Memo to the Next President: Restoring Diplomacy (Part 1 of 2)
December 19, 2008
Author: Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics, Harvard Kennedy School
In this exclusive web video, Nicholas Burns, Harvard Kennedy School Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics and former under secretary of State for Political Affairs (2005 to 2008), outlines steps the Obama administration should take to improve U.S. diplomacy.
For more videos, visit the Belfer Center YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/belfercenter.
Question: In a recent op-ed in Newsweek (Oct. 25, 2008), you wrote the U.S. must talk to our enemies, like Iran and Venezuela. Yet you also wrote that this is not a sure prescription for success in every crisis. When is talking to our enemies in our best interest and when should President-elect Obama pursue other options?
Answer: Well first I think it's important that American recognize that we are still the dominant world power. We play a decisive role in world affairs. We have a major impact in our military, our political, and our economic policy around the world. And because we're a global power, we need to smart about understanding what's going on in the rest of the world. And understanding, even what's going on especially in countries with which we have difficulties, such as North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. So I think the Hallmark of a strong, self-confident country is that we're willing to sit down and talk to governments with which we might disagree, not out of weakness, not out of kindness, because it's in our national interest to understand them, to understand what motivates them, and to understand what lies behind the policies with which we disagree. We'll choose the time and place, as President-elect Obama has said, as to when we sit down with them and where. We'll choose the opportunity. But to give you some examples, when we began to talk to North Korea, it was then we began to make progress in the Six-Party Talks. When we began to have a bilateral relationship with them, we made the most progress. We had frozen our relations with Libya for quite a number of years. When we opened up to Libya, we were able to convince the Libyans to essentially to dismantle their nuclear apparatus and the illegal activities in which they had been engaged. The problem with Iran policy is that we haven't had for essentially three decades now, since the Ayatollah Khomenei's revolution of 1978, any meaningful and sustained contacts with the Iranian government. You can make the argument that Iran is the biggest problem that we have in the Middle East as a state trying to become a nuclear weapons power, that is funding most of the terrorist groups, and that is essentially a state that has lead to instability in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So I think it makes sense to sit down with them – not at the presidential level, but certainly at a level one or two below that – to get a sense of what's motivating them, to see if there's a bottom line with which we can work. We always have the option of walking away. We always have the option in Iran of sanctioning them. We always have the option of using any of the means at our disposal to achieve a national purpose that we have in mind. But talking to other countries makes sense as a way to understand their motivations and to best represent the interests of our own country.
Question: In your op-ed you also discuss the need for the U.S. to revalidate diplomacy. What steps should President-elect Obama take to do that?
Answer: Well I think that it's important to understand that the United States has many strengths in the world. We have a very powerful and high-quality military. We have a very capable intelligence community. And we have our diplomacy. There are three legs to the national security strength of the United States. We have consistently funded and supported, as we should have, the intelligence and military arms of the government since the end of the Cold War. But we have not done so with diplomacy. Diplomacy has been underfunded in terms of the money going to the State Department and certainly to USAID for foreign assistance around the world. We also don't have the capacity in terms of the people and the trained people in the State Department that we need. It's a curious fact that we have just about 6,500 American diplomats worldwide, but that's exceeded by the number of lawyers in the Defense Department and by the number of musicians in the Armed Forces bands of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Not a good standard if you're trying to become the strongest diplomatic country in the world, which we should want to be. So I do think President-elect Obama has an opportunity in front of him to ask the Congress to significantly expand the number of diplomats in the American foreign service, the number of people working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, to think about further increases in our international humanitarian and economic assistance as a country so that we can project more powerfully the so called smart power or soft power of the United States. So that we can be as strong on the diplomatic side as we are on the military and intelligence side. If you think about our foreign policy and think about the day-to-day activities that we conduct on the part of our government with governments all over the world, the vast majority of the activities, the vast majority of the conversations are diplomatic in nature. And so we need to have a better platform for that. We need to give the people in the State Department the tools with which they need to do their job. And I think given what President-elect Obama said on the campaign trail, hopefully he will undertake this sort of aggressive rebuilding of our diplomatic apparatus in the year ahead.
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