Stephen M. Walt

Is this any way to run U.S. foreign policy?

Is this any way to run U.S. foreign policy?

Watching the musical chairs taking place in the first months of Obama’s second term reminds me of how fundamentally unserious America’s approach to foreign affairs really is. Kerry and Hagel are now in, but apparently Biden’s star is ascending too, while all sorts of other folks are rotating to new jobs, unpacking their offices, or heading back to private life to pen memoirs. You might think this was a great opportunity for fresh thinking and renewed energy, but what it really reveals is how our approach to staffing foreign affairs may be the worst of all possible worlds.

For starters, the United States has a relatively small civil service. Compared with other countries, a relatively large percentage of top government jobs are held by presidential appointees. The result: top jobs in the State Department and Pentagon are handled not by career foreign service officers or experienced bureaucrats, but by partisan appointees who rarely last more than a couple of years and then return to private life. Not only does this mean tremendous turnover whenever the White House changes hands, it means we are constantly bringing in people who lack experience or who are not up to speed on current issues.

Next, the appointments process itself has gone completely off the rails. Candidates have to go through elaborate vetting procedures that would daunt a saint, and then they also face a Senate confirmation process that is slow, arbitrary, and leaves lots of positions unfilled for months if not years. And sometimes you get an embarrassing circus like the recent Hagel confirmation hearings, which revealed the GOP members of the Armed Services Committee to be spiteful and factually challenged hacks and no doubt confirmed many foreigners’ dubious views of America’s overall political competence.

Third, we are so afraid that our career diplomats will "go native" or develop "localitis," that we discourage them from developing deep regional expertise and instead rotate them around the globe on a frequent basis. There is something to be said for gaining a global perspective, of course, but it also means that unlike some of our rivals, we won’t have many diplomats with deep linguistic expertise or lots of in-depth experience in the societies in which they are operating. Yet we then expect them to hold their own against their local counterparts, or against diplomats from other countries whose knowledge and training in particular areas is more extensive.

To make matters worse, the United States has a four-year presidential term and a campaign cycle that lasts well over a year. This latter period is far longer than the election periods in any other advanced democracy, and the endless parade of primaries and other forms of electoral hoopla eat up lots of bandwith in our national discourse. The result? The country, the incumbent administration, and the president’s various rivals are all distracted for more than 25 percent of each president’s term, and less able to make hard political choices. 

And then there’s the question of resources. When there was a Cold War to win, American taxpayers were willing to devote one percent of GDP to non-military international affairs spending (e.g., on development, diplomacy, and things like that). Today, we spend about only 0.2 percent of GDP in this area,  which tells you all you need to know about the real priority that Americans place on non-military tools of international influence.

None of this would matter if the United States had a less ambitious foreign policy. But instead, we’re trying to be the "indispensable power" on the cheap. The results, I am sorry to say, speak for themselves.