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The Incredible Shrinking State Department must Evolve or Die

A quick ‘think” post.

It is generally a bad sign for a SECSTATE so early in an administration to have to come out and deny that they have been marginalized by the White House, as Secretary Clinton felt compelld to do the other day. The denial itself serves as confirmation of the fact.

It is tempting to write this off as another example of traditional, politically-motivated, battles between White House staffers, determined to protect the authority of the POTUS over foreign policy and the bureaucracy at State.  We have seen this struggle in the past with Al Haig, Cyrus Vance, William Rogers, Cordell Hull, Robert Lansing and other SECSTATEs who sooner or later found themselves sidelined and excluded from key foreign policy decisions by the president. However, this is not just a case of Obama insiders distrusting and attempting to “box in” the Clintons as political rivals, by using other high profile players ( though that has been done to Clinton).

Nor is it just that State is grossly underfunded relative to its responsibilities by the U.S. Congress, which it most certainly is. I’m pretty critical of State but to do everything they *should* be doing, and to do the job right, requires a sizable budget increase, perhaps upwards of 50 %. This cut off the nose to spite our foreign policy face niggardliness by the legislature is not new. Go back and read the memoirs of diplomats of a century ago. They wrestled with the same budgetary penury as State has to deal with today; even during WWII when you’d have thought money would be no object, Congress stiffed diplomats in hazardous, war-zone, postings on their food allowances. The foreign service was long the preserve of wealthy, well-connected, white men because back in the day, only they could afford to live on a State Department salary.

No, the hidden problem for the State Department is that in an age of failing, failed and fake states, diplomacy means less than it once did and accomplishes less in a greater number of places. You could replace Hillary Clinton with Talleyrand as SECSTATE and give him $ 100 billion to play with and he’d still be stuck with a collection of chaotic Gap states without effective internal governance, eroding sovereignty and multiplying non-state actors freebooting across international borders. The problem for State is the global evironment and their disinclination to adapt effectively to it as an institution. It’s foreign interlocutors frequently cannot deliver on any deals, even if they wanted to do so. When that is the reality, what role does diplomacy have in policy or strategy?

State needs to overhaul its personnel system and FSO culture to embrace the reality that interagency teamwork at the inception of policy planning is the only way the USG will be able to effectively advance its interests and nurture stability. The age of ambassadors or even mano-a-mano superpower summitry is over, even among great powers because State cannot execute policy across the DIME bureaucratic spectrum much less bring in the private sector on its own. It has neither the imagination nor the power to go it alone. For that matter, State is having enough  trouble just managing its core functions plus public diplomacy and development aid ( the last two so poorly they should be hived off immediately).

SECSTATE Clinton would like to be the Mario Andretti of Obama ‘s foreign policy but what she’s driving amounts to an Edsel. State needs an engineer to re-design it, and an advocate who can pull in the funding, not an operator or manager of the status quo. If State does not change its culture and its structures in the next decade, it is just marking time until some catastrophe results in it being retired to the historical graveyard and replaced with a new agency better suited to the conditions of the 21st century.

11 Responses to “The Incredible Shrinking State Department must Evolve or Die”

  1. tdaxp Says:

    A quick think reaction:Clinton’s numerous public joint-events with Gates implies that she is remarkable able to manage the role of SecState in the context of a weak State Department.Recently, she has also made political noises, that she would have appointed Obama VP (a back-handed complement), etc.Perhaps it is the optimist in me, but another interpretation is that Clinton is good at maximizing her influence while making herself appeal victimized and alienated (thus, giving Obama less room for maneuver).

  2. zen Says:

    hi Dan,
    I think you pegged Clinton’s political strategy to compensate very well. She clearly has the goodwill of SECDEF Gates who can see that a bureaucratically parapalegic State Department is not to the advantage of the US or the DoD, which has largely taken up the slack. However that may help preserve Hillary’s personal stature, it’s not fixing the State Department.

  3. Karaka Says:

    State needs to overhaul its personnel system and FSO culture to embrace the reality that interagency teamwork at the inception of policy planning is the only way the USG will be able to effectively advance its interests and nurture stability.

    Yeah, I’m inclined to agree, though I wouldn’t understate the power of the budget. Budget and policy play pretty closely together, as far as I can see. But there are things that stand out in this first nine months of the administration–USAID still officially undirected, the need to staff Afghanistan without the trained personnel to do it (I’m thinking specifically of the 950ish people Holbrooke wants for his civilian personnell and the 550 he currently has), and the <a href="http://diplopundit.blogspot.com/2009/10/ambassadors-presenting-their.html">arguably more attractive career path</a> of second- and first-world ambassadorships, where heavy lifting is not, per se, required.

