America’s foreign policy skills crumbling, says leading diplomat

Ronald E. Neumann

“Diplomats without language skills are like soldiers without bullets.”

Ronald E. Neumann

So says Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a man with a long career in foreign service, describing just one symptom of the sorry state of affairs that has resulted from the U.S. government’s long neglect of the country’s diplomatic corps and foreign policy apparatus.

Neumann speaks tonight in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall, an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council. His main message, he told me, will be that the U.S. has let its diplomatic talent base and clout crumble for many years and that further cuts will only endanger us — and probably cost us much more in the long run.

In a study done a few years ago by his organization, Neumann and his colleagues found that nearly a third of all diplomats the U.S. had posted overseas lacked the language skills needed to converse in that country.

Imagine a diplomat in Egypt who doesn’t speak Arabic. Hmmm … maybe that explains why the Arab revolt in Egypt and throughout the Middle East blindsided even our political top brass?

“Diplomacy is part of national security,” Neumann said. “Over the last few years, we had started to try to rebuild what we have lost but now, because of the pressure for budget cuts, we are about to abort that.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), he said, has lost its ability to do much more than write checks because of the lack of manpower to exercise administrative oversight. Under the new administration and USAID director Rajiv Shah, Neumann said, they had been making moves to beef up staffing and improve oversight. But now, the political whim of Congress is instead looking to dismantle the little progress had been made.

I asked Neumann what he thinks about the risk of mixing up politics and humanitarian aid. I posted a link to two thoughtful views on this yesterday and have written about it before, several times over the last few months due to the Obama Administration pushing what it calls “smart aid.” Not everyone is sure it’s that smart to mix up our politics with humanitarian aid.

Neumann thinks they are inseparable. The reality, he said, is that we will always want to serve our national interests through foreign aid and that arguing to separate foreign policy from foreign aid is “pure” but impractical.

I also asked him what he thought about the Wikileaks revelations‘ impact on diplomacy and foreign policy.

“I think it’s been hugely damaging but most people have only focused on the short-term damage. More important, I think, is the long-term damage that most of us won’t even see.”

By that, Neumann meant much of the diplomatic discussions will now be done much less publicly and many of the discussions we should be having with our friends — and our not-so-friendly relations — just won’t happen.

You can ask Neumann your own questions tonight, for $10 if you’re a WAC member and $15 if you’re not.


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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.