Monday, December 18, 2017
Perspective

St. Petersburg in the world

Pundits call the State Department many things, but "fudge factory" is a favorite — particularly for those who have toiled long hours there on the assembly line of U.S. foreign policy.

It's an arcane business that will be discussed and dissected at a series of panel discussions Thursday and Friday at USF St. Petersburg, open to the public and free. I figure that if I can lure some of the practitioners from the State Department and elsewhere in Washington to the Tampa Bay area, add in some academics who study the business and journalists who report on it — then we can shed some light on what is done essentially out of public view.

Lots of these foreign policy issues rarely grab the headlines. Someone has to think about negotiating a pipeline with the Canadians; writing human rights reports on every country in the world (except the United States, of course); or watching Russian diplomatic and military moves in territory they occupy in neighboring Georgia.

In every corner of the world a day does not pass that the secretary of state or another U.S. foreign policymaker's statements are not picked up, analyzed and interpreted for local audiences. Nor does a day pass that U.S. embassies around the world fail to send in thousands of reports on everything from ground nut harvests to the latest take on the health of an ailing head of state.

When the issues are do-or-die, foreign policy starts with the president, who has more power in dealing with friends and foes than he might on most internal issues. Congress can hold back the money as well as the president's nominees for high position; it can hold a hearing, or fail to ratify a treaty. But when it comes to dealing with the world, the president can pretty much call the shots. He has the bully pulpit and is without doubt the most powerful and recognized human being on Earth.

The president can be a hands-on commander of foreign policy — like Bush the Elder or Richard Nixon — or he can use his National Security Council to orchestrate and coordinate among many agencies. Although the fudge factory has pride of place, the Departments of Defense, Treasury, CIA and many others play strong supporting roles.

Little wonder that in our embassy in Paris, three dozen U.S. governmental agencies battle for their own office space. When I directed that embassy back in 2000, we spent inordinate amounts of time negotiating not with the French — a challenge any day of the week — but mediating among the alphabet soup of DEAs, DOJs, FAAs, FCSs and others within our walls.

Foreign affairs is frustrating — because it might appear you hold all the trump cards, even though that is rarely the case. Even more unnerving is the constant specter of the law of unintended consequences. Policy toward China, for example, is top of the heap today, because Beijing is the most critical new player that Washington will eventually need to befriend, or confront.

We watch carefully to see how they treat their neighbors; whether Taiwan is endangered; whether they will revalue their currency; or how they react when North Korea puts another missile in the sky. Add in their new commercial reach into Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and you can easily understand why Hillary Clinton — seeing the stranglehold China holds on our overdrawn checking account — asked rhetorically how you ask your banker to go fly a kite.

Foreign affairs is a process, and it is rare that problems disappear. They usually get worse, and less often, marginally better.

We fret daily about North Korea and its nuclear program, but there is a whole process here. Over many administrations, Washington has variously threatened, cajoled and attempted to reason with the North Koreans. An isolated authoritarian state with a small cadre of decisionmakers could easily decide in a frenzy of panic to do something really dumb — such as lob a bomb south to Seoul or east to Tokyo.

Before the most recent vote in the U.N. Security Council levying more sanctions on North Korea, many hundreds of what are called "demarches" were sent to American embassies around the world, calling on ambassadors to speak to the "highest appropriate" official to lay out the reasons why the United Nations should punish Pyongyang for its latest nuclear experiments.

Chances are the American ambassador in Beijing was very busy in the run-up to the vote, as was our representative in New York. Somewhere along the way, surely on a twisted path of messages across the Pacific — maybe even a call by Secretary John Kerry to his Chinese counterpart — the Chinese became convinced that a veto of the sanctions would place them in vary bad odor in the world.

Having made these pitches on everything from getting the Italians to accept duty-free Central American bananas (produced by Americans) into their supermarkets to cajoling NATO allies to send police trainers to the Balkans, I know this is a diplomat's stock in trade.

For some years now, diplomats have been warning that American foreign policy was becoming too militarized. If we like to get things done quickly, what could be better than throwing a few thousand of America's finest and lots of firepower at the problem?

It's still not clear to most policymakers how you deal with terrorist-friendly territory — like in Afghanistan or Somalia. Occupying and attempting to make over very foreign cultures is only successful over long periods of time. Not since the great European colonizations of the early 20th century has any state contemplated the building of nations into something resembling our own.

It was no coincidence that Colin Powell and his Iraq and Afghanistan experts at State and elsewhere in the government were muzzled when someone asked — as military action was being planned — whether our GIs would be welcomed with open arms as the purveyors of a new democratic vision. Their wise counsel — had it been solicited — might have saved some American lives down the road.

The diplomats who make foreign policy are not your classical "cookie pushers." They have to be politically savvy to deal with their own government as well as foreign counterparts. They need to know about military and trade and commercial questions that land on their plate. They are generally self-effacing, behind-the-scenes types who often are not acknowledged for their accomplishments.

And their real stock in trade — negotiation — is a messy business that is not always as satisfying as a good war, because you have to "give to get." In recent history, Dick Holbrooke was the consummate negotiator — placing unbearable pressure on Slobodan Milsosevic of Serbia and later pushing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistanis to get their houses in order.

When I worked for him back in the early '90s, I saw up close how his bombast, public showmanship and insistence delivered the goods.

Interestingly, there was little discussion in the presidential election campaigns about foreign policy. Mitt Romney took the Teddy Roosevelt "send big ships" approach in his comments, while President Barack Obama rolled out the Wilsonian line about how Washington is creating a better world for us to live in.

Although we might not have the communists around anymore to unite us against a "clear and present danger, " there are still lots of challenges lurking out there. When I was at NATO, I saw how difficult it was in the post-Cold War era to decide where to put our resources. In Bosnia after the war there, I sensed on a daily basis the sucking sound of military and diplomatic personnel being transferred to the Middle East, the next theater of confrontation with the new threat of terrorism.

Today, 9/11 seems distant and we fuss more about a troubled world economy than about building our defenses against those who wish us harm.

So if your interest has been piqued, come listen to our panelists expound, disagree and respond to your questions on a whole range of foreign policy issues — from Latin American post-Castro Cuba and post-Chavez, to dealing with energy sufficiency, to ensuring accurate international news reporting in the digital era. If you like fudge, we'll be dishing it.

After 34 years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Douglas McElhaney retired from the State Department in 2007, following three years as U.S. ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. He lives in St. Petersburg.

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