    Or, to sum up your point, it’s a hot mess and it’s gotta be fixed.

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Karaka,
    Nice blog you have BTW. (I’ll fix your links later today)
    "arguably more attractive career path of second- and first-world ambassadorships, where heavy lifting is not, per se, required. "
    Yes. I think that’s going to have to be one of the more important personnel reforms. Cultivating a more "expeditionary",  "heavy-lifting", ethos in the Foreign Service along with a strong sense of interagency jointness ( though, in fairness, State is not the only agency where that attitude needs cultivation). It may very well require a different personality and skill-set profile for recruitment and promotion from those of traditional FSO’s. Not a wholesale replacement, but definitely a generous broadening of the talent pool.

  5. Karaka Says:

    Thanks! I enjoy working things out in this blogosphere. It’s never uninteresting. I realized that I’d posted under rich text and was briefly frustrated, so thanks for fixing that link. Here’s another link of interest: Steven Metz of TNR also talks about the "civilian surge" (I avoided using that phrase on purpose, by the way; I think it’s inaccurate and hyperbolic and doesn’t mean what folks want it to mean) this morning. He strikes exactly what you and I seem to agree on: that there not only needs to be a much, much, much larger corps of civilian officers, but they need to be trained and staffed to positions appropriately. I don’t think anyone has looked at the State Department’s views of personnel and FSO seriously in years, which I find deeply troubling.If all the branches of the military can meet/exceed their recruiting goals for what is arguably a more dangerous career than civil service abroad, why don’t we have a similar recruiting program for FSOs/CRC personnel? Seems like there is a pool of people willing to serve.

  6. The State Department has a mission, if they choose to accept it. « Karaka Pend Says:

    […] Mark Safranski at Zenpundit rakes the State Department over the coals for being remarkably ineffective: No, the hidden problem […]

  7. Sig Says:

    Seems as if a number of US Senators agree — viz: " Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced a resolution today to empower and strengthen the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)." http://dodd.senate.gov/?q=node/5273

  8. zen Says:

    Thanks Sig! Praise where praise is due – I’m glad these senior Democratic senators are moving so aggressively. USAID should be a major player in many of our current overseas problems, not a pygmy. Hopefully the GOP will step up and co-sponsor rather than oppose.

  9. Fixing the government, part XXXIV « Fabius Maximus Says:

    […] 7 March 2008).  It matches well an equally silly (but interesting!) post by Zenpundit:  “The Incredible Shrinking State Department must Evolve or Die” (15 October […]

  10. mlp Says:

    I have a lot of dealings with State and I’ve dealings with many government agencies over the years.  I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that changing culture, structure, missions, organization, and all of that good stuff really is necessary or talk of it very helpful.  The real problem that I’ve encountered and still encounter with State is very simple.  People have extraordinarily packed schedules and are stretched too thin.  It is easy for those of us on the outside to sit and fiddle around with flow charts and grand schemes, but people at State seldom have time to any long range thinking on much of anything.  As many of us know, it can take weeks if not months to get an appointment with people over a matter of consequence and forever to get an e-mail returned.  We always joke about "lazy bureaucrats", but those lazy bureaucrats at other agencies have the time to come up with problem solving ideas and to talk to people on the outside.  State is much tougher that way.  It seems to me that the problem is a relatively simple one.  Simply put, State needs more people — both FSOs and civil servants.  There is a surplus of people, especially young people, in this country with international relations education and experience.  A serious effort needs to be made to recruit them for the State Department to relieve the strain on the system.

  11. zen Says:

    Hi mlp,
    Dissenting views are welcome.
    I agree with you that State also has a personnel shortage and that can be remediated, in part, with more funding. I’d support that, particularly if the emphasis was on securing more personnel with high-level conversational fluency in critical foreign languages ( which may mean paying ppl more money, I’m fine with that). I have never said, either, that State employees and FSO’s are anything but hardworking and bright people. That’s not the problem in my view.
    State also has byzantine policies for promotion and transfer that revolve around an old boy’s SES network, seniority, favortism, diversity, bureaucratic tiny empire building – in short, everything except an administration’s national security priorities. That’s not an effective use of the talent and resources they do have ( the difficulties staffing the Iraq embassy, are infamous at this point). Which then moves a step further to a need for a corps of diplomats who are comfortable and competent operating in messy situations doing activities outside traditional state to state relations, focused on economic development and civil society building.

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