While Pentagon employees faced furlough and military contractors received pink slips, the State Department continued operating basically as normal. After all, diplomacy is essential stuff, even when the U.S. government is $17 trillion in debt. And while certainly it makes sense to keep essential diplomats at their posts, continue American citizen services, and keep embassies open, it’s long past time the State Department stopped treating public diplomacy as a slush fund to pursue projects that are far from essential.
Take, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain. Just days before the government shutdown, the embassy sponsored a visit by Andre and Marie Jacquemetton, writers and producers for the TV show Mad Men. Now, I like Mad Men, and I’m sure it has its Bahraini fan base as well, but I remain at a loss as to how sponsoring their visit enhances American interests.
Ditto this band performance sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Oman, and Turkey gets the Kung-Fu Masters, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. The U.S. Embassy in Morocco “empowered” hundreds of Moroccan youth by sponsoring skateboarding workshops in six cities. It’s not just the Middle East where such expenditures are made. The U.S. Embassy in Belize is assisting with “Teaching Tumbling to Youth,” and the State Department sent a sculptor to Honduras to help judge a local art contest. Meanwhile, of course, budget cuts have prevented the deployment of a U.S. hospital ship which would have provided medical services to a number of countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. The U.S. Embassy in Ireland flew a chef from Washington D.C. to Dublin to give cooking lessons, so U.S.-Irish relations are now secure.
A culture of profligate spending continues to permeate public service. Projects are sponsored to fill programming space and keep junior officers busy with little consideration for how that money fulfills core U.S. interests. Government workers have blurred the distinction between essential and frivolous, and the State Department remains unable to show any lasting benefit from sponsoring such programming. Alas, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the problem is no longer just the budget, but the culture in which decisions regarding spending priorities are made.