Working Together or Not

Working alone saves you the bother of having to take other people into account.  That can be bliss.  In diplomacy, it’s also rare.  My main recreation is music, but because I often play in groups it’s far from a solitary pursuit.  I once thought I had discovered the perfect solo recreation in putting together jigsaw puzzles but then learned that people have an irresistible compulsion to lean over your shoulder to put a piece into place.  There is no response to that other than a smile and a “Thank you!” unless you want to be taken for a sociopath.  “Get your hands off my puzzle,” isn’t the utterance of a mature, well-balanced individual.  Even reading a book invites comment from people who liked the same book, didn’t like it, or haven’t read it yet but want to know what it is about.  You may think yourself an island, then the tide goes out.

Diplomacy is inherently collaborative: working frequently with our office mates; often with foreign representatives where cultural attitudes and sensitivities come into play; and sometimes with officials from other agencies within our own government where cultural attitudes and sensitivities really come into play.  Lest the latter be taken as merely a punch-line, I will reserve for a later column the ways in which the State and Defense Departments have learned to work together over the past twenty years.

First, an absence of cooperation can lead to unfortunate results.  In one newly-emerging democracy in which I served, we had a program to improve the functioning of the parliament.  Our belief was that because the parliament’s own operating budget mostly was centrally controlled, some parliamentary committees were over-funded, some were under-funded, and all were subject to being rewarded or punished by those managing the distribution. That created the possibility of malign influence.  We, therefore, had our experts working with the Parliament to decentralize its budgetary process to give the committees more financial autonomy and flexibility.  So far, so reasonable.

In due course, our experts encountered European experts who, encouragingly, had also decided that one way to help the country’s democratic process would be to look at the parliament’s procedures, specifically funding.  Their conclusion, however, was that the funding process was already too decentralized.  The amount of money given to committees for their discretionary use created unaccountable slush funds that could be used for who knows what nefarious purposes.   The solution the Europeans were helping implement was more central budgetary control and management.

Although we were unknowingly working at totally cross purposes, I’m not sure that was disastrous.  The Parliament itself was probably weighing the conflicting advice it was getting from us advanced democracies and deciding for itself what it could usefully learn from the issues we were raising.

Sometimes, cooperation is a wonderful thing because the various parties bring different abilities to the table that are complementary.  In Bosnia-Herzegovina after the conflict had ended, there were many organizations on the ground to assist with reconstruction and capacity-building.

Capacity-building refers to helping give populations and their leadership the means to manage their own affairs.  In some post-conflict countries, there is plenty of local ability, and they know their own country and its needs better than outsiders would.  The best thing is to let them get on with it.  But if newly-created countries lack administrative expertise within their new borders, or if the former regime actually did not have the capability to make their country work for the good of its citizens, some outside advice and training can help.

One ex-policeman who had worked for a former regime and wanted to continue to work for the new one told me: “All I want is a regular pay check to support my family, for people on the street to respect me rather than to fear me, and to have routine legal procedures that will let me catch bad guys.  Can your embassy help?”

I was able to tell him that we had a program starting up to bring U.S. police officers from cities with good reputations for community policing into the country to share their experiences of what worked and what didn’t.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina in the immediate post-war years, the OSCE Mission was expert at drafting electoral laws and organizing elections; the UN Mission conducted rule of law programs aimed at improving the functioning of the courts; the Council of Europe focussed on helping non-government organizations; and the Office of the High Representative (OHR), along with providing overall coordination, had its own expertise in areas such as drafting legislation.  The list went on.

In one informal division of responsibility that turned into standard practice, we learned early on that the U.S. government had the ability to respond to specific problems very quickly.  If a school building was damaged, we could fix it within days with a minimum of red tape.  If a project was going to be long-term – such as building and staffing a hospital – the EU had staying power.  It could commit to fund complex projects taking several years and could provide long-term management.

When either of us received requests for assistance, we would confer to see whether they needed U.S. speed or EU long-term commitment.  That’s a simplified version of a complex process.  The weekly meetings of the international actors chaired by OHR in Sarajevo often served as clearinghouse meetings to see who could respond to what needs.  We were much more effective as a group than any of us would have been individually.

Sometimes, speaking with someone with a different perspective can surprise you with the realization that yours isn’t the only way to do things.  That’s healthy.  One Belgian overseas development expert told me:  “I find it really interesting how you Americans do things.  When one of your development teams arrives to assess a local situation, the first thing you do is to find the hardest problems and then put them on top of your list of problems to solve.  I’m not saying our way is better, but we look instead to see what things are actually working, and then put resources behind them to make them work even better.  That often benefits a community more.  Intractable problems are intractable for a reason.”

That didn’t lead me to slap my forehead and say, “Oh no, we’ve been doing it wrong all these years!”  It did lead me to suggest to future U.S. assessment missions with which I was involved that they look around and pay attention to what was working well as to what was broken.

You don’t have to indulge in national stereotypes to argue that people are different from one another.  People have differences with immediate family members.  In diplomacy, a frequently asked question is, “Do they and we have enough in common to be able to work together?”  We less often ask, “Are they and we different enough that we’ll be able to do something together that we wouldn’t have thought of on our own?”  That’s often the more interesting question.