10 Ways to Fix America’s Ailing State Department
It's time for the State Department to reclaim its rightful place in the policymaking process. Here's how.
The State Department seems to lurch from disaster to distraction, responding to many crises but preventing few. Its influence in Washington, and American diplomatic influence globally, is waning.
A hypothetical graph of the State Department’s influence through history would have its obvious high points — William Seward serving as Lincoln’s confidant and advisor, George Marshall rebuilding Europe after World War II, James Baker organizing a global coalition in the first Gulf War and consolidating post-Cold War Europe — but fewer of late. With the rise of large, permanent defense and intelligence bureaucracies after World War II, and the more recent increase in size and stature of the National Security Council begun under Henry Kissinger and expanded since, State’s role is ever more constrained. Its regional and thematic policy experts are often muscled out of big decisions by other parts of the executive branch.
That is a waste. State’s impressively smart, hardworking, and principled employees could be investment bankers or tech titans or big firm lawyers (and some have been). Instead, they choose public service, with its lower pay, fusty hierarchy, and often considerable danger. American diplomats abroad are busy assisting U.S. businesses and American citizens in trouble, investigating war crimes, tracking corruption and terrorist financing, and representing Washington in treaty negotiations. Meanwhile, their colleagues back at Foggy Bottom toil in an organization that is neither agile, efficient, strategic, nor particularly relevant.
While major U.S. foreign-policy failures are usually the result of strategic choices made at the presidential level (e.g., the second Iraq War), or due to capability/will imbalances between the United States and our adversaries (e.g., Syria), some are the preventable result of misjudgments or poor implementation at State. No organization is infallible. Reforming and re-empowering the foreign-policy experts at State will not magically tame our enemies or shift world resources.
Building a world-class foreign affairs institution for the 21st century will take time. Here’s how to start.
Kill the clearance process
Like classics professors speculating whether lead pipes made the Romans too dimwitted to manage their empire, future historians seeking to explain the State Department’s untimely demise may conclude the accumulating poison was the “clearance process.”
State has an elaborate system for tasking and editing the written memoranda that inform senior department officials of important events or trends, report progress on initiatives, and set out issues for decision. It is complicated by design. Overlapping turf, clashing bureaucratic points of view, and the lack of a definitive arbiter short of the secretary of state are meant to ensure that even if the best policy initiatives don’t always prevail, the worst ones are suffocated. Unfortunately, in its current state, the process produces troves of mind-numbing briefing papers that are often late, seldom depart from conventional wisdom, and lack critical self-examination. Bureaucratic chieftains use the process to stall, harass, and exhaust their opponents. Time is frittered away on format, tone, and grammar, rather than on fine-tuning difficult policy choices.
State should instead opt for a “comments process,” where stakeholding bureaus would have a limited interval to append a short paragraph that supports, opposes, or comments on a policy memo draft. But they would no longer be able to ensnare the original memo in a disputatious drafting exercise or slow it down with non-substantive, “Grammarians Gone Wild” edits.
For example, if the political-military bureau and the human rights bureau disagree about the merits of a proposed arms sale, the drafting bureau should make the argument it wants. The clearing bureau would be able to flag its opposition quickly, then offer a longer argument separately if necessary. In my 25 years at the State Department, it was common for memos to be held up for weeks, even months, with bureaus barred from arguing their cases and senior officials denied the opportunity to hear timely recommendations.
Foreign service officers sometimes humorously celebrate a past “golden age,” when early U.S. diplomats enjoyed a degree of independence far exceeding that of today’s ambassadors. Stories of these ancient diplomats commanding gunboats may be largely apocryphal (although William Eaton really did depart his post of assignment in North Africa and lead a Marine invasion force against a neighboring Barbary State that had attacked a U.S. shipping vessel), but their modern descendants are undoubtedly micromanaged.
With rare exceptions, ambassadors no longer negotiate or convey U.S. positions without detailed guidance from Washington, cleared through State and often with other departments or by the NSC. Today, officials in Washington conduct diplomacy directly with foreign leaders, turning ambassadors into mere implementers rather than policy architects on many key issues.
This centralized diplomacy squanders an embassy’s nuanced perspective of local events and personalities, and prevents our chiefs of mission from responding quickly to opportunities, threats, or misunderstandings. Empowering our ambassadors would also help insulate policy from D.C.-based interagency skirmishes and partisan political gamesmanship. The solution is restraint from Washington.
Don’t just deliver the mail
Foggy Bottom does have its individual superstar policymakers, those who shine despite State’s disorganization. But in my career, I heard too often from colleagues at the NSC that State representatives are less strategic, prepared, persuasive, and well-regarded than their counterparts at other agencies. It may be just that State employees are exhausted from internal squabbles, but I suspect the problem runs deeper.
With other cabinet agencies — the Pentagon, most obviously — encroaching on foreign-policy making, and with the NSC exceeding its statutory coordination role, it’s not clear what authority remains for State, other than delivering the diplomatic mail. On the most important foreign-policy challenges, even on signature initiatives — like the Iran nuclear talks or Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for Secretary John Kerry — Secretaries of State do not operate with predominant authority. As direct representatives of the president, ambassadors still have authority over most U.S. government employees deployed abroad. But even there, the Pentagon has been chipping away at chief of mission authority. The White House and other agencies, it turns out, too often see State only as tender of foreign relationships.
