charges. The reason: The consular corps can no longer afford the bus tickets.

Despite all this, some budget cutters in Congress want to slash the foreign-affairs budget in half again by 2002. It's easy for isolationists and budget hawks to dump on diplomats. Foreign service officers don't have a local constituency.

The State Department's biggest adversary, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., seems to think our foreign emissaries live like pashas, and can be replaced by technology. Who needs consulates abroad, the argument goes, when CNN and sitcoms can promote our culture and wares to foreigners over the airwaves? And who needs diplomats, when we have spy satellites?

The truth is, America's diplomatic presence abroad has rarely been so important. No more is American foreign policy neatly defined by the rules of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are no more rules.

In this new opaque world, America needs skillful diplomats to ferret out the future threats or opportunities that are emerging in ex-communist, fundamentalist, or even friendly countries. Satellites alone can't do the job.

Instead, many of the best and brightest diplomats are opting out of the foreign service because opportunities and budgets, are shrinking, while the workload doubles. This creates a tremendous dichotomy between America's diplomatic needs and the money available to our diplomatic service.

Ambassador Craig Johnstone, the director for resources, plans and policies at the State Department, points to the absurdity of destroying the diplomatic infrastructure that America will need in years ahead. By starving the State Department, he says, ''We are coasting on the past, but undermining what we can do in the future.'' Only a saner policy for funding American diplomacy can reverse this disastrous course.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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