Assessing Rice's Bid to Restructure the Foreign Service

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to restructure the U.S. Foreign Service. Ambassador Anthony Holmes, president of the American Foreign Service Association, discusses Rice's plans with Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the terrain of history shifting beneath our feet. And she said the nation's diplomatic corps must shift with it. Secretary Rice outlined her plan to reposition diplomatic forces around the world. Now, if they want to advance through the ranks, Foreign Service officers will have to serve in so-called “hardship posts” in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan.

To talk about these changes, we're joined on the line by J. Anthony Holmes. Ambassador Holmes heads the American Foreign Services Association, which represents active and retired members of the Foreign Service.

Ambassador Holmes, welcome.

Mr. J. ANTHONY Mr. HOLMES (Ambassador, Foreign Service Association): Thank you, very much. Nice to be here.

ELLIOTT: These changes are part of the administration's goal of transformational diplomacy. How do diplomats understand this new construct?

Mr. HOLMES: It's an effort by the secretary to better align her assets, her resources with her priority around the world. And that entails a shift of personnel away from Europe and the post World War II staffing of embassies toward large, developing countries and geographical groupings around the world.

ELLIOTT: Now, one of the things that Secretary Rice said, as she was trying to illustrate her point, is that there are nearly 200 cities with over a million people, yet they have no formal U.S. diplomatic presence. How big of a personnel shift is this going to be if we see Foreign Service officers now deployed to these cities that are outside of capitols?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, this has quite profound implications, but I think a rather minimal shift in personnel. Since the bombing of the embassy in Beirut in 1983; but intensively since the bombing of the embassies in Nairobi and Darussalam in 1988, we've had a very determined trend to bring in the disparate parts of the embassy that are situated outside the chanceries themselves. We've begun this huge -- we're well along in this huge program of construction of new embassies and counselor facilities, and bringing all these people inside.

So, this effort to provide diplomats in these very large and important secondary cities is going to raise real questions about how we provide adequate security for these people, their families at a time when working overseas for the United States is extremely dangerous.

ELLIOTT: What are the specific safety concerns when you talk about being removed in different places like that?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, the Congress, first of all, in 1999 that resulted from the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board that looked into the bombings of Nairobi and Darussalam the previous year. And among those recommendations was, for example, to have 100-foot setback between he building itself and the street, particularly where vehicles could approach.

And if you have a one-person office in a city, you can't have that. It just cost too much to acquire the land and construct the facility to withstand car bombs, or the other things that we've been subjected to during the past 22 years.

ELLIOTT: When you look a quarter-century down the road, say, how do you think this new structure will have altered the overall culture of the Foreign Service?

Mr. HOLMES: I think you can't look at it as just the new structure. I mean, this is something that the secretary feels strongly that she is adapting to the realities that she sees in the world. Once the security concerns are addressed, then the other issue that really needs to be addressed is funding for the programs that we need to put in place to engage these other countries, and get them to buy into our visions, and to move forward in implementing them. And that's a very long-term resource-intensive process.

The bottom line here is, we just cannot be a super power on a shoestring. If we're serious about this, the administration will have to work with the Congress to give the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development the resources it needs to transform the secretary's vision of transformational diplomacy into a reality, a meaningful reality.

ELLIOTT: J. Anthony Holmes is president of the American Foreign Service Association. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. HOLMES: My pleasure. Thank you.

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