Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Department of State/Agriculture

Reorganizing some dozen or so trade agencies into a single department may not be a bad idea. It’s too bad, though, it comes so late in the Administration.

Rearranging the boxes, indeed, could put the US trade apparatus on par with those of other major trading nations, including – most notably – Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Other countries – such as Australia, New Zealand and the European Union – have gone even further by making a their "ministry" of trade subservient to the foreign affairs ministry.

It would provide for greater coordination among trade decision makers and contribute toward a more consistent and predictable trade policy.

But such a plan requires coordination with Congress, and there simply is not enough time in the current Congress or the present Administration to do that. If President Obama is serious, the plan might come to life in the early part of his next term or become an outline for the next Republican Administration.

The President should be commended for the thought, however. History has shown that the best inventions are usually the result of simple thinking.

Maybe it’s time to apply that simple thinking to US foreign policy as well. Since the United States has not been able fight and win wars – beginning with the horrible experience of Vietnam almost half a century ago, perhaps the State Department should turn its attention more toward keeping the peace around the world instead of mopping up after disastrous military operations.

(The best thing said in the innumerable Republican Presidential debates over the past few months has been libertarian Rep. Ron Paul’s mantra of "We don’t need these wars.")

I attended most of a two-day Agriculture Department outlook conference on Thursday and Friday. There was nothing notable to report, and trade hardly came up.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the department – which was founded by President Lincoln who was in the middle of directing a bloody civil war in this country – Secretary Tom Vilsack gathered together eight of his predecessors going back to President Reagan, with each reminiscing about their experiences.

But recent secretaries Anne Veneman – under the first Bush Administration – and now Sen. Mike Johanns, who also served the lesser Bush – stated that the biggest challenge for American agriculture and the country today is the steeply expanding world population and the real possibility of not being able to feed them.

The biggest near-term US danger from the outside world, all the former secretaries agreed, is not war, terrorism or energy shortages. It is the instability in the world if governments are unable to provide for their citizens’ welfare. And the basic purpose of any government is to see that their populace is fed.

Seventy percent more food must be grown in the first half of the new century to keep up the demands of population growth. There will be some 9 billion people in the world by 2050 – up from today’s 7 billion.

With President Obama so keen about reorganizing government functions, maybe the State Department – with its well-established string of offices and embassies around the world – should turn attention to the urgent need for food security and operate in close partnership with the Agriculture Department.

As former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman pointed out on Thursday, the future of food policy cannot be based on programs developed in the 1930s, when the country was in the depths of a deep depression and much of its farm land was simply known as the "dust bowl."

Current Secretary Vilsack even emphasized the need to focus his department’s programs to more of a science-based production.

Let’s take it a step further and discuss what a combined State/Agriculture Department could accomplish in the real world. And let’s start by erasing the requirement of a classic – and outdated – liberal arts education for college graduates who desire to enter the US foreign service. Let’s create in State a foundation based on agriculture. Foreign aid – instead of going down the sink-hole for such countries as Israel and Egypt – should be provided in the form of food growing, storage, transportation and trade to countries in need and as should a much greater emphasis on cooperative agriculture-based science. Washington should encourage – and support through federal programs, including money – more educational programs in agricultural research and related areas. Affiliated skills such as infrastructure development and publica administration should be promoted and become the basis of US foreign policy.

Just a thought.

Jim Berger

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