[Viewpoint] Fostering creative diplomats

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[Viewpoint] Fostering creative diplomats

U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent special envoy Philip Habib on a fact-finding mission to the Philippines on the brink of bloodshed over a fraud-tainted election in February 1986. Habib, returning from Manila, bluntly told Reagan that Filipino strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos freshly proclaimed to serve another six-term presidency was a thief and his wife a bigger thief and that the couple was ripping off the country.

Few could have imagined that Habib would make such an honest report to Reagan, who had a long-term friendship with Marcos. But Reagan’s response was simply, “If you say so, it must be right.” Washington cut off military aid and set off the “people power” democracy movement in the Philippines.

Habib, who served as the ambassador to Korea in the early 1970s, and often clashed with the military regime, is still cited as one of America’s most professional career diplomats. His legacy of integrity and strength can be matched by Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan who is also famous for drafting the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War, and veteran diplomat John Negroponte who openly criticized the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

American foreign policy benefited from such upright career diplomats. The JoongAng Ilbo has been campaigning for specialized programs and courses to train and foster career diplomats to advance our foreign front since 2007. The Korea National Diplomatic Academy finally opens on Tuesday after a difficult lawmaking process. We hope the new academy will provide a much-needed impetus to build our diplomatic capabilities by fostering new talents, providing a longer-term vision and promoting policies on foreign affairs.

But it remains uncertain if the new academy will live up to expectations. The academy plans to accept and train 60 nominees, of which just 40 will be recruited to the foreign ministry. It is uneconomic to expend so much resources to train just 40 would-be diplomats. Such a framework cannot compensate for the drawbacks of current foreign affairs service exam. The academy should be able to recruit more students to train global experts in the public service field to serve in other government agencies and local governments as well.

What kind of diplomats the academy plans to foster is also important. We need diplomats who can envision a bigger picture. So far public officials in the foreign affairs service field have been criticized for fixating on the trees and not the forest. Our foreign policy cannot improve under such diplomats. We need innovators and visionaries that can draw up a long-term strategy on the foreign front.

The balance-of-power diplomacy that helped to create the German Empire since the 1870s under Otto von Bismarck was the work of young diplomats. Sir Eyre Crowe, who wrote up a memorandum warning of Germany’s emerging threat, and designed the framework of British foreign policy in the early 20th century, was a career diplomat by his early 40s. George Kennan, dubbed as the father of “containment” theory wrote up texts and opinions to contain the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and the spread of communism while serving as deputy head of the U.S. mission in Moscow. We must nurture figures who can outline diplomatic strategies for their countries with long-term vision.

The government decided to scrap the foreign affairs exam system because good test scores did not guarantee skill in the field. The graduates of the academy would be equipped with the knowledge of at least one region and specialty in the field of defense, trade or international law. Communicating and negotiating skills are the basic qualification required of a diplomat. The academy’s curriculum includes programs and courses to foster apprentices in the diplomatic field.

We should stop generating diplomats whose primary preoccupation is climbing the career ladder, taking orders and keeping opinions to themselves. They must be armed with a concrete national view, pursuit of justice, integrity, principles and will to serve the country rather than self-serving purposes. The new academy must breed uprightness and responsibility in aspiring diplomats. The school should avoid turning into another incubator for the elite bureaucratic group. The future of the country’s foreign policy depends on the academy’s role in fostering creative, constructive, courageous, and willing diplomats.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in
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