The U.S. diplomatic corps is underfunded, overstretched, and set up to fail. Here's how to fix it.
- By Christopher HolshekChristopher Holshek, a retired U.S. Army civil affairs colonel, is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and a member of the leadership council of the Veterans for Smart Power.
America has had a problem with peace. Even as its military power remains unmatched, the United States has seen its foreign-policy influence fall into steady decline. The string of crises where the United States has looked to soft power over hard, from Syria to Ukraine, to say nothing of Iraq and Afghanistan, has increasingly exposed the long decay of America’s ability to manage peace rather than conflict.
Wrapping up his tour in Asia on April 28, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his foreign policy as the slow, methodical work of pursuing American interests, saying, "You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run." But the nation’s capability to enact this kind of patient strategy is stretched thin.
While February’s brouhaha over woefully unqualified political appointees for ambassadorial posts may have subsided, the problem it pointed to has not — and it is more serious than it appears at first glance. More than one-third of senior foreign service officers in leadership in the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are political appointees, and the proportions may be larger further down the organizational chart. To be fair, this practice goes back well before Obama’s time as president, and not all political appointees turn out to be subpar diplomats. Still, the United States "is the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils, often to wealthy campaign contributors in an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practices of banana republics, dictatorships and two-bit monarchies," retired foreign service officer James Bruno has argued in Politico.
Perhaps it’s time to do away with or limit in diplomacy and development what has long been outmoded in defense. Military command posts by patronage went out with the Civil War. Despite the risks of civil-military disassociation, the professionalization of the military has resulted in the world’s premier fighting force. It’s usually in the diplomatic arena where the United States falls short, and thinking it has few other options, the country tends to send in troops or military hardware, as it did from Vietnam to Iraq, or resort to drones — or want to, as some do in Syria, Iran, or Ukraine.
The problem goes deeper than patronage and polemics though: The United States just doesn’t take the profession of peace seriously. "There is no professionalization to the profession of being an American diplomat," noted Foreign Policy‘s Kori Schake, "and that is a far graver problem for U.S. foreign policy than the scattered cases of spectacularly ill-qualified political appointees." Compared with the professional development of military officers, who can spend up to 40 percent of their careers at school or in training, foreign service officers receive little beyond their initial training at the Foreign Service Institute.
America’s foreign policy and national security establishments simply aren’t structured for success in peacemaking, which is largely and more appropriately a civilian commission. James Locher, the architect of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which reorganized the Defense Department, and former head of the Project on National Security Reform, has attributed much of this problem to a chronic "strategy deficit." And it isn’t limited to what a Pentagon’s study termed a "Decade of War" or what Foreign Policy‘s David Rothkopf called a "decade of fear." It’s reflective of a long-standing and more pathological American problem. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, Americans know well how to get into wars and fight them, but not how to end or prevent them.
Compared with a military industrial complex that spends more each year than most countries’ GDPs, civilian-led national strategic capabilities to foster peace and prevent conflict remain a cottage industry. Many embassies are so thinly staffed that they are "at or above capacity in terms of executing U.S. government programs," including those more directly affecting national security, according to a recently released report on the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.
While competitors like China and Japan field platoons of commercial officers to forward national economic interests, their American counterparts look more like the Lone Ranger. This helps explain why the United States has struggled to secure the kind of trade deals that the president tried to close — the Trans-Pacific Partnership among them — which are often the result of years of relationship-building by a dedicated group of officials. Beyond fostering peace, such engagement abroad begets prosperity at home — and the jobs that go with it.
"The question no longer is whether to strengthen diplomacy and development," posits the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, "but how to best shape, elevate, and reform U.S. civilian agencies" that perform crucial tasks with less support, less funding, and often less fanfare than the military, while bearing increasing burdens. Although military casualty rates have declined, the losses of diplomats and aid workers in the field have risen to the point where they are proportionally similar. Yet hardly anyone thinks of this on Memorial Day.
"Our country’s gap is strategic and institutional — we have most of the tactical capacities we need," Eric Wolterstorff of the Coalition for Stabilization Reform told me. However, "stability operations require comprehensive planning and coordinated action, which are all but impossible within our government’s current structure." The only nonmilitary capacities specifically dedicated to managing the transition from conflict to peace are the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) at USAID, and none of these are integrated.
