The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The limits of our diplomatic capabilities

September 28, 2009

I am generally supportive of President Obama’s renewed emphasis on diplomacy. But, I also must admit to some skepticism about what, in the end, more “diplomacy” will be able to accomplish. For years, a core assumption of the critics (myself included) of the Bush administration and the neocons has been that contemporary diplomatic institutions and practices offer a more refined set of instruments to deal with the complexities of contemporary global challenges.

Maybe. But, then again, maybe not. Several recent studies and stories reveal significant problems with the institutions of American diplomacy. Particularly worrisome are the deficiencies in language skills and regional knowledge in both the U.S. diplomatic corps and the U.S. military.

Laura Rozen at The Cable has an early look at the new GAO report that finds dangerous shortfalls in language skills among Foreign Service officers. According to the report, foreign service officers failed to meet language proficiency in about a third of the 3,600 jobs requiring language proficiency.

In the warzones, the problem is much more pronounced. Thirty-three of 45 officers in language-designated positions in Afghanistan, or 73 percent, didn’t meet the requirement. In Iraq, 8 of 14 officers or 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Deficiencies in what GAO calls “supercritical” languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, were 39 percent.

Forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions, nor do 66 percent of officers in Dari positions, 50 percent in Urdu (two languages widely spoken in South Asia), or 38 percent in Farsi (which is mostly spoken in Iran).

NPR’s Morning Edition had a recent update on the shortfalls of the Obama administration’s “civilian surge” strategy in Afghanistan. Obama pledged to send 420 or so civilian experts. Thus far, fewer than a quarter of that number has been deployed.

The implications of these, and other, types of shortcomings for the practice of diplomacy are detailed in Carne Ross’s book, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. My review of Ross’s book is here. Ross was a British diplomat who volunteered for duty in Afghanistan in late 2001. He had no language skills and little regional knowledge and he was often confined to the security of the British embassy in Kabul. But for a variety of reasons he discusses in his book, that did not stop him from dutifully submitting his daily reports and “analysis” that supported the official British government’s narrative of progress in Afghanistan’s transition to democracy.

It’s tough to be an imperial power with such weak imperial administrative capabilities….

Update: Here’s a further illustration of the point coming out of Iraq. General Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill really don’t like each other and both claim that the other doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on in the country. From Thomas Ricks today:

What I am hearing is that Odierno is profoundly frustrated with Hill, who despite knowing almost nothing about Iraq has decided after a short time there that it is time to stand back and stop influencing the behavior of Iraqi officials on a daily basis. In addition, I am told, the ambassador believes the war is an Iraqi problem, not something that really concerns Americans anymore, despite the presence of 125,000 American soldiers. On the other hand, the diplomats respond, the military guys believe they have good relationships with Iraqi officials, but, the dips add, how would the soldiers really know? Because unlike Hill’s posse, they don’t speak Arabic. Which brings to mind my favorite saying of Warren Buffett, that if you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you don’t know who the patsy at the table is, you’re the patsy.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.