State Department Succeeds Despite Money Problems

John Kerry

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks to members of the Association of Opinion Journalists.

The U.S. State Department recently held a briefing for about 20 opinion journalists from around the country. Some of America’s top diplomats shared insights into events going on around the world. Perhaps the most important lesson, though, was domestic.

The Association of Opinion Journalists organized the meeting. (Full disclosure: I serve on AOJ’s board of directors.) The writers and broadcasters were privy to detailed information about foreign affairs from people who serve on the diplomatic front lines.

They were mostly upbeat, as might be expected when agency leaders talk to media. From South America to Africa to Asia, they described foreign policy successes that began under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and continue under John Kerry, her successor.

Alex Thier, assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs of the U.S. Agency for International Development, described an Afghanistan that was unimaginable when America was bogged down in a misguided invasion a decade ago.

A generation of Afghans attended university and have access to cell phones and other technology. They live in a modern world, even if their country is not fully modernized.

“They form a very strong bulwark against the negative forces that have potential still to undermine the progress,” Thier said. The more young people have tasted a freer society, the harder will be to slide back into tyranny.

Under the Taliban, the lucky few who did attend school were almost all male. Today, 200,000 women have been through high school or university. They now serve in the government, are entrepreneurs and work with Western organizations to help the next generation. Kabul even hosted an all-female rock and rap music festival recently.

The Obama administration plans to invest $300 million more over five years to help ensure Afghanistan does not backslide on women’s gains.

Officials at the briefing offered similar stories from around the world. Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Pelletier of the Bureau of African Affairs described a rapidly advancing continent. Africa holds seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies, and half of the nations have embraced democratic, multiparty systems, albeit to varying degrees. As a result, coups are becoming less common.

Acting Assistant Secretary Joseph Yun of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs talked about cyber-security and China. Secretary Kerry recently visited China and worked out an agreement to establish a cyber-security working group. That is not a complete solution, but it is a necessary first step to develop communications channels and avenues for dispute resolution.

Not everything rosy was verifiable. Kerry, who was the opening speaker, offered a doozey when he claimed that America has interrupted many plots from abroad that the American people do not know about. Maybe that’s true, but it’s always easy to brag about something you don’t have to prove.

He said other interesting things anyway. For example, every president and Secretary of State should frame his comment, “You cannot protect America with SEAL teams and deployments and drones alone.” Diplomacy, investment and engagement are the tools that protect Americans without ever firing a bullet. The benefits of foreign engagement are often subtle, and drawing a line between stable foreign markets and local economic growth is difficult.

One theme weaved through each speaker’s comments. America does not spend enough on foreign aid and diplomacy. Several of them pointed out that funding for non-defense foreign engagement is only about 1 percent of the federal budget. We, as a nation, invest a paltry sum on the assistance and programs that have the potential to create allies rather than defeated nations.

Proof of just how tight money is at State came from a professional staffer, not a diplomat. In advance of the gathering, the staffer told us we’d have Wi-Fi, and, “It’ll be great if [you] want to actively tweet, blog, etc., during the day, which will help us with the budget justification folks when we request the service again next year.”

State should not have to worry about justifying the cost of slapping down a router and hooking it into the department Internet pipe. It’s negligible.

If the department is worried about that, imagine the far more valuable international investments not happening in this era of federal budget austerity.

I tweeted a bunch using their Wi-Fi. I hope it helps.

The Broad Side’s newest contributor Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance, pursues a couple of book projects and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

Photo by U.S. State Department/with permission

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