State of Disrepair: If the State Department really wants to lead U.S. foreign policy, it needs to stop complaining about the military and act more like it

April 14, 2012

 Foreign Policy:

The most conventional of conventional wisdom in Washington in the past five years is that the U.S. State Department is dramatically undernourished for the work required of American civilian power. Since 2000, there has been a staggering number of think-tank reports advocating a more robust diplomatic corps. The last three secretaries of state and the last two directors of the U.S. Agency for International Development have not only had ambitious goals for improving their departments, they have actually implemented at least the resourcing of them: Congress has increased funding by 155 percent since 2003 and the size of the diplomatic corps has grown by 50 percent.

There has emerged strong support for “whole-of-government operations,” by which is meant the coordinated use of all elements of state power. The Obama administration has dedicated itself to practicing “smart power,” a further polishing of the concept, emphasizing a rebalancing of governmental effort away from dependence on military force and toward diplomatic and economic levers. Inside the Beltway, whole-of-government operations and smart power are the Holy Grail, much yearned for yet elusive. Earnest advocates of effective American engagement in the world envision the military’s role returning to small proportions as other government agencies, principally the State Department, increase their influence and activity.

Yet there is practically no one who believes the State Department is currently performing at a level adequate to the need. There are no voices arguing the State Department is a diplomatic equivalent to the dominance displayed by the American military, none who think America’s diplomats stand astride the world like a colossus. Our diplomats punch below their weight and carry less influence than our country’s power ought to deliver. Even sympathetic observers conclude that “today’s Foreign Service does not have to a sufficient degree the knowledge, skills, abilities, and outlooks needed to equip career diplomats to conduct 21st-century diplomacy.” Despite the substantial increase in the workforce at State, it continues to contract out work to the private sector that is mission-critical or whose function is inherently governmental.

State has a better record than it gets credit for, certainly. It established 20 new embassies in Europe after 1991 without additional personnel, and the diplomats who have joined the Foreign Service since 2001 are much more likely to want to deploy to Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and to change the world for the better, rather than remain safely ensconced in embassies and report on changes as they occur.

Still, the Department of State underperforms, both for what the country needs and for the resources it has. Foggy Bottom chants the mantra of whole-of-government operations and yet it remains — even by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own assessment — inadequate to the task.

If further proof of this inadequacy is necessary to prove the point, look no further than the major swaths of civilian activity that continue to migrate to the military. The militarization of American foreign policy does not reflect an ambition by the military; it reflects the vacuum left by inadequate civilian power. Work needs doing, and the State Department remains incapable of doing it. In Afghanistan, small unit military leaders, rather than diplomats, are working to create local governance councils throughout the country. Moreover, the military command has established a high-level anti-corruption task force and is setting up legal and judicial structures — both functions that ought to be civilian activities. Despite the existence of an embassy staffed by more than 1,000 civilians in Kabul, those tasks have not been undertaken by civilians.

State’s inability to improve is not for lack of ideas or effort at the highest echelons of Foggy Bottom. Typically, secretaries of state invest little in the professionalization of the department. Instead, they spend all their time on policies rather than the functioning of the institution. But the last three secretaries of state developed major initiatives to improve the performance of the department: Secretary Colin Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s Transformational Diplomacy, and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Diplomacy 3.0. In all three cases, the leadership teams identified shortcomings, developed policies to redress the shortcomings, and were successful in gaining funding support for their initiatives. What none of them proved successful at has been substantially affecting the culture of the State Department.

Fundamentally, State is an underperforming institution.  It has significant reservoirs of capability but it makes poor use of them; it has needs it cannot find ways to meet. Its institutional reflex is to complain that it lacks the resources to create change — most recently demonstrated in the insistence of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) that State needs more money and more people in order to support training. Thus State both justifies its current inadequacy and shields itself from reforms that would improve the organization.

There are no more fervent advocates of a more vibrant American diplomacy than the American military. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen have been the apostles of greater State Department funding, routinely advocating for it publicly, to the Congress, and within government counsels. True, they have not declined additional defense spending in favor of diplomatic funding, or offered more than what would be considered a trivial amount of money in the defense budget to achieve that improved State Department (roughly $100 million in the defense budget has a dual key for spending on activities that State and Defense jointly agree need doing). But they have gone further than any other DOD leadership in supporting increased spending for diplomacy. Both Gates and Mullen testified with the secretary of state to Congress in support of greater funding…

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