WASHINGTON — They are the proud, the few and the unarmed. They dodge bullets in the mountains of Afghanistan and brave the deserts of Iraq. They serve as America’s face to the world, from violence-ridden Mexico to the financial hubs of Asia to the capitals of Europe. They promote American business and protect American citizens abroad. They are the men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service.
On Memorial Day, we rightly pause to remember those who serve our nation in military uniform. But we should also recognize the more than 12,000 members of the American diplomatic corps who serve in Washington and in 271 missions across the globe.
“They are the ones out there on the front lines trying to advocate and explain [American] policies, regardless of which administration they are serving,” said Karen Hughes, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy under President George W. Bush.
She praised the Foreign Service as “a very dedicated group of public servants” who “work and make sacrifices around the world in some very difficult assignments.”
You may think of diplomats as tuxedo-wearing statesmen sipping cocktails at summits in Switzerland, but American diplomats are deployed in places like war-torn Africa and Afghanistan, where they often face the same dangers as members of the military. One diplomat I spoke to said he has been shot at five times in the line of duty.
Yet, even as America’s engagement with the world is growing more crucial, budget hawks are circling over the State Department. Speaking to the National Conference of Editorial Writers this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned, “There’s a huge gap between perception and reality … and people think that we can balance our budget on the back of our foreign operations.”
The continuing resolution passed to fund the government cut $8 billion for the State Department and USAID — while increasing the Defense Department’s budget by $5 billion. The demands on the State Department are growing, but the budget isn’t. “It is so out of whack with what we have to be doing,” Clinton lamented.
Part of the problem is that many Americans misunderstand diplomats’ role. Diplomacy isn’t about throwing money at the world. Yes, foreign aid — which accounts for only about 1 percent of the total federal budget — is a useful diplomatic tool. But too often diplomacy is dismissed as wasteful global charity or useless hemmin’ and hawin’ at the United Nations. Whether working to secure access to natural resources (like oil), leading reconstruction in Afghanistan or screening hundreds of thousands of visa applicants, diplomats are producing concrete results. They are the facilitators of globalization.
In an interconnected world, diplomacy is becoming ever more relevant to the daily lives of Americans, especially when it comes to the economy. Diplomats pave the way for American businesses to make profits at home by expanding overseas.
“If companies want to grow, if we want to grow our GDP, if we want to be competitive on a global basis in the 21st century, people really have to step up to export and export more, because that’s where the growth opportunities are,” said Lorraine Hariton, U.S. Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs.
Texas definitely enjoys the dividends of diplomacy. According to the latest figures from the International Trade Administration and Bureau of the Census, in 2009 the Dallas-Fort Worth area exported $19.9 billion worth of merchandise. And because of the Open Skies agreements liberalizing international air travel,Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport will see “billions of dollars in new business,” Clinton said this month.
Members of the Foreign Service play a crucial role in making that kind of lucrative international agreement possible, part of a government-wide campaign to help American businesses increase exports.
“We need to set up partnerships and relationships all around the world so we can understand the market needs in Kenya as well as the market needs in Fort Worth,” Hariton said.
Indeed, to maintain America’s global competitiveness and to capitalize on the opportunities globalization creates, we need a well-funded diplomatic corps.
“Diplomacy used to be thought of as the quiet, behind-the-scenes, government-to-government communications,” Hughes told me.
It’s now so much more than that. “In order for America to enact the kinds of policies we want to enact around the world,” Hughes explained, “we have got to build a public case for those policies, for our values and for our interests.”
Our diplomats are out in the trenches doing just that, often at great personal danger — remember the Iranian hostage crisis? Foreign Service officers have also been the targets of drug violence, insurgent attacks and kidnappings. Yet they man their posts, safeguarding American interests and protecting U.S. citizens overseas.
This weekend, as we salute our military, we also owe a tribute to America’s diplomats, many of whom are in conflict zones riding in the same Humvees as the troops. The only difference is that they can’t shoot back.
*Clayton M. McCleskey is a contributing writer for The Dallas Morning News based in Washington. His email address is email@example.com.*