Rice Pushes More Hands-On Role for U.S. Diplomats

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to make her mark on the State Department. She is encouraging U.S. diplomats to take a more active role in shaping change in other countries and carrying out the president's democracy agenda. She calls this "transformational diplomacy."

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making her mark on the State Department. Not only is she becoming one of the most traveled secretaries in recent history. She's also encouraging American diplomats to be more hands on pushing democracy. Rice calls it `transformational diplomacy.' NPR's Michele Kelemen has details.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

In his seventh-floor office at the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters, Philip Zelikow tries to explain the concept of transformational diplomacy.

Mr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (State Department): You have to start from the fact that we're living in a time of great change in world politics. And what the United States is trying to do is not just be a status quo power that tries to resist change and protect its position, but, under this administration, we're trying to be an agent of change.

KELEMEN: Zelikow was staff director of the 9-11 Commission before joining Rice's team as counselor and says the September 11th attacks taught him that the US has to care about local politics in countries such as Pakistan. And for that, he says, the US needs a different sort of diplomat.

Mr. ZELIKOW: You need a diplomatic corps that's not just watching, observing and reporting, but a diplomatic corps that is helping with local partners to actually make change happen on the ground. What does that mean? That means things like advising them on how to build a better court system, on how to build a stronger border security system, on how to train their police.

KELEMEN: Zelikow says the diplomatic corps is not there yet. But Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes says US diplomats have been doing some of this work for a while.

Former Ambassador J. ANTHONY HOLMES (President, American Foreign Service Association): There's no rocket science in, `OK, we're going to go out and help them fight HIV/AIDS,' or, `We're going to go out and work with them to reduce proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.' That's easy. The question is getting them to cooperate with us.

KELEMEN: And getting adequate resources from Washington. Holmes knows a thing or two about that, having served in Africa and now as the president of the American Foreign Service Association.

Mr. HOLMES: Regardless of how much you kibbitz and jawbone, if you don't have the resources to implement programs, to engage people, then largely what you're doing is rhetorical. And it's hard to be a, quote-unquote, "doer" when you don't have anything to work with.

KELEMEN: There is a more basic problem facing the `doers' in the Foreign Service; that is security. In Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, for instance, diplomats live under heavy guard, especially in the wake of a church bombing three and a half years ago. Robert Oakley, a retired ambassador who once served in Pakistan, said diplomats have to take risks to get their messages out.

Former Ambassador ROBERT OAKLEY: We have to do a better job of getting out and getting around and not being locked up in a fortress embassy.

KELEMEN: In some ways Rice's push for more active diplomats is not new. Oakley remembers the Jimmy Carter era, when promoting human rights was the driving force of US foreign policy. But changing the culture of the Foreign Service is difficult for any administration. Ambassador Holmes of the Foreign Service Association says while the State Department has been hiring a lot more young people, their first assignments tend not to be spreading democracy.

Mr. HOLMES: Probably 80 percent of them go for their first assignment to a visa mill, where they interview 50 to 75 to 100 visa applicants every day. And that isn't transformational. I mean, that is--you're in the trenches doing dog's work.

KELEMEN: For diplomats higher up in their career ladder, though, the Foreign Service Institute is getting ready to offer some special courses on transformational diplomacy. Michael Guest, the dean of the Leadership and Management School, is putting together a seminar on democracy.

Mr. MICHAEL GUEST (Dean, Leadership and Management School): We recognize there's no one-size-fits-all democracy. And, in fact, part of the course will focus on how cultural, historical and other differences may affect the manner in which we pursue policy goals in individual countries. But if you step back from those individual aspects, there are certain leadership skills that you need to approach these kinds of larger-than-life issues.

KELEMEN: He says his seminars are being offered to other agencies as well. CIA Director John Negroponte has written a directive to his agency saying that one of its top missions should be to bolster the growth of democracy. His message puts democracy promotion right up there with fighting terrorism and halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: John Negroponte is the Director of National Intelligence.]

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Correction Nov. 18, 2005

We incorrectly identified John Negroponte's title in the broadcast version of this story. His proper title is Director of National Intelligence.

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