The Washington Diplomat / August 2009
By Larry Luxner
When it comes to top priorities, foreign diplomats in Washington apparently have much the same concerns as American voters.
A surprising 41 percent of ambassadors say the economy is the world's top challenge, while overall, 56 percent identify the continuing global financial crisis as one of the top three issues. That's according to "Washington in the Eyes of the International Community" — a first-of-a-kind poll conducted jointly by The Washington Diplomat and APCO Worldwide.
In addition, 59 percent name poverty as a top-three global issue, while 49 percent put climate change in that category as well. Far lower on their priority list were such concerns as terrorism, epidemics, the rise of protectionism and nuclear non-proliferation.
Perhaps even more significantly, 44 percent of ambassadors who responded to the poll between Mar. 16 and May 21 believe the economy is the top U.S. foreign policy issue, with 48 percent saying it is the one issue the United States can best address.
"This is the first time anyone has asked the diplomatic community in Washington their views on the top issues facing both the United States and the world at large. It was a unique opportunity to get their perspective," said Bill Dalbec, senior vice-president of APCO Insight, who announced the survey's results late last month.
"We got opinions of diplomats representing all regions of the world. It wasn't limited to one region, and it really represented all views," Dalbec said, noting that 27 of 183 ambassadors who were initially contacted actually completed the survey — 16 by mail and 11 online.
"We would have liked to have a higher response rate, but this was the first time anyone's tried something like this — so there was some skepticism," he said. "We're looking at doing this on an annual basis."
Regionally, 41 percent of diplomats polled say the Middle East is the region the Obama administration most needs to address; overall, 82 percent include it as one of the top three regions. Africa (71 percent overall) and South Asia (64 percent) are the next-most frequently named regions. In addition, more than half — 13 of 27 — said Obama must develop a strong relationship with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Yet despite recent crises in Bolivia and Georgia, not one ambassador named South America, Eastern Europe or the Caucuses as a top trouble spot.
Anthony Lake, who served as President Clinton's national security advisor from 1993 to 1997, told The Diplomat he was "fascinated" with the survey's results.
"One of the things it showed is how high their expectations are for the Obama administration, which is a good thing now, because it so many governments around the world hope the administration succeeds," said Lake, who was Obama's foreign policy advisor during the presidential campaign. "The bad news is that it places a very heavy burden on the administration to show the success that is in everybody's interests."
Indeed, just about every ambassador polled (97 percent) believe Barack Obama will go down in history as a successful president, while 74 percent view relations between the United States and other countries since Obama's inauguration as either good or excellent.
Indonesia, which boasts the world's largest Muslim population, has particularly high hopes for the 44th president, who spent part of his childhood in a suburb of Jakarta, the capital city.
"I believe our bilateral relationship must be based not on the way we deal with the security situation, but on mutual interests which go far beyond terrorism, like economy and trade," said Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat, Indonesia's ambassador to the United States — interviewed the day after bombs ripped through Jakarta's JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, killing eight people and injuring over 50. "We expect the Obama administration will not view this latest incident as a threat to the stability of Indonesia."
Devinda Subasinghe, Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2005, said it's extremely important for the White House to have a pulse on what ambassadors here expect of the nation's first African-American president.
"We have 180-plus ambassadors in this town, and everyone's competing for the attention of a very small group of individuals," said the diplomat, who serves on APCO's international advisory council. "This is one way for the ambassadors to express their opinions and get them hear without being attributed."
When it comes to the legacy of George W. Bush, only 19 percent of ambassadors surveyed thought the former president's "war on terror" should be continued. And a scant 4 percent supported his immigration policies.
On the other hand, said Subasinghe, one of the survey's most interesting findings is the strong degree of support for Bush's Millennium Challenge Corp., an innovative program that rewards good governance and sound economic management. Fully 63 percent of ambassadors said the MCC was Bush's most worthwhile foreign policy achievement.
"Funds should be performance-linked," said one African ambassador who responded to the survey but — like the others — declined to be named. "There is a need to have clearly defined performance indicators, especially those relating to governance, by which to gauge whether good money is actually being put to good use."