It's Time to Streamline Foreign Relations

Article excerpt

DESPITE THE HUGE political, technological, and economic changes of the past few years, American foreign relations are conducted today much as they were in earlier decades. The U.S. maintains an embassy in almost every country Washington recognizes, bloated with functions and personnel that may have been justifiable during the Cold War, but no longer are necessary. Although the U.S. gradually is reducing the size of its foreign policy establishment in response to Congressional budget pressures, the changes are mostly quantitative, as is often the case when such actions are motivated primarily by budget cuts, rather than by policy considerations. There is little evidence that the nature or value of the activities America's foreign policy establishment is engaged in has received serious examination.

Three key factors have dramatically altered the conditions in which the nation conducts its foreign policy: new communications technologies, the end of the Cold War, and lessons the U.S. has learned from having pursued a broad, assertive foreign policy throughout much of the 20th century. Together, they suggest that much leaner, more efficient, and less expensive foreign policy mechanisms not only are possible, but desirable.

Cold War-era tensions long discouraged the U.S. from doing anything but building a foreign policy apparatus. Slowly, but surely, Washington added functions and people, and then additional staff to support them. The result is that U.S. embassies, agencies, and missions at home and overseas have swelled out of all proportion to their legitimate functions in the post-Cold War world.

Moves to decentralize authority by dismantling the Department of Education, radically downsizing the Department of Health and Human Services, and making block grants to the states are elements of a return to normalcy in the post-Cold War era. The national mood favors reducing the Federal government and returning power to state and local authorities. Post-Cold War decentralization of foreign policy is a manifestation of that impulse.

In peacetime, there is no reason to forbid local or provincial governments, especially those with important trade relations with other countries or regions, to conduct their own foreign relations. In fact, in the absence of a significant military or ideological threat, many important aspects of world affairs--trade, migration, and such frontier-less issues as health and the environment--more logically are handled at the local or regional than the national level. California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas are affected more deeply and immediately by what is going on in Mexico than is the U.S. as a whole. Washington State and British Columbia have mutual concerns about salmon stocks, New York State and Quebec about power, Michigan and Ontario about auto production, and Maine and Newfoundland about cod, for example.

Even widely separated regions can develop similar attitudes (and politics). The Pacific Northwest, Indonesia, and Amazonia share strong attitudes about the desirability of logging in primeval forests; some Canadians, Alaskans, Russians, and Scandinavians are bonding together in concern for the Arctic Ocean, frost-belt cities, and the plight of the Inuit; the fiscal policies of the wealthy G-7 nations increasingly are interrelated--more than those of the European Union, which is split by the huge economic and social differences between the northern Europeans and Greece and Spain. Issues increasingly are defined by regional economic interests, rather than by national affiliation.

Moreover, foreign governments and businesses are not going to ignore the devolution of power from Washington to states and localities. Increasingly, embassies, foreign and multinational companies, and visiting ministers of foreign governments will be able to bypass Washington and deal directly with governors and even mayors about many matters of commerce, environment, health, and public welfare. …