Things are tough right now. The U.S. and European economies are seeking to regain their footing after a recession. In the midst of European countries’ debt issues, the very structure of European unity is being examined. Many government budgets are in defict and on both sides of the Atlantic we are faced with tightening our belts and reducing public expenditures. People without jobs are struggling and many with jobs are deeply worried about their future as well. In this hard reality, no public outlay can be held sacrosanct. Of course our political leaders are looking for equitable ways to distribute cuts in spending, including in our diplomatic services.
In nearly 35 years as an American diplomat, this is hardly the first time I have seen, discussed, and experienced reductions in my country’s foreign affairs budget affecting, among other things, our diplomatic capacities. A few short decades ago, our intake of new diplomats had fallen to such a low level that we literally could no longer staff some positions in our embassies. The watch word was “do more with less.” In fact, our dedicated Foreign and Civil Service team worked long and hard hours to do what had to be done. Morale stayed amazingly high, but at some point “more with less” in reality became “less with less” and U.S. diplomatic engagement inevitably suffered. Eventually, under inspired foreign policy leadership, we rebuilt our diplomatic strength, enabling us today to strongly serve American interests globally, including in the most complex and dangerous environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Today I see cost cutting challenges facing European diplomacy. Here in Tallinn, and in other parts of Europe, some European embassies are closing or reducing staff, in some cases even after opening diplomatic missions only a few years ago. All public expenditures are understandably subject to scrutiny. That said, it is important to recall what the cost and value of diplomacy is to any nation. In the United States and in Europe, the foreign affairs part of national budgets generally hover around the 1% mark or even lower. That means that for most if not all countries, even the complete elimination of all diplomatic functions and facilities (a ludicrous notion no one is suggesting) would mean a reduction of no more than a tiny precentage of public outlays.
Unacceptably high budget shortfalls will not be fixed by cutbacks in countries’ embassies or diplomatic staff. On the contrary, just at a time when we need maximum diplomatic cooperation, coordination, and contact, the loss of even one diplomat or one embassy makes a difference. In short, we need the 1% to help fix the 99%. Really!