Monday, September 30, 2013

La doble amenaza a la diplomacia estadounidense

This is a piece I wrote for the Spanish-language international relations blog Passim. The original post, which loosely translates as "The dual menace to American diplomacy" was published today.

Hasta el pasado 10 de septiembre, el pueblo estadounidense casi había olvidado que cuando se trata de enfrentar desafíos en la escena internacional hay otras opciones para su resolución que no pasan por el empleo de la fuerza militar. A comienzos de Septiembre el airado debate giraba sobre si se debía o no intervenir  militarmente en la guerra civil siria tras el atentado químico del 21 agosto, hasta que el secretario de estado John Kerry se topó con una posible solución diplomática. Desgraciadamente, esto no debía haber sido tan extraño.

La Embajada de Estados Unidos en El Cairo tras un muro de protección.

Aunque no resulte evidente, dado al contenido del debate sobre la intervención en Siria, la política exterior de los Estados Unidos no sólo se compone de la fuerza militar. La gran mayoría de las relaciones exteriores del país son responsabilidad del Departamento de Estado y sus diplomáticos. No obstante, en un mundo con una complejidad creciente, donde los diplomáticos son los ojos, las oídos y en muchos casos, los brazos de la política exterior del país, dos grandes desafíos amenazan la diplomacia norteamericana.

En primer lugar, las legaciones diplomáticas y sus trabajadores representan un objetivo militar para terroristas y otros enemigos de EE.UU. Las amenazas de seguridad han restringido la capacidad de los diplomáticos para poner en práctica la política norteamericana o entender la realidad doméstica, casi siempre complicada, de sus países de destino. Además, y en parte debido a la política interior de EE.UU., la acción exterior está sufriendo una falta de recursos que en última instancia podrían disminuir la influencia de que goza Washington en el ámbito internacional.

A pesar de que las nuevas embajadas incrementen su nivel de seguridad y parezcan más presidios que legaciones diplomáticas, el atentado en el consulado de Benghazi en 2012 y el reciente atentado al consulado en Herat, Afganistán, recuerdan que las embajadas y su personal son objetivos contra los que atacar fácilmente.


El riesgo de atentados no solo amenaza las vidas de los diplomáticos y la de los colegas locales con quienes trabajan, sino también disminuye su eficacia a causa de las limitaciones de contacto y movimiento que ponen las crecientes medidas de seguridad. De esta cuestión se lamentaba el embajador en Libia, Chris Stevens. Stevens mantenía que las limitaciones de movimiento perjudicaron la percepción que EE.UU. tenía el país. Chris Stevens a menudo se saltaba las restricciones de seguridad para poder hablar e interactuar con sus contactos entre el pueblo libio y sus líderes. En 2011 murió en un atentado en Benghazi.

EE.UU. no puede cooperar efectivamente con otros países si sus representantes viven con el miedo constante a perder la vida. Pero es que además los diplomáticos tampoco pueden trabajar con eficacia dentro de limitaciones tan restrictivas. Como si de una gran ironía se tratase, tanto la amenaza de atentados como las medidas de seguridad están trabajando juntos para impedir la diplomacia estadounidense.

El segundo desafío que amenaza a la diplomacia proviene del interior de EE.UU. Se trata de los recortes a los que hace frente el Departamento de Estado, recortes que merman su capacidad para operar ante un Congreso que encuentra fácilmente ignorable las necesidades del servicio exterior.

En Julio, la Cámara de Representantes hizo público su propuesta presupuestaria, con recortes de $11.000 millones de los $52.000 millones del presupuesto del Departamento del Estado y otros programas exteriores. Haciendo una perspectiva, el presupuesto del Departamento de Defensa para 2013 es de cerca de $525.400 millones. Del presupuesto federal de $3.796.000 millones, el del Departamento de Estado sólo constituye un 1%, incluyendo en esta cifra también la ayuda alimentaria y las contribuciones a  organizaciones internacionales como la ONU.

