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Tsunami Diplomacy

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.
Since December 26, people around the world have been watching pictures of the total devastation brought on by the tsunami. While there was immediate concern for survivors and an effort to rescue and track down the missing, government officials in far flung capitals from Washington to Canberra, Tokyo to New Delhi started to focus their attention on mounting the massive relief effort everyone knew would be required.

When President Bush publicly expressed his and the nation's condolences on December 29, he announced formation of the so-called Core Group of nations — the U.S., Australia, Japan and India with Canada and the Netherlands added later — to spearhead relief efforts. These were the countries with significant military assets in or near the disaster zone and, says Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman., "It was crucial they get to the right places and not duplicate their efforts."

Beginning the evening of the 29th, senior officials representing each country in the Core Group held a daily conference call to discuss the initial relief effort. In addition to coordinating the actions each government was undertaking, and making the effort to avoid duplication, the call, Grossman said in an interview, furnished senior officials an opportunity to identify gaps and make plans to fill them.

Once a day, at 10 p.m. Washington time, the State Department's 24 hour operations center placed a telephone conference call, allowing each senior diplomat on the call to tell the others what his or her country had done and planned to do in the next 24 hours. Because of the difference in time zones, some officials took the daily call in their offices; others, like Grossman, were at home. The nature of the business being discussed was all unclassified so security was not a problem.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called this "an interesting new kind of diplomacy. …It was an intensive and immediate effort, multilateral coordination and disaster relief, at a senior level, that in some ways was virtual diplomacy."

These senior diplomats of course took direction from their superiors. The calls started not only after Mr. Bush spoke, but also after Secretary of State Colin Powell had conferred with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Annan's representative, Jan Egelund, was added to the call on the second night.

Grossman didn't see the effort as necessarily breaking new diplomatic ground so much as taking advantage of technologies such as teleconferencing and e-mail. In previous crises calling for coordinated international action, Grossman said, "We'd get on a plane and fly to Geneva, and spend half our time negotiating the communiqué."

To help move the daily call forward, each country would also send around one e-mail per day per country with updates since the last call. The e-mails were lists of where each country's military forces in the region were and what they were doing. The first couple of nights, the calls were all about helicopters — who had them, where they were and how long would it take to get them where they were needed.

"It was a photograph of what was happening," Grossman said of the e-mail, "and it left a to-do list to fill in the gaps." This meant, by the time of the call, the latest data was in everyone's hands and had been looked at by government experts. For the American side, the Pentagon and the Agency for International Development, among others, were able to have input.

Asked what he would do to change the system the Core Group used if he had to handle another crisis with the need for international diplomatic and military coordination, Grossman said he'd add a tech-savvy person to the team and set up a Web page for the participants to use.

Earlier this week, the Core Group took itself out of business, turning over the medium and long-term relief effort to the United Nations at a meeting in Jakarta.

Grossman downplays the notion of inventing something new, but it's clear the action-oriented, no frills process necessitated by the enormity of this disaster was able to jumpstart international relief efforts with more urgency and at a faster pace than would have been possible otherwise.

Does this experience mean the planners and promoters of grand diplomatic conferences need to start looking for other work? Don't count on it. Sometimes, an ambassador or a foreign minister needs to feel a plush red carpet under his/her feet and look other ministers directly in the eye. Clearly, there will still be a role for younger diplomats to turn out option papers and communiqués.

There are situations, however, like this tsunami, where time is of the essence and quick decision-making can save lives. Judging from this case the teleconferencing/e-mail model made correct use of valuable tools and worked well. Now, the U.N. has taken over and among its first moves is to schedule an international donor's conference to aid victims of the tsunami next week, in Geneva.