“America’s image in the world is changing”

Our editor-in-chief sits down with the former U.S. ambassador to Panama to discuss where America’s diplomatic corps has been, where it is going, and how a new generation of diplomats is about to inherit the reins of international dialogue.

Ambassador Bill Eaton’s office is nearly empty. It is not filled with certificates for years of service or photos with foreign dignitaries. It does not reflect a long career in the Foreign Service, his time as the U.S. ambassador to Panama or even his most recent stint as Diplomat-in-Residence at the University of Texas. It is empty because Ambassador Eaton is about to move on to his next assignment in Washington. For Bill Eaton, things are about to change, as they always do in the Foreign Service.

For the U.S. State Department itself, things are about to change. It is not simply a quick, energetic, Obama-fueled change, he explains. The new face of American diplomacy is the product of years of influence and evolution.

“It’s always hot in Panama,” he says, smiling through a perfectly plain pair of glasses, fit for a public servant. He is describing one of his fondest memories from Panama, carnaval. He talks about chatting in the street, drinking a cool cerveza and standing with the locals as giant water tanks douse the crowd to keep them cool. His smile beams like the equatorial sun. His conversation seems to find its way back to scenes like this. His thoughts meander back to personal interactions he has had with Panamanians, Turks and Russians.

He could certainly go on about being spied on during his days in the Soviet Union, his apartment being ransacked, or the time he was forced, at gunpoint, to abandon an afternoon picnic in Moscow. It is clear, however, that his most cherished memories are quieter and more personal.

When asked how America’s diplomatic service is changing, he sits back, taking in the empty room, filling it with memories of the past and thoughts on the future. His final analysis is a study in cautious optimism, the mark of career diplomat. “I think it’s hopeful,” he says. “America’s image in the world is changing.” Eaton is watching along with the rest of America to see if the image makeover will stick, but he is clear that the United States will benefit if it does.

America might have a tough time promoting a new image without young blood in the State Department.

“Our embassies and consulates around the world are understaffed by twenty-five percent,” he says, his eyes lighting up behind those sensible glasses. “When the USSR collapsed, a dozen new countries popped up overnight. They didn’t hire new people to staff the embassies, they just shuffled people from existing ones.”

The US embassy to Iraq is now the largest in the world, and the rush of manpower to the Middle East, combined with an already skeletal State Department has prompted a new need for diplomats.

Supply may finally be catching up with demand. At the end of his term, President Bush approved funding to hire over one thousand new diplomats, and the Obama administration is following through on plans to expand the diplomatic corps. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has sounded the call for new Foreign Service officers. Last fall, the new administration called on Congress to fund 800 new positions in the Foreign Service.

Whether or not new diplomats mean a fresh start is a more difficult question. It could it just as easily mean more bureaucracy, more confusion, more of the same.

Bill Eaton knows better. He knows that every individual in the Foreign Service can make a positive impact. When talks about the people in Panama, he remembers the poor farmers at local markets who offer handshakes and smiles when the American ambassador comes for a visit. Glad-handing may not be the solution to the world’s problems, but he is certain that those personal interactions make all the difference. More diplomats, it seems, means more of a difference. In a down economy, the public sector is becoming more and more appealing to ambitious graduates. Ambassador Eaton himself knows this story well. In his small town high school in rural Virginia, everyone told him he could not make it into the University of Virginia. When he made it in, everyone told him he would never pass the Foreign Service Officer’s Test. When he passed the test during his junior year in college, it seemed like the world was ready to tell him that a single diplomat could not make a difference, but by then, he was done with conventional wisdom.

He is not quite ready to assert that a thousand new diplomats are going to save the world, or that the bright minds heading into diplomacy are going to do things that previous generations could not, but he does know the difference an individual can make. He’s lived that difference.

It will be a piecemeal change, he reminds us. It is a process of evolution. Those hordes of fresh-faced new diplomats will be building on years, decades, and centuries of American diplomacy. The new face of American diplomacy will be marked with the lines of past American engagement, colored by its old complexion. The notes from interviewing Ambassador Eaton turn out to be a collection of anecdotes, not a careful analysis of policy, or thoughtful predictions for the future. It reinforces the idea the policies, personalities and personnel may change, but the human interactions at the heart of diplomacy will determine whether it is the change we need. AR

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