Restoring State’s central role will not be a panacea. But with State currently weakened and the NSC overwhelmed by operational details, the squandered diplomatic opportunity costs and policy confusion outweigh any perceived benefits of centralized control.
Depart a decrepit symbol of decline
A half-block away from the National Mall, with its views of the Lincoln, Vietnam, and Korean War Memorials and the Potomac, the State Department’s location is a real estate agent’s dream. But the Truman Building is dismal and decaying. Its ancient linoleum floors and Styrofoam drop ceilings strike foreign diplomats as evidence of an empire (and an agency) in decline. Grim-faced employees recount stories of rats, cockroaches, asbestos, and raccoons falling through ceiling tiles. So inadequate is the physical plant that when State hosts large ceremonial gatherings, it sometimes has to curtail ongoing diplomatic activities due to a lack of office space, secure access to the building, and parking.
In addition, department staffing has grown a bit since we received the building as a hand-me-down from the War Department in the late 1940s. Today, employees not holding fast like barnacles to the sinking hulk are scattered across offices in Foggy Bottom; Rosslyn, Virginia; and even further away from the city. With fewer opportunities for face-to-face contact with colleagues, and often with limited-to-no access to secure communications at their sites, they are physically and metaphorically separated from headquarters.
It is long past time to sell this prestigious real estate and use the proceeds to construct a purpose-built structure in a not-yet gentrified part of the metropolitan core, a headquarters that includes modern information and communications infrastructure, stiffer site security, adequate space for staff, and a facility to host international meetings without shutting down other important work. It would send a message that the United States is committed to a strong foreign policy, not a slow slide into senility.
End the “Upstairs, Downstairs” dynamic
As new officers learn, the department’s organizational hierarchy is mirrored in its top-down office space allocation. The Truman Building’s beautiful eighth floor reception rooms are ceremonial and luxurious, but accessible by invitation only. The seventh floor hosts the secretary, deputies, and undersecretaries and their staffers in the historical splendor of “the Suite” along the southern façade. The regional bureau assistant secretaries occupy sixth floor offices beneath the secretary, and the functional bureau assistant secretaries fight like cats in a bag for the next best real estate. There are certain exceptions to the rule that upper floors are closer to God (including some temporarily semi-powerful special envoys slumming it on the lower floors), but employees below the sixth floor can’t help but feel like passengers berthed in steerage on the Titanic.
Physical separation affects how some senior leaders think about the rest of the building and vice versa. One symptom is the lack of discipline in tasking bureaus with “hair on fire” requests for unnecessary briefing papers. There is little incentive to think managerially about workflow and prioritization, since the system caters to needs from the top, not complaints from the bottom. Similarly, it is difficult for the department’s leaders to grasp how creaky and inadequate our information technology infrastructure is, since they enjoy their own bespoke IT system (the “Principal Officers Electronic Messaging System,” or POEMS).
Every large organization should be on guard against groupthink among key leaders and morale problems stemming from their isolation from average employees.
Empower the substantive experts
State’s organizational culture is antiquated and inefficient, concentrating decisionmaking in the hands of a few extremely overburdened top officials. No matter how brilliant or prepared they are, senior officials cannot master the minutiae of complicated issues from every continent and on every thematic policy issue. Poorly prepared principals can misspeak with foreign diplomats or in statements to the press, with regrettable consequences. More often, however, an imperfect understanding of the details of U.S. “talking points” or another country’s position results in missed diplomatic opportunities or opaque messages when we want clarity.
This centralization of diplomatic interactions by senior officials who are not subject matter experts is a particular temptation at State because high-level diplomacy is, well, fun. It often occurs in picturesque places with interesting people. The pride in representing your country, the motivation of working on life-and-death issues, the intense press attention, and the diplomatic treatment are exhilarating. It is no wonder that senior officials are reticent, even if unconsciously, to devolve responsibility down, or that too many “kiss-up, kick-down” style mid-level managers covet that high-level life and manage as if their subordinates exist only to make them look good. Meanwhile, lower down the organizational food chain, too many working-level officers with unparalleled subject matter expertise cannot exercise it directly.
While a voluntary devolution of power is the solution, substantially reducing the number of staff positions that serve senior officers would also help. The proliferation of seventh floor staffers helps perpetuate the fiction that senior officials can know everything about everywhere. Limiting their numbers, and cutting the large number of semi-independent special envoys, can help restore a more sustainable hierarchy, instead of what we have now, which is like fielding a soccer team with nine strikers clustered around the opponent’s goal, and a goalie and single defender lonely in the backfield.
Win congressional friends and influence press people
If asked to describe the State Department in one word, many Washingtonians would choose “arrogant.” In a town with as many mega-egos as Washington, it is unlikely that people trained in diplomacy would be the worst offenders, but the stereotype is not debunked by our dysfunctional relations with Congress and the press.
