To google “Reforming the State Department” is to get lost in a thicket of critical opinion pieces.  Think tanks from across the political spectrum have chronicled State’s weaknesses (e.g., “a profound state of disrepair,” “fading influence,” “widely acknowledged shortcomings”) and made sincere, often insightful, recommendations.   (My own contribution to the literature described State as “neither agile, efficient, strategic, nor particularly relevant.”)

Concerns about the Department’s competence and influence are perennial.  Despite rounds of internally and externally-driven reform, State has steadily ceded authority over implementation of U.S. foreign policy to other agencies and over foreign policy formulation to the National Security Council at the White House.  A graph of State’s bureaucratic influence resembles a view of Mount Vesuvius from the north – ending in a slow decline toward sea level. 

Whether this is bad for American national interests is not settled, because debate over the State Department’s proper role is partly ideological.  The answer depends not just on what international threats and opportunities we see ahead, or what kind of foreign policy tools we are inclined to use, but also on how we might answer the following questions.

  • Is the chief purpose of international relations to understand the world, or change it? 
  • Is a foreign ministry properly responsible for a country’s foreign policy or just its diplomacy?  
  • Does the diplomatic perspective on foreign affairs deserve a privileged role?  And ultimately…
  • Is the State Department worthy of trust?   

Why does the architecture of the U.S. foreign policy making system matter?  Because just as “Personnel is policy” (an aphorism dusted off during American presidential transition periods), it is as true that “Organization is policy.”  Foreign policy officials influence decisionmaking through their biases, preoccupations, and unique background and experience.  At the same time, the structure of foreign policy decisionmaking predisposes certain outputs, forestalls others, empowers certain viewpoints, creates blind spots, and determines the level of efficiency and effectiveness of America’s engagement with the world.

It is possible the 21st century will be when humanity masters environmental limits on prosperity and happiness and conquers the demons that have abraded our relations with each other.  It is also possible that the next hundred years could see a catastrophic regression in global welfare or usher in our species’ end.  Success or failure will depend not just on having people of good will in key positions but on wisely established systems for making critical decisions. 

The United States in the World

The United States remains the world’s preeminent state, but at a time when states are relatively less powerful actors in the international system.  Many traditional attributes of power – like economic networks, ability to exploit natural resources, technological prowess, even populations – are more fluid than ever.  The monopoly on sovereignty asserted by states is challenged from above by international law and multilateral institutions and from below by sub-state entities and by ad hoc ideological coalitions of citizens from many countries.

Hundreds of non-state entities are at least as influential as the least powerful UN member states.  They can be mostly beneficial (e.g., philanthropic institutions, universities and scientific organizations, human rights NGOs), malicious (e.g., terrorist organizations, black hat hacker networks), or either, depending on circumstances (e.g., media outlets, corporations and financial institutions, religious leaders).

To note the relative decline of state power is not to say this century will be free of traditional forms of international competition.  There will still be instances of intrastate war and disputes over trade, currencies, and resources.   But U.S. foreign policymakers considering the risks and opportunities in the 21st century face an additional challenge:  namely, how to defend against formidable, malevolent non-state actors and empower virtuous ones.  

Preparing for a 21st Century of Opportunity, or Dystopia

 

For techno-Utopians, the future will feature immortality, limitless energy, and solutions to perpetual human problems like scarcity, disease, pollution, and conflict.  We should hope they are right, but we have a responsibility to contingency plan in case they are wrong.  

A stroll through an airport bookstore will acquaint one with scary (but conceivable) threats to global welfare:  nuclear terrorism, bio-weapons, anti-biotic/viral resistant pandemics (perhaps emerging from the permafrost!), industrial accidents related to biotech/pharmaceuticals or geo-engineering or nanotechnology, an arms race or armed conflict in space, the balkanization or collapse of the global internet, or the emergence of malevolent artificial intelligence.

What do these threats have in common?  They do not have to originate with government authorities.  Deterring or punishing perpetrators (even ascribing responsibility) will be difficult.  And catastrophes won’t stop at international borders.  

