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July 02, 2008

Great Parliamentarians Think Alike
Posted by David Shorr

When two key American and British progressive political leaders offer forward-looking ideas on today's urgent diplomatic challenges, it's probably worth taking note. As regular DA readers already know, I think one of the most resonant ways to talk about the failures of recent policy is to focus on US out-of-touchness with the rest of the world. Now, along come Jim Murphy, MP -- UK Minister for Europe, who blogs -- and Sen. Russ Feingold with excellent points about the importance of diplomacy that really clues into local realities elsewhere around teh globe (hat tip to Washington Note's Sameer Lalwani for a substantive post on Feingold's recent New America Foundation speech).

Murphy held a call with a group of bloggers ahead of a forthcoming US tour to discuss his new book, Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalized World. Some of you in Washington might be interested in his event on Capitol Hill next Thursday evening July 10, together with Reps. John Boozman and Donald Payne (details available from the British Embassy). The minister not only stressed the key point that public diplomacy shouldn't be a matter of "just shouting your message more loudly," but described what it will take to be more effective in the 21st century. He said that it's perhaps more important to change our perception of others than their perception of us. In addition to the transmission of diplomatic messages, much focus needs to be placed on establishing the right terms and agenda for issues. He also emphasized the need to diversify the lines of communication and ensure that governments are supportive of the efforts that properly take place outside of government. And Murphy stressed the need to gain a solid grasp of the history and sensitivities an issue has for another country, ultimately seeking to understand how the world looks from the other side. Probably we shouldn't need to be reminded of such basics, but they do seem like too rules of thumb for a networked world.

Sameer is right that the the essence of the matter is listening, but I want to applaud the Feingold speech on Confronting Foreign Intelligence and Information Gaps for some points we don't hear very much. There's been a lot of focus recently on the weak state of our civilian international affairs agencies, but Feingold goes to the heart of the matter. Start with his highlighting that diplomatic reporting and open source information is just as important as classified intelligence, which he describes as "the channels through which our government learns about the world." He also presents the big strategic picture for what the US needs to be concerned about and know about. But most important, Sen. Feingold stresses that it will take budgetary and human resources to fix this problem.

And here is my litmus test for when we will really be taking this stuff seriously: when we start discussing the investment of resources commensurate with the scale of this problem. Kudos to Feingold for pointing out that the recent initiative to increase the foreign service officer corps by 1,000 has been consumed just by the needs associated with Iraq and Afghanistan. Of all the factoids comparing the number of FSOs to military musicians, I have a new favorite. Secretary Rice tells us that there are nearly 200 cities of over a million people in which the US has no diplomatic presence (acutally, her Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy put out some good reports). Stay tuned for more info on a joint Stanley Foundation - Center for a New American Security project I'm working on.


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