Yet CSO and OTI together are still smaller than any one of the Defense Department’s nearly 40 civil affairs units, which have fewer than 200 personnel each. Civil affairs, in turn, represents less than 1 percent or so of the force structure dedicated to something other than fighting wars or supporting war fighting. Created as military-government units to help transitions to local civilian-government control more than a century ago, they later featured functional specialists like the "Monuments Men." Despite, or perhaps because, they are the low-tech solution to a low-tech problem, civil affairs has also not been very well managed or resourced since the end of the Cold War. For one, most of it has been in the reserves, and for good reason — that’s where you find the mindsets and skill sets to deal with civilians. But reservists have always been considered second-clas
Having only one serious tool in the toolbox — and often the wrong one — to respond to today’s peace and security challenges does not bode well for a great power looking to expand strategic "optionality" and maintain its global leadership and all the benefits that go with it. Military power, as many generals tell us, is a blunt instrument. Yet, if all you have is a hammer, then everything tends to get handled like a nail.
One glaring lesson from the decade of war and fear is that winning the peace is much harder than winning a war — a reality known by strategic thinkers from Sun Tzu to Colin Gray. The tandem lesson is that you can’t win the peace at gunpoint alone. Warfare in any age is fairly straightforward: It essentially involves defeating an enemy, and as Americans have fought them, this has meant the application of science, technology, and overwhelming force. Building peace, however, is a more complex, collaborative, and less measurable process of convincing people to embark on a course of political, social, and economic change, as much from the bottom up as from the top down.
Ironically, it seems the military is learning faster and more broadly that peace is for professionals. In general, it has been changing, as one observer has noted, "from a force of confrontation to one of cooperation," finding it more advantageous to work indirectly through U.S. civilian agencies, NGOs, the United Nations, and civil society organizations to perform peace-building and stability tasks — that is, with civilians who are more capable than before and better suited for these tasks. Most pathways to peace call for Birkenstocks rather than boots on the ground. Besides, done correctly, they preserve blood and treasure in a 21st-century strategic application of the martial principle known as "economy of force."
But civilian organizations can’t do this work alone. Peace-building is, in practice, applied national strategy. It is the whole-of-society approach to the whole-of-society challenges that we must increasingly face and one where the resources needed to find a solution can be found in both government agencies and the private sector. As New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter has explained:
The most effective strategy for addressing transnational or global problems involves mixed networks of public, private and civic actors created under the rubric of public-private partnerships, global alliances, global campaigns or collaborative networks. Although not a panacea, such arrangements can stretch scarce government resources and ensure that they leverage other contributions of money, expertise and other in-kind resources.
If the United States wants peace, it has to plan, organize, and most of all resource for peace at least as seriously as it does for war. This requires more than rebalancing rather than reducing funding for diplomacy and development versus defense. As Schake explained, the State Department and USAID must more seriously and systemically manage foreign service officers and other professionals in "smart power," educate and train them, and use them more wisely in the field.
This effort calls for even more than "a comprehensive rethinking of U.S. foreign assistance and security interests," as the Alliance for Peacebuilding recommended for the Foreign Assistance Act — which, like the National Security Act, hasn’t been updated since the early days of the Cold War.
The good news is that it may not be a resource-intensive as we think. "It’s not as much an issue of capacity as it is about organization, structure, and authorities," said Stuart Bowen Jr., who headed of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) for nearly 10 years. Based on SIGIR’s recommendations, a group of Congress members led by Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) responded last summer to this need for "smart power" by calling for the establishment of the United States Office for Contingency Operations, which would establish a single, whole-of-government point of authority for funding and direction of stabilization and reconstruction operations. They have a steep uphill climb, though, and so far their efforts have gone nowhere.
"Whatever it turns out to be, this kind of reform needs champions," Bowen told me, "as there was for Goldwater-Nichols."
Ultimately, the United States has to prove it is as committed to its competence for peace as it is for security. Deeds much match words, and actions must reflect values — and the service and sacrifice of diplomats and aid workers should be as honored as that of soldiers. If not, James Madison’s warning that "no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare" will be a self-fulfilling prophecy and the United States will continue to forfeit its moral as well as its material right to lead.
It’s not just the White House and Congress that must treat the profession of peace as sincerely as the profession of arms. It’s the people who send them there. As the Project on National Security Reform realized, "It takes a nation to fix a government."