Este “golpe interno” a la diplomacia norteamericana proviene de un problema estructural de la democracia representativa de EE.UU. Aunque una política exterior bien apoyada y sofisticada debería estar entre los principales intereses del país, la diplomacia no tiene una circunscripción electoral. Contrariamente a lo que ocurre con el ejército, cuyos soldados son parte de comunidades y cuyos pedidos de materiales dan oxígeno a fábricas en economías locales. El Departamento de Estado en cambio es una organización de burócratas que viven en Washington o en el extranjero, cuyo trabajo es malentendido o desconocido. Por eso, es más fácil para los representantes justificar recortes a la cuota de pertenencia a la Unesco que recortes a subsidios agrícolas (por ejemplo), y por ende la diplomacia sufre más durante los periodos de austeridad.
Aún más daño viene de la incertidumbre causada por la lucha presupuestaria entre los dos partidos políticos en el congreso. El sequester es un castigo, diseñado en 2011, para impulsar los dos partidos a alcanzar un acuerdo presupuestario. También conocido como el precipicio fiscal, los recortes debían haber sido tan dañosos  que tanto los republicanos como las demócratas hallarían una solución para evitarlos. Eso no pasó y un año después el Departamento de Estado aún está operando en los niveles presupuestarios del sequester. Lo peor es que este año fiscal, el congreso todavía ni siquiera ha llegado a un acuerdo que continuaría con los niveles actuales, ya reducidos, arriesgandose a provocar un paro total del gobierno si no se aprueba el presupuesto antes del 1 de Octubre.


Los desafíos que enfrenta la diplomacia estadounidense son serios y puede ser que no haya soluciones para algunos. No parece que los atentados a las embajadas y consulados estadounidenses vayan a disminuir a corto plazo. Las precauciones en materia de seguridad seguirán restringiendo los movimientos y las habilidades de los diplomáticos para comunicarse y entenderse con sus contrapartes locales. Por otra parte, las actividades del Departamento de Estado no tienen por qué ser un misterio para el pueblo norteamericano y quizá haya una circunscripción electoral para la diplomacia tras un decenio de guerra. Si EE.UU. quiere arreglar algunos problemas mundiales, tendrá que sacar punta a algunas de las herramientas que guarda en su caja.

Bryan Schell, Washington D.C.

Bryan Schell acaba de salir de España, donde trabajaba como analista de economía en Banco Santander. Estudió historia, relaciones internacionales y economía. Espera empezar en el servicio diplomático estadounidense en 2014. Puede seguirlo en twitter: @bryankenji

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Exploring San Diego

Don't get me wrong, San Diego is wonderful, but I grew up here so San Diego doesn't seem too exciting to me. However, to pretty much everyone else in the world, San Diego is an exotic location full of wonderful places to explore. Why not think of it the same way?

With this philosophy in mind, my friend Shannon and I headed down to Balboa Park (it's like Central Park or Parque Retiro or Golden Gate Park... except it's in San Diego) for an afternoon of exploration. Pro tip: some San Diego museums are free to San Diego residents on Tuesdays.

We began at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, which has a pretty sweet collection due to the city's role in the development of military aircraft and aerospace industry.


We continued on to the San Diego Hall of Champions, which is like a sports hall of fame for San Diego. Actually, it's not like one, it is one, and it features Padres greats, some of my high school coaches, and a ton of athletes I've never heard of.


Shannon and I then wandered into the center of Balboa Park, which is actually pretty cool. I feel like most San Diegans go as kids but rarely go back as adults. They should. It's nice.


So there you go - adventures won't stop just because I'm back home!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Blue Ribbon International Book Club of Friends

We're more or less at the one year anniversary of the book club my friend Valerie and I founded. Happy Birthday to the Blue Ribbon International Book Club of Friends! BRIBCoF has been a mainstay of the past year for me and added a lot of comfort as I adjusted to living in a new country. Once a month (sometimes less, sometimes more) BRIBCoF meets to discuss various novels that we've chosen to read concurrently. We also do a lot of fooling around and catching up, given that we're all friends from grad school.


I told Valerie I'd write about my favorite book of the past year - she's doing the same over on her blog. So what was my favorite book of the year? Telegraph Avenue? A Farewell to Arms? Wolf Hall?

The book I enjoyed the most this year was The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Often celebrated for its exploration of gender in the dystopia/science fiction genre, The Handmaid's Tale first appeared to be very... boring. Feminist dystopia isn't always the way you'd want to describe some light after-dinner reading. However, as I delved deeper into the world of the main character (known only as Offred) I became fascinated.

The world of The Handmaid's Tale is a future America in which religious fundamentalists took over the US government after a deadly terrorist attack killed most of the Congress. The fundamentalists, who believe that women should occupy more traditional roles in society, slowly take away the rights of all female citizens until daily life in the country appears as some weird combination of life in Saudi Arabia, Nazi Germany and an isolated compound of a break-away fundamentalist Mormon sect.

