By Robert Nolan (Zimbabwe )

How the Peace Corps Benefits Diplomatic Security

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

As a young Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe during the late 1990s, my colleagues and I used to joke that we had a much deeper understanding of politics in the southern African country than the American ambassador posted in Harare. Living in rural communities among average Zimbabweans, we were often privy to late night political discussions around a shared “scud” of Chibuku, (a local beer named after the missiles used in the 1991 Gulf War), during lunch breaks at the secondary schools where many of us taught or while traveling between the countryside and the capital on unreliable buses.

Trusting Zimbabweans might chat with us about an uptick in the number of “CIO,” Zimbabwe’s feared internal intelligence agents, in a particular village or region, complain about their government’s sending troops to fight in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, or lament the tenuous relationship between white minority farmers, the majority black population and the government that would later lead the country into an economic tailspin.

While official communication between U.S. embassies and Peace Corps volunteers is limited in order to protect the integrity of the volunteer program launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, we’d occasionally revel Foreign Service officers and other diplomatic staff informally at social functions with our intimate stories. After such soirees we’d often wonder how the U.S. could operate effectively in the country with so little access to information about the realities of life in Zimbabwe outside of the political elite.

When al Qaeda affiliated terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, the gap between what we knew and what the diplomatic corps knew about life in Zimbabwe grew even wider. Like in other capitals cities around the globe, our embassy began to resemble a fortress, with large concrete blocks and an increase in military personnel guarding the building. In 1999, the United States also shut down the United States Information Agency, an independent government body responsible for public diplomacy around the world. Since then, embassies have been further fortified (funding for diplomatic security has risen from $200 million in 1998 to $1.8 billion) and formerly accessible programs carried out by the agency, like helping foreigners study in the United States, providing access to American cultural and political activities, and explaining American policies around the world, have been brought “behind the wall” of the State Department.

Following this week’s internal report that security at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi where Ambassador Christopher Stephens was killed earlier this year was “grossly inadequate,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced a rethink when it comes to diplomatic security abroad. Additional funding will be requested, and rightfully so. The American diplomatic corps plays a critical role on the front lines of U.S. foreign policy, and the murder of a U.S. ambassador is simply unacceptable.

But as we barricade our diplomats further, it’s also worth considering a corresponding increase in funding for nontraditional diplomatic initiatives like the Peace Corps. After all, the two are not mutually exclusive. Many ambassadors and Foreign Service officers cut their teeth in the Peace Corps, where they pick up language and cultural skills critical to successful diplomatic work. This was certainly the case with Ambassador Stevens, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco during the 1980s, learning Arabic and developing the affinity for Arab culture for which he became so well known and loved.

Nowhere is a more creative form of diplomacy needed than in the Middle East and North Africa, where the United States remains on the back foot. Indeed, the events of the post-Arab Spring present the biggest diplomatic challenge the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War.  Whether it’s establishing new relationships with Islamist leaning countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya or curtailing the fallout from future revolutions elsewhere, the United States will increasingly need to supplement the diplomatic activities of a penned in State Department.

The good news is that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a record number of young people are studying Arabic (some on State Department scholarships) and, thanks in part to slow economic growth, applying to programs like the Peace Corps. As the independent panel findings out this week recommend the State Department boost funding for diplomatic security to the tune of $2.3 billion annually for the next decade, it’s worth noting that the Peace Corps budget has hovered for the past two years at a paltry $375 million. I would propose increasing this funding significantly, with the aim of boosting volunteer activity specifically in the Middle East and North Africa. I would also suggest the creation of a renewed United States Information Agency or similar public diplomacy initiative in the region, not dissimilar from China’s rapidly expanding Confucius Centers based at universities in Asia, Africa and even the United States.

Of course, security for Peace Corps volunteers and cultural ambassadors, like diplomats, is absolutely necessary in parts of the world sometimes hostile to the United States. The Peace Corps recently came to terms with its own security shortcomings that have left at least 23 volunteers murdered since its founding. Last year, President Obama signed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, named after a volunteer killed in Benin in 2010. The act provides more funding for security and protection of volunteers worldwide.

Still, the effectiveness of the Peace Corps in an age of increased diplomatic security is as important-if not more so-today than it was upon its founding. “We should rejoice that we are the only country in the world that had the vision to send abroad people who are not under government control” said the first director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, in a 1986 interview. “There is no better advertisement for what this country stands for than an individual Peace Corps volunteer walking down the street unarmed, wearing the same clothes that the people do, eating the same food, living the same life, and being there as an independent free-standing person who believes in democracy and who is compassionate to his fellow man.” In other words, it’s an effective form of diplomacy.

Funding for new initiatives, as both Secretary Clinton and acting Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet are well aware, will be hard to come by in an era of economic restraint. But as a nation that famously spends more on its military bands than its diplomatic corps, it’s high time to reconsider this equation and improve the way we do diplomacy on all fronts.