Of the new threats, climate change is the most documented.  But even here, our effort is woefully inadequate to the threat.  Over the next hundred years, we may see certain UN member states blink out of existence, submerged or made uninhabitable in an economically sustainable way.  Today’s humanitarian system struggles to cope with tens of millions of forcibly displaced people.  What will we need to do to prepare for potentially hundreds of millions of people displaced from low lying coastal cities?

To protect against potential 21st century dystopias that might emerge from outside our borders, Americans need to reconfigure our foreign policy priorities and institutions, including reconsidering what role the State Department should play.

Is the Chief Purpose of International Relations to Understand the World, or Change it?

Over the last two Administrations, Americans have borne witness to foreign policy sins of commission, sins of omission, and sins of distraction.  From insufficient understanding of transnational threats and poorly planned military interventions; to paralysis in response to gains by our geopolitical competitors and challenges to the norms and legal instruments of the international system established after the Second World War; to fitful or absent planning for strategic-level or even existential future threats.  Many Americans question the government’s foreign policy competence. 

Despite deep dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy (both popularly and among experts), the recently concluded presidential campaign offered only a glimpse of the strategic perspectives of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  To be sure, there were acrimonious disagreements – on individual country situations (e.g., Russia, China, Iran) and on some thematic issues (e.g., military alliances, trade).  There was little debate over strategic priorities, however, or specific descriptions of what either would want the world to look like in thirty or fifty years (and what they would do to bring that about). 

Is the purpose of U.S. foreign policy exclusively the safety, freedom, and prosperity of Americans, as Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft argued in 1951 (“No foreign policy can be justified except a policy devoted without reservation or diversion to the protection of the liberty of the American people,”)?  Or does the United States have a broader role to play in ensuring a world where others can also live freely and prosper, as Woodrow Wilson said in 1917 (“we shall fight for … the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free”)?

American diplomacy produces and organizes a stream of generally high quality reporting about foreign governments and societies from our embassies and missions.  But if “The main thing is to make history, not to write it,” as Bismarck said (and the potentially grave risks of the 21st century would seem to me to reinforce that wisdom), then the more contemplative side of American diplomacy must buttress a more robust operational side.  

American foreign policy officials need to be assessed according to their ability to change circumstances, not just describe them, or cope with them.  The risk for unchallenged superpowers is that they grow complacent – that even formerly revolutionary powers hunker down in defense of the temporarily advantageous status quo.  The U.S. no longer has that luxury. 

President-elect Trump’s views were somewhat veiled during the campaign and will become clearer only when he appoints key Administration officials and starts to govern.  Despite his skepticism of conventional wisdom on alliances, trade agreements, and American responsibility for global order, disentangling America from its overseas commitments will not be easily accomplished.  As Robert Kaplan put it “Superpowers don’t get to retire.” 

Is a Foreign Ministry Properly Responsible for a Country’s Foreign Policy or just its Diplomacy?

Since establishment of the National Security Council system in 1947, the influence of the State Department relative to the White House has waxed and waned, and waned some more. 

The last four decades have featured two management models.  In the first, the National Security Advisor to the President serves in a more constrained role as strategic-level policy coordinator and arbiter of interagency disputes (as with Brent Scowcroft in the George H.W. Bush Whitehouse).  In the second, the NSC staff has centralized even routine decisionmaking and been much more directive of agency operations (as with Tom Donilon and Susan Rice in the Obama Whitehouse).  

The Obama Whitehouse reportedly even kept Secretary Kerry initially uninformed about secret negotiations with Cuba.  After chronicling how “under Obama… cabinet members and their departments have felt marginalized,” a 2014 Atlantic Magazine story called Obama “Micromanager in Chief.”

Trump has a reputation for detailed personal management of his business interests, but would do well to reconsider the hyper-centralized processes of the Obama Whitehouse, which were not only inefficient but counter-productive. 

Contrary to intent, Obama Administration efforts to micromanage State (which necessarily politicized the policymaking process) produced less well coordinated foreign policy, and ultimately more criticism of the president.  The effort to coordinate daily press briefings, in particular, often assigned White House and State Department spokespersons to stylized kabuki roles, defending faulty foreign policy judgment in the face of the facts and disbelieving journalists.

