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Washington Journal: Experts Say U.S. State Department Lacks Modern Technology

  • Julie Moffett



Washington, 9 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- American diplomacy is at severe risk today because it does not have the modern technology it needs to do its job properly.

That is the conclusion of a panel of 63 experts reached in a recent report called "Reinventing Diplomacy in the Information Age." The report, which took 15 months to complete, was sponsored by the Center for International and Strategic Studies and relied on the expertise of former U.S. diplomats, journalists, scholars, businessmen and others involved in public policy making.

Richard Burt, one of the panel's co-chairmen, told reporters at a recent press conference that America's foreign policy establishment has not done a good job in keeping up with the changing nature of diplomacy.

Burt said that the nature of diplomacy changed fundamentally in the 1990's and not only because the Cold War ended. He says additional and perhaps even more far-reaching changes include a swift revolution in information technology and the proliferation of a new media; the globalization of world business and finance; the new and important role of non-governmental agencies in foreign policy; and a new agenda of transnational issues such as weapons of mass destruction, narcotics and human rights.

Burt says the U.S. State Department -- whose principal responsibility is conducting the nation's foreign policy under the direction of the president -- has been hampered by a budget that has been cut by more than 20 percent, forcing diplomats to be recalled, embassies to be closed and infrastructure neglected. But he chided the State Department by saying that the Department of Defense, which has also seen its budget dramatically cut, has been able to shift resources to focus on improving its technology and training.

Explained Burt: "The main point, we think, is that America's foreign affairs establishment has not done a good job keeping pace with these developments. Unlike other agencies -- including the Department of Defense which (is in the midst of) a revolution in military affairs and has substantially reinvented itself -- the State Department and its sister agencies have, for a variety of reasons, found it difficult to keep up. The result is a series of important performance gaps which are in danger of making U.S. diplomacy increasingly irrelevant."

Burt says the report focuses on one major premise, that the most important instigator of change in world diplomacy today is information technology.

According to the report, the old notion of diplomacy that nations are connected by foreign ministries and traders is outdated. Nations are now linked through millions of individuals by fiber optics, satellite and cable in a complex network without the central control of any government, it says.

The report explains further: "The Internet, with 100 million users today, will reach one billion people by 2005, and will be available to half the world's population by 2010. The network will become the central nervous system of international relations."

The report says that classic diplomacy has always assumed that sovereign states control international relations. However, it says that now, faced with technologies, diplomacy in the 21st century must shed its culture of secrecy.

Burt explains further: "In fact, we argue that parts of the State Department suffer from information isolation. State Department officers, in our judgment, need access to e-mail and the world wide web. There are, of course, security concerns attached to the introduction of the new technology, but we believe they are surmountable. With old technology and lacking technological expertise, we argue that the State Department is in danger of becoming a technological backwater."

In order to improve the situation at the State Department, the panel recommends several key strategies to the government:

-- Overhaul the culture of diplomacy to make it more accessible and participatory and end the culture of secrecy and exclusivity.

-- Discard obsolete technology and replace it with state-of-the art computers and fast electronic connectivity to make diplomacy more efficient and relevant. -- Improve the professional diplomatic workforce by hiring more regional and management specialists and using the electronic network to include a wider range of people in important deliberations and implementation of policies.

Concludes the report: "The dominant issues of the next decade include democracy and human rights, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, drugs, global crime, environmental concerns, population, refugees, migration, disease and famine. The information age increases the relevance of these issue to the peoples of the world. The penalty to America's diplomacy for inattention will be severe."

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