Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Paul D. Kretkowski of Beacon - a fine blog devoted to exploring the parameters of Joseph Nye's " soft power" concept - had a post today that touched on what would seem initially to be a small mattter; the recommended reading list of the State Department for prospective members of the Foreign Service. Mr. Kretkowski expressed bewilderment that the famous novel, The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, did not make the cut:

"The novel (really a collection of interconnected short stories) takes place around and immediately after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in 1954, an event that underlined the difficulty a Western army had in fighting what were then called the Viet Minh. In fictional Sarkhan, some American diplomats and businessmen win local hearts and minds with their can-do spirit and willingness to get their hands dirty, while others stay isolated at the embassy by language, casual racism or bureaucracy, ignorant of the country's growing Communist insurgency.

In other words, all the problems of U.S. diplomacy and soft power have been with us for decades, and potential solutions have been around for just as long.

...So who is reading it? Apparently it's a required text in the Army's special forces, which is no surprise because the book is practically a billboard for the Green Beret counterinsurgency model"

I took a look at State's reading list and I find myself equally perplexed by the absence of a number of texts to for which the inclusion should be a no-brainer. Present at the Creation and the memoirs of George Kennan, Charles Murphy,Walter Bedell Smith are all AWOL. Nothing by Henry Kissinger, including his classic Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. In fact, no classics of any kind, even in diplomatic history where I expected to see William Appleman Williams, Robert B. Tucker, John Lewis Gaddis or Walter LeFeber, none of whom were on the list. Nor are foreign statesmen who dealt extensively with American diplomats included - you can find a lot to read on women and American multiculturalism issues but don't bother looking for Anthony Eden or Anatoly Dobrynin; evidently what they had to say was less important to future FSO's than what was offered by the authors of Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws, and Love.

George Kennan's " X" article - the single most influential document in the history of American diplomacy - was omitted. Why ?

There are some decent survey-type history books on State's list and an eclectic though not insubstantial selection of books on economics - most of which however date from the 1970's, 1980's and early 1990's. Nothing, however on on leadership. Nothing on strategy. No biographies. Nothing on technology, espionage or military affairs. A couple of books on terrorism from the mid-1990's and a few books on countries that no longer exist ( note to State, Yugoslavia... kaput!) . It reads a lot like a list calculated not to offend irascible Congressmen.

When our prospective diplomats are given more books about office accounting and The Americans with Disabilities Act than they are about critical subjects that tie directly into foreign policy, State is sending a message loud and clear.

And it's the wrong one.
That's about the most appalling reading list I've ever seen. I certainly take your points about the lack of history, big issues, or classics -- it's about the most yawn-inducing list I can imagine. And I'm the sort who loves browsing through reading lists.

But worse yet, it's so terribly out of date on some terribly timely topics! An intellectual property rights treatise from 1987 -- uh, gee, has anything happened in science, technology, commerce or trade regimes in the past two decades? A volume on "socialist economies in transition" from 1991?!? Those were the first couple that grabbed my eye, at which point I stopped skimming for fear I'd find even more horrors.

They should take a few hints from the military. Every service has its own list, and they're all thoughtfully assembled, full of compelling reads, often by authors who challenge "the way things are done." Oh, and updated every few years. But then the US military is actually extremely committed to continuing education, especially but not exclusively, of the officer corps.

I tried to picture in my mind's eye the sorts of people and sets of values that the Foreign Service list is trying to "form" (in the French sense of a professional formation). But for the life of me, I'm at a loss -- other than, that I probably wouldn't find someone who had mastered the materials on that list particularly interesting as a colleague or dinner companion.
Well. It is a boring list.

However, a bit of perspective.

One, most diplo officiers will not be and will never be at senior policy levels. They will be Consular officers or Administrative officers. Big picture thinking for consular and administrative service people is... well... useless.

I think you both are looking at State from the perspective of high policy. Fine, but that is not what most people. Arguably perhaps there should be seperate entry points for the different services (or at least Consular and Administrative), but I can't get exercised about a boring reading list of little meaning.

Perspective. This is merely whanking.
Hey Col-

" Perspective. This is merely whanking."

Well, no it isn't.

Admittedly, the point of the list is symbolic rather than substantive; there are matters at State of far greater immediate importance, I would agree. On the other hand, when a component of State's problems emanate from an institutional culture or mentality the list provides some insight as to why.

You are correct that most FSO's willnever reach the exalted heights of high policy making. This however is true of all large institutions - corporations, unions, government bureaucracies etc.

But some of every generational cohort do reach the top tier and moreso today at State because of CSRA (1978)than a generation ago. Nor are these people who make that cut always the best and the brightest. Some of the " water-walkers" of every cohort leave by midcareer for greener pastures and as a result some people slide into political posts due to reasons longevity rather than brilliance. At this point you want a high mean of ability in the FSO which you only will have by starting with a superior talent pool.

The list is directed at *prospective* FSO's and I can't see a top-notch junior at Harvard or Yale becoming terribly motivated to go into a diplomatic career after looking at that list. State is putting a bad public face forward toward people smart enough to see what a mediocre, half-assed, effort it represents. First-rate corporations do not make wasting people's time an obvious point of their recruiting pitch when looking for talent to hire. I can't see Microsoft's R&D department being quite this lame.

Again, a small matter but symptomatic of the State Department's current cultural weaknesses. Nad is right - State could take a lesson on investing in their personnel the way the military does.
What, no "Who Moved My Cheese"?
Well, that you have restated the issue in terms of a bad public face, and not something of substance.... yes I can see that.

It's a marginal disincentive but why have disincentives. Of course the rather more substantial structural disincentives to attracting quality people strike me as more relevant. Pay, marginal influence, etc.
The pay is a big problem. State costs the USG peanuts yet the Congress seems to believe that preventing diplomats from having the resources to do their jobs well is going to make our foreign policy more effective.
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