The Obama Administration provides a further cautionary tale – about policy centralization and politicization within the State Department itself.  One critic wrote of Clinton’s time at State “Never before had the nation’s seat of diplomacy been so unabashedly political, with a constellation of Clinton-appointed special envoys and advisers, some of whom knew next to nothing about diplomacy.” 

That is too harsh toward political appointees at State, many of whom are smart and experienced.  But the system they served in was slow, myopic, and reactive, even where it was not nakedly partisan.  It reduced State to more of a diplomatic postal carrier than the architect of America’s statecraft.  And it was ultimately unsuccessful.

Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously said about his cooperation with Democratic president Harry Truman that “partisan politics [must stop] at the water’s edge.”  That has been only intermittently true in U.S. history, of course, and was not respected by either the Obama Administration or its Congressional critics. 

The rumored front runners to be appointed Secretary of State have large personalities (and would presumably chafe at excessive White House oversight).  Trump nevertheless will enjoy greater autonomy on foreign policy than did Obama, given the reduced Congressional predilection to undermine his initiatives or limit his options.  Still, he would do well to resist the urge to continue to marginalize State, which is neither in the country’s interest nor his. 

Does the Diplomatic Perspective on Foreign Affairs Deserve a Privileged Role?  

Well utilized, the State Department can offer two things without which successful American foreign policy is impossible. 

The first is the deep insight into foreign societies and governments provided by U.S. embassies, consulates, and missions.  At their best, American diplomats are historians, demographers, anthropologists, and psychologists – masters of behavioral and organizational and political theory.  One perversely positive result of the Wikileaks release of classified State Department cables was to demonstrate the generally high quality of American diplomatic analysis.

Second, no other USG entity has a broader understanding of America’s foreign interests than the State Department (the other entity with as broad a mandate -- the National Security Council – lacks sufficient staff, long term perspective, and presence abroad). 

Because State’s mandate includes all international issues relevant to the United States, American diplomats are best positioned to prioritize among foreign policy opportunities, predict threats, and assess risk and reward associated with various strategies.  While State doesn’t deploy military units, print money, or inspect shipping entering U.S. waters, it has substantive experts on just about every activity implemented by one of the domestic departments or agencies. 

By design, this should allow State to avoid parochial decision-making (other cabinet agencies sometimes conform to the old saying, “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail”), make hard choices among priorities, and coordinate programs so they do not work at cross purposes.  Unfortunately, that broad expertise and potential coordination role makes State a bureaucratic target of its sister agencies and of the NSC.  

The Defense Department is the best example of a cabinet agency steadily encroaching on State (and, in general, civilian) prerogatives.  As Georgetown professor and former DOD official Rosa Brooks has written, “we’ve gotten into the habit of viewing every new threat through the lens of “war,” thus asking our military to take on an ever-expanding range of nontraditional tasks.”

The Pentagon regularly and directly engages in diplomacy with foreign leaders to an extent with few parallels in American history, and not just in situations of military occupation or in conflict zones.  And because the State Department is further removed from the levers of American “hard power,” it is less influential in wielding U.S. influence.    

An oft-cited example is the sidelining by the White House and Defense Department of the State-led “Future of Iraq” project, which prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq warned of stark challenges for any U.S. occupation.  

The intelligence community has been similarly empowered in a way that degrades the State Department’s influence and power.  When I worked at the NSC, meetings often started with an overview from the intelligence community rather than the State Department, despite the fact that the intelligence community’s analysis is skewed towards its sources of information, which focus more heavily on clandestine material and proportionately less on press and diplomatic sources than would an equivalent State briefing. 

The most peculiar example of State Department diplomatic disempowerment is the status of the American Ambassador in New York as a cabinet official, a decision that dates from the Eisenhower Administration (with two temporary demotions since).  It establishes two separate chains of command from USUN (to the White House and State), resulting in turf wars, duplication, and unclear authorities. 

USUN’s status may again be demoted if someone like John Bolton (“you shouldn’t have two secretaries in the same department”) is named Trump’s Secretary of State.  The temptation for any President, however, is not to decrease the number of high level political appointments that can be doled out to supporters.

