If the State Department Wants to Promote Foreign Policy, It Needs to Stop Complaining About the Military and Act More Like It
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.