If the intent is to simultaneously demonstrate haughty disdain and weaselly incompetence, the midday press briefing ritual — badgering reporters cornering a backpedaling, defensive State spokesperson — is the perfect vehicle. Similarly, State’s current grudging responsiveness to Congress will continue to ensure that other cabinet agencies receive better treatment and funding.
First, we need to defuse our confrontational relationship with the press. Televising the briefings provides reporters with the incentive to be provocative (and be seen as heroes) in instances where State is clearly stonewalling. Changing the format or, if that fails, removing cameras from the briefing rooms, could help lower the temperature.
But in exchange, the public affairs bureau should behave less like a guardian at the gate and more like a customer service representative by, for example, responding to tough questions honestly and by facilitating background briefings with mid-level subject matter experts.
Cultivating better contacts with Congress is a longer-term challenge, one we should address by making service on the Hill a requirement for promotion to the senior foreign service or senior executive service. The congressional affairs bureau has, historically, limited State-Hill interaction. Expanding working-level contacts could defuse suspicions and provide a more nuanced view of the department and its people to those who pass its budget.
Break down the professional caste systems
Like Harry Potter and Hermione Granger starting off at Hogwarts, foreign service officers are assigned to a professional house (or “cone”), which focuses their careers on consular, economic, management, political, or public affairs issues. Unfortunately, decisions by the sorting hat don’t always match an officer’s interests and experience. And, like trying to move from Hufflepuff to Ravenclaw, changing one’s cone can be as unpleasant as the semiofficial department term for it: “conal rectification.”
Hyper-specialization has produced what you would expect. The department does have senior leaders with broad talents. But we also have too many who write beautifully but couldn’t organize a grade school lunch line. Others can speak authoritatively, but lack reporting experience beyond writing an annual holiday card, or can balance a budget but possess diplomatic skills more likely to produce enemies than allies for the United States.
A separate personnel caste system divides “foreign service” from “foreign affairs” policy officers (the latter are in the civil service), despite negligible distinctions between officer quality at the equivalent grade. The distinction frustrates civil service officers interested in foreign postings and foreign service officers who want to spend less of their careers overseas.
Whether they were instituted originally to promote competencies or streamline personnel practices, the castes of cone and service make us less proficient and flexible than we need to be, and reinforce the sense that some work is less prestigious and valued. Gryffindor’s quidditch team didn’t operate on the principle of “One Team, Multiple Systems” and neither should State.
Ensure long-term preparedness
Wars, tsunamis, genocides, epidemics, terrorist attacks, and other foreign disasters seem to bring out the best of the State Department. Crisis task forces to handle these emergencies demand long hours, promote serious conduct, and exhibit less tolerance of bad bureaucratic behavior.
Unfortunately, that focus often evaporates when it comes to long-term strategic challenges. There is a disappointing paucity of ideas within the State Department on essential next-generation questions: What should the 21st century international system look like? What will be the most important attributes of state power? Thematic threats like terrorism, disease, and climate change have received more attention, but State still lacks a coherent framework for dealing with them. Big-think proposals face significant hurdles, including the (usually correct) assumption that State lacks the resources for implementation.
More to the point, the department’s organizational culture does little to encourage or promote strategic-level thinking from action officers. Like the pack dogs in the movie Up constantly distracted by squirrels, too many senior officials spend too much time preoccupied with the urgent rather than the important. For example, despite the White House’s rhetorical support for a diplomatic pivot to Asia, the Bureau of International Organization Affairs spent years trying and failing to deploy a single multilateral officer to the region.
We need to unlearn the harmful axiom that only senior State officials with broad mandates can and should think strategically. Good ideas come from every level, and officers new to the department are especially well-positioned to ask tough questions. One useful step would be to establish a larger “float” of policy officers assigned to training and strategic initiatives, as the military does, rather than fixed country or thematic portfolios.
There are strong arguments for increasing the size of the department (the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus once said former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told him that he had more military band members than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had foreign service officers). Absent congressional authorization for staff increases, however, State should rearrange personnel, sacrificing some current positions (like process-oriented staff) to create an officer pool that conceives and implements long-term initiatives, and could also serve as task force surge capacity in emergencies.
Finally, we need to be careful that State’s crisis culture does not create perverse incentives. Like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that didn’t bark, an averted foreign-policy disaster is often invisible, and officers responsible for the success can miss out on professional recognition. By recognizing the value in strategic work, State leaders can make sure emergencies don’t crowd out work with a longer-term payout.
Bureaucratic, and loving it
After 25 years at State, I retired this spring. Even at a time when “bureaucrat” seems to hover near vagabond on the prestige scale, I am proud of my quarter century in government. Corny or not, I did feel a call to public service, and I can say the “b” word with affection and without irony.
While our diplomats are defending American interests and projecting American values around the globe, however, U.S. diplomacy is not as effective as it must be. In a 21st century that will feature old-style geopolitical competition alongside new global threats, some assume that American diplomatic influence will decay slowly and steadily. Reforming the State Department can help confound the doomsayers.
Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
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