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The foreign service: our first line of defense

DIPLOMACY IS a key tool for survival in a hostile world for a third-rate power like our country. It fails in this mission if our diplomacy is in disarray, as recent events have shown. Our problem may be summed up thus:

• There are rules essential in diplomacy that, unfortunately, we do not have in place.

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• There are rules that are in place for efficient diplomacy but, unfortunately, we violate them.

• We make rules for things we do not have and, of course, we cannot carry out the goals we set because the resources are not there.

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Let us start with the first item, in which the key word is security. Back in 1988, after the messy affair at our embassy in Moscow (Ambassador Alejandro Melchor allowed his boys to open a restaurant at the embassy, which is prohibited under the Vienna Convention; there was also an administrative officer handling the embassy code who had a Russian mistress), this writer was detailed to the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency to evaluate what had happened. The result of this detail: We came up with a set of rules to improve embassy security, including rules on how to react in the event that our embassy is penetrated by a hostile power.

The proposed rules and implementing orders we prepared were discarded by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

This gap in security is evident in the way we dealt with Ambassador to China Sonia Brady after she suffered a stroke. We should have evacuated her, and there are now airplanes that are virtual flying hospitals. The reason for this is a patient under heavy sedation may blurt out secrets. This is a common trick used in communist countries. Dissidents are often sent to mental hospitals where they are placed under sedation. Valuable information have been extracted by the KGB using this method.

One can only hope that at the very least, the DFA put Brady under 24-hour watch during her confinement in a hospital in China. If it did not do this, then there could have been a serious  breach in our security.

This leads to the second item, on rules that are in place but are violated. Republic Act No. 7157, or the Foreign Service Law, provides that no ambassador should be allowed to serve beyond the age of 70. There are many horror stories about our aged diplomats, like one about the undersecretary who continued to represent our country in international conferences even after he reached the age of 80. The story goes that he attended a conference and then fell asleep in front of the other delegates. Another ambassador was virtually deaf when he was accredited to the United Nations. He spoke out of turn and his assistants had to shout into his ear the topic being discussed. Four over-70 ambassadors died in their posts of assignment. The Brady episode is the latest addition to these horror stories.

The debacle involving Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV is also a case of ignoring the law. Our diplomacy operates under the Country Team system. What this means is the ambassador is supposed to know every government initiative in his post of assignment. This principle was adopted under the 1972 Integrated Reorganization Plan and was implemented by Presidential Decree 1. It followed US practice. It appears that one of the American ambassadors in Southeast Asia was peeved when he found out that the Central Intelligence Agency was engaged in clandestine activities in his post without his knowledge. So the ambassador protested to President John F. Kennedy, who then issued orders that henceforth, an ambassador must be fully informed of all US activities in his post.

There is room for backdoor diplomacy. But given the Country Team rule, a special envoy who bypasses the embassy is breaking the law. The problem with special envoys is that they invariably claim credit for successes and blame the ambassador for failures. Special diplomats also tend to be lured with quick gains at the expense of future considerations. They knew their missions are of short duration. Senator Trillanes did all of the above.

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Finally, we invent rules for things we do not have, and this gets us into trouble. The “back-channeling” imbroglio happened because we kept on pretending that we have China specialists. When we drafted RA 7157 in 1988, we naturally considered the US foreign service as our model. But we rejected the principle of having country specialists. We instead decided to develop our diplomats as generalists, for two reasons: because we have a small foreign service and because our academic infrastructure is not developed enough.

There is no university in our country now where one can get a degree in area specialization. Developing a country specialist requires at least four years of training, two years to gain fluency in a language, plus another two years to gain an advanced degree in the country of choice. All our Asean neighbors have foreign service officers who are also generalists and not specialists.

From the foregoing, what we need now are security rules to safeguard state secrets. This is the first time in our history that we are having a confrontational diplomacy with a big power. We cannot afford the miscues of recent days. On the other issues, we already have rules in place. All the DFA must do is obey the law.

Ambassador Hermenegildo C. Cruz is a retired career diplomat. He was among those who drafted The Foreign Service Act of 1991 and was also the DFA representative to the 1969-1972 Integrated Reorganization Plan, which adopted the Country Team approach in conducting Philippine diplomacy.

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TAGS: column, Diplomacy, Foreign service, hermenegildo c. cruz
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