How this world came to be is fascinating. How this society functions is fascinating. And there is no end to the thought-provoking topics that grew out of the book's themes. Among the most interesting to me:

1. The idea that society can regress. In the modern world, we like to see human history as a gradual progression of more enlightened thought, better technology, and fairer forms of societal organization. We are on a path in which we're leaving slavery, forced marriage and despotism behind. Now that we've invented the internet, we can't un-invent it. Only more people will learn to read and get good educations, not fewerWe like to think all of this, but it's not true. The Handmaid's Tale describes a society that has rejected many of the concepts we consider "modern" and historical examples of breaks in our perceived developmental path are bountiful. Consider life in post-revolutionary Iran for the county's westernized intelligensia. Imagine a time in which illiterate medieval peasants would raid old Roman temples and libraries for stone to construct their miserable hovels, with no concept of the beauty being destroyed. The idea that the "progress" our society has made could be erased so easily and so thoroughly is as terrifying as it is fascinating.

2. How the oppressed can assist in their own oppression. In the novel's male-dominated society, men don't constantly have to actively oppress women to keep them down. Institutions are created in which women oppress each other and in which they are indoctrinated that the society they live in was created to protect them. Anyone who rejects this notion is dangerous and often turned in by their own peers. Real-world equivalents are to numerous to tackle.

3. Controlled outlets for people who don't fit into society serve to keep it more stable. Women who just can't find it in themselves to live as oppressed slave-nuns in The Handmaid's Tale sometimes make it to the government-run secret brothels in which women are allowed a degree of sexual and personal freedom within the system. However, even here the "rebels" serve a purpose to the society, and by keeping them separated from the society at large, their anti-establishment ideas don't infect the majority of women. It makes you think twice about whether the 1960s free love, drug-focused counter-culture was a revolution, or served as an outlet that prevented a real revolution from happening. Whoa.

Anyway, this is a brief peek into the type of things we talk about (in addition to wearing mustaches and gossiping) in BRIBCoF.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Learning Castellano

I've had this conversation at least 83 times:

Me: "...so that's how I came to live and work in Spain."

Random person: "Wow! So you must be like, fluent in Spanish!"

Well, not quite. After finishing up at Santander at the end of July, I resolved to spend the summer focusing on my Spanish.

I started having regular sessions with my tutor Ana, who is interested in a lot of the same things I am, so we spent the summer in streetside cafes in Lavapies discussing Spanish foreign policy, the economy, philosophy and international relations. Ana did a wonderful job helping me to prepare for a Foreign Service Spanish test that would accelerate my start date (theoretically).

Given that I spent a lot of time listening and writing at Santander, I tried to do a lot more speaking over the summer. In addition to monologues with Ana, I recorded myself speaking on topics for 5-7 minutes a few times each day. If you think listening to your own voice is bad, imagine listening to your own voice hesitate and struggle to remember vocabulary in a terrible gringo accent.

One of the easier Spanish exercises I did was to rent a ton of movies from Madrid's libraries and become acquainted with Spanish cinema. If you ever do the same, I recommend Spanish movies like Belle Epoque and 23-F. I do not recommend a dubbed Spanish version of 2012. Guess which one was filled with plot holes, terrible characters and implausible plot points!?



A lot of my expatriate friends left the country, so my social scene got a lot more Spanish as well. My thanks to Kristina, Liliana, Davíd, other Davíd, Veronica, Portuguese Ana, Isael, Liz, Santiago and of course my first and most enduring Spanish friend Fátima, all of whom spent hours chatting with me about everything under the sun.


With all this support and 11 months of Spain under my belt, I took the Foreign Service Spanish language exam. And failed. Oops. Even though my Spanish isn't at a professional level according to the State Department, I'm not disappointed because after this summer I've come away with a much higher level of Spanish than I could have ever dreamed and a deeper understanding of Spanish humor and culture.


The Foreign Service thing isn't over... assuming that the US Congress eventually passes a budget, even a temporary one, I should (hopefully) be starting at some point in 2014, with or without professional Spanish.

But no. I am apparently not fluent in Spanish.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Storm King

It looms through the trees like some forgotten god, its three jeweled feet joining together at an unfinished torso. One of the feet rests on the serene bald head of some half-submerged enlightened being. Where does this mysterious monument exist? In the jungles of Madagascar? In the foothills of the Himalayas?



No, this tripod lives in upstate New York about 11 miles from West Point.

My college roommate Matt and his buddies Stu and Evan took me to Storm King Art Center on Saturday because getting out of New York City keeps a man healthy. We spent the afternoon strolling through Storm King's meadows and forests - a giant outdoor museum of monumental sculpture.


Our favorites included Wave Field, a rolling natural landscape of undulating hills by Maya Lin ...


... David Brooks' A Proverbial Machine in the Garden, which consisted of a backhoe that had dug its own concrete grave ...


... and the ominous ring of Mozart's Birthday, by Mark di Suvero.