Is the State Department worthy of trust? 

Just because a well-run State Department would be better positioned than the NSC and other cabinet agencies to formulate and direct U.S. foreign policy in a non-politicized and strategic manner doesn’t mean it deserves the responsibility. 

I’ve made no secret of my critique of the State Department’s organizational and operational weaknesses.  It is top heavy, with too many senior officials and unclear chains of authority.  It is partially paralyzed by a system of policy formulation that somehow manages to be both timidly cautious and aggressively adversarial.  New officers are discouraged by the authoritarian hierarchy, groupthink, and petty internal rivalries.  New-born ideas are too often smothered in their cradles.

These problems are fixable, however, with talented management that streamlines the Department’s structure, devolves authority down, polices misbehavior, and encourages internal debate

More important perhaps is the need to shake State from some of its longstanding institutional preconceptions.  For example, American diplomats have grown too comfortable, certainly since the end of the Cold War but even before, in the belief that the chief task of American diplomacy is to preserve the status quo. 

That is a dangerous complacency, given the relative decline in American power over the last two decades (after all, that is what it means to have other “rising powers”) and the very different range of threats we will face this century.

One consequence of this status quo bias is that American diplomats are, in my experience, not very good negotiators.  The usual pattern is to craft an acceptable position at the start of negotiations and then offer serial concessions until an agreement is reached.  There is too great a commitment to identifying win/win aspects of negotiations and not on the division of spoils.  There is a preoccupation with the exchange at the negotiating table and not enough on bringing outside pressure to bear to change an opponent’s calculations.

It is difficult to fathom, for example, how the Obama Administration could have offered a package of concessions to achieve an agreement with Cuba without obtaining a guarantee that the Cubans would withdraw the annual resolution at the UN General Assembly that criticizes the U.S. trade embargo and embarrasses and isolates us.   

Of all the conceptual weaknesses built into U.S. diplomacy, however, none is so pernicious as the perceived State responsibility to cultivate or safeguard “relationships” with foreign governments.  It is both inaccurate (because the purpose of diplomacy is not to ensure good relations but to maximize influence) and bureaucratically unhelpful, since it casts State in a role as defender of foreign interests against American ones. 

It is possible for diplomats to be too transactional – disregarding long term interests, undervaluing loyalty, and neglecting soft power gains of being admired -- but from my experience, State’s greater weakness is the opposite.  There needs to be a stronger culture of consequences in American foreign policy – through which we treat our friends better than our opponents (lest we provoke more of the latter and attract fewer of the former).    

The next President, and the choices before him

Whether or not one believes that the “West is in crisis,” it is clear that people in the advanced democracies that have prospered over the last seventy years are increasingly skeptical of internationalist, humanitarian, values-driven, free-trade, neoliberal, multilateralist foreign policy.

Trump’s election is one ramification of that, but it is not clear how much of a departure his Administration will actually be from the substantial, bipartisan consensus on America’s global role that has predominated since the Second World War.  Whatever differences in presidential ideologies, foreign policy is still driven by interaction with the world, in all its messiness and unpredictability. 

For example, pundits have been wearing the letters off their keyboards over the last year in the debate over whether Trump is a realist (e.g., yes; that’s how he thinks of himself; yeah, just a 19th century version; “don’t believe it;” hell no; no, that’s Obama; or, maybe he’s just “Jacksonian”).

I have little confidence in even my own predictions about whether Trump will be more isolationist or interventionist, dogmatically nationalist or opportunistically cooperative, interest focused or moralistic.  It seems reasonable to think he will be impatient with “doctrines” and rigid categorization, which is not the worst way to approach a world in flux. 

Given new threats and a changing global power structure, the United States would have needed to rethink its foreign policy habits no matter who was elected.  Unlike during the Cold War, when we faced off against totalitarian ideology, threats in this new century are more likely to emanate from parts of the globe with insufficient order, not too much.  And both the chief dangers and our most vital defenses may exist outside of direct state control.

A reinvigorated, more competent, and empowered State Department could help guide the intellectual and operational reset we need. 

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published on Limes.