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Home and Abroad: A Diplomat Speaks on US Policy to Hometown L.A.Photo by

Home and Abroad: A Diplomat Speaks on US Policy to Hometown L.A.

A State Department sponsored program that sends diplomats to their hometowns brings a top official and former Angeleno to speak to local groups on home turf.

By Jean Roth

The Central African Republic proverb "the buffalo does not wander from the marsh where it was born" is a far cry from describing the life of an American diplomat who has served many years in that and other nations. But a State Department sponsored program that sends diplomats back to their hometowns recently brought a top official to campus during a visit to his native Los Angeles to speak to local community groups. Donald K. Steinberg, Principal Deputy Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. Department of State and recipient of the department's Distinguished Service Award, addressed a group of invited guests, including faculty, students, and campus volunteers, at a luncheon seminar hosted by UCLA International Studies and the Office of Government and Community Relations at the James West Center on May 31.

Steinberg, the former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Angola from 1994-98 with other diplomatic posts in South Africa, Brazil, the Central African Republic, Malaysia and Mauritius, noted with irony that the department has a desk for every country around the world" except the United States of America. It was for this reason, he said, that Secretary of State Colin Powell instituted the "Hometown Diplomats Program," which sends diplomats to their hometowns to inform and involve local Americans in policy issues and to help them make the connection between global events and their own lives and prosperity.

Steinberg believes that since last September, Americans understand that connection far more clearly than previously. The tragic events of September 11, he said, "brought home the stark reality that if we do not engage with the world, the world will engage with us, and in ways we may not like."

The 1990s: Transition Years

Steinberg compared the United States' current involvement in world affairs to that of the 1990s, which he defined as a decade of uncertainty. The end of the cold war era made it unclear who the "enemy" was, and the U.S. found itself trying to determine its role in the new order. Still, throughout the decade the U.S. continued to see itself as the uncontested "indispensable nation" and did not veer much from its old patterns of engagement with the world. While the U.S. can perhaps claim certain positive developments from its involvement at the time, said Steinberg, citing as examples peace in the Balkans and South African democratic transition, other efforts -- a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, for instance -- were not as successful. And despite the fact that the United States aspired to promote free trade through NATO or the WTO, it failed to export the potential benefits of globalization to all nations or to prevent financial breakdowns in some areas.

More importantly, he warned, America's old attitudes of engagement with the world were not adequately addressing the global problems that emerged in greater clarity following the demise of the cold war era -- the transnational threats of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, environmental destruction, the global AIDS crisis, cyber-attacks on information networks, and drug trafficking. The attitude of most Americans was that prosperity and peace was on the upswing, and that foreign policy was a matter of choice.

The Shift Since September 11

The September 11 attacks on American soil was the seminal event that precipitated a huge shift, convincing Americans that the U.S. must look carefully at its position in the world and the message it sends, the deputy director said.

"Our country cannot be an island of prosperity and democracy in a world awash in poverty, disease, corruption, ignorance, hunger and tyranny," Steinberg said.

In his present position Steinberg helps coordinate policies to achieve U.S. foregin policy objectives, and  since Septemeber 11 has been involved in the building and maintaining of the international coalition against terrorism and the re-building of Afghanistan. 

Most Americans, he said, now see democracy, free markets and human rights not only as goals for America's interests, but as a reflection of American values. "It is fair to ask," he said, "not only whether the United States is better off for our power, but whether the world is freer, safer, and more prosperous as well."

A Model for Strategic Priorities

Steinberg then described a paradigm for American policy favored by Secretary of State Powell that pinpoints strategic priorities, using the concept of concentric circles. Most central in this model is an inner circle that protects "the American way of life"--liberty, dealing with homeland security, health, the prevention of biological and chemical weapons, and protection of investments. A second circle represents cooperation with world. This includes the international coalition against terrorism, the European Union, Japan, and Latin American democracies, and defense and financial organizations such as NATO, the United Nations, and the World Trade Organization.

The next level involves the prevention of a renewal of a major power competition, which means bringing nations undergoing huge internal transitions (Russia, China, India) into cooperative frameworks. It also includes the resolution of regional disputes, such as those in the Middle East and South Asia, which cause (waves of) instability far beyond their geographic locale.

A fourth level address the need to integrate more nations into a free market and to "unleash people's potential' so that developing nations benefit from globalization, rather than being its victims.

Involving the American people in matters of international engagement comprises the fifth circle. The senior career diplomat quipped that ?foreign policy is too important to be left to diplomats,? stressing the critical nature of engaging Americans in foreign affairs. Steinberg said that U.S. foreign policy today is often a result of grassroots initiatives from relief organizations, think tanks and interest groups as much as it is from the state department, congress, and investors, and pointed to how anti-landmine activism has resulted in an international ban, and to the growing worldwide support of an international court.

Critical Issues

Steinberg also spoke about three critical issues with which he is currently involved, and to which he clearly has a strong personal commitment. The first is to address the problems faced by women in conflict societies and the challenge to involve them more in nation rebuilding efforts.

The second, de-mining, is an initiative fueled by Steinberg's experiences in witnessing firsthand the effects of landmines during his tour of duty as ambassador to Angola, one of the most mined countries in the world. In a particularly poignant story, Steinberg told the audience how the first song young Angolan children learn in school is about landmines. (According to UNICEF Angola alone has an estimated 10 million land-mines and an amputee population of 70,000, of whom 8,000 are children.) It comes as no surprise that following his service in Angola Steinberg had served as Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State for Global Humanitarian De-mining from 1998-2001.

The third initiative targets the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa. According to UNAIDS Africa is home to 95% of the world's AIDS orphans--over 12 million African children have been orphaned by one or both parents.

Sharing some personal concerns, Steinberg warned about U.S.'s failure to communicate "our essentially positive values" and the danger of sending mixed signals to the world. American foreign policy likewise needs to be rooted in values rather than be solely reactive, he said.

While acknowledging that the U.S. must confront the threat of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, it must also use its resources proactively. "We must equally dedicate ourselves and our resources to fighting poverty, illiteracy, disease, hunger and repression, conditions that give rise to desperation that translates itself into threats against our way of life and values," he said.

Read more about the State Department's Hometown Diplomats Program.

Photo thanks to

UCLA International Institute