The Machine That Fails

40 years ago, in the inaugural issue of Foreign Policy, Richard Holbrooke laid out a forceful vision of U.S. diplomacy that would echo throughout his career.

The postwar period in international relations has ended. --President Nixon, U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970's

The postwar period in international relations has ended. –President Nixon, U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970’s

In the realm of policy some changes have been made, others promised. But the massive foreign affairs machine built up during the postwar era rumbles on, as ornate and unwieldy as ever. If meaning is attached to the President’s promise of a new foreign policy for the seventies, then the shape of our massive bureaucracies must be changed, and those changes must be substantial.

"If we were to establish a new foreign policy for the era to come," Mr. Nixon went on to declare, "we had to begin with a basic restructuring of the process by which policy is made." But the restructuring has not yet met the problem — the accumulation of more than two decades of institutions, procedures and personnel, existing unchanged in a changing situation. Can we create an apparatus which will, in fact, "respond to the requirements of leadership in the 1970’s"?

As a member of the bureaucracy myself, I feel its shortcomings with a special keenness. It is hard to decide whether to play the drama as tragedy, comedy, or simply theater of the absurd.

After several years’ absence in private life, an elder statesman is recalled by the President to temporary duty in the State Department. He notices that there are twice as many Assistant Secretaries and "deputies" as he had remembered from his last stint of public service a decade before. "I have three people on my staff," he says, "who spend all their time attending meetings so they can come back and ‘brief’ me about what was said at the meetings. The funny thing is," he adds, "I don’t give a damn what’s said at any of those meetings."

Size — sheer, unmanageable size — is the root problem in Washington and overseas today. Most studies and recommendations discuss in detail valid but secondary issues: reorganizing, personnel policy, more managerial skill, the need for youth and new ideas, and so on. All these are important factors, but they are primarily unrecognized spin-offs of the central and dominant problem — size. There are two distinct but related ways that the apparatus is too big — in numbers of people (or, as we bureaucrats say, "warm bodies") and the multiplicity of chains of command. Of the two, the latter is by far the more serious:

An officer arrives at a consulate in an area where a minor guerrilla war has been going on for years. The United States is officially uninvolved, but the officer discovers that another agency of the U.S. government is giving limited covert assistance to the guerilla movement. Rather than send a coded message (the code clerks work for the CIA), he dispatches a letter via the diplomatic pouch to his Ambassador and the Washington desk officer to ask how this was authorized and why. Neither man, it turns out, knew what was going on. After some interagency wrangling, the policy is changed — to the best of the officer’s knowledge.

In order to appreciate how fragile and jerry-built the foreign affairs machine really is, with its five major engines and countless minor ones, it is only necessary to remember how it was built. The present structure was the result of compromises made in time of emergency, as America reacted after World War II to the newly perceived threat of the cold war. Senior officials often disagreed over the need for new agencies even while agreeing that the function needed to be performed. Dean Acheson, for example, opposed the formation of a separate Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1946. But for reasons which Presidents Truman and Eisenhower felt were valid, as each new front in the cold war was perceived in Washington, a new agency or organization was formed to fight it: for "the battle for men’s minds," the United States Information Agency (USIA); for technical assistance and economic development, a series of foreign aid agencies leading up to the present Agency for International Development (AID); for covert operations, as well as independent analysis, the CIA; for the building up of armed forces of friends and allies, a massive military assistance and advisory effort in more than 80 countries, under the control of the Pentagon; and, of course, a large U.S. military presence deployed around the globe.

To pull everything back in Washington, a National Security Council (NSC) was created in 1947. It has gradually acquired a staff of more than 100 officials and grown to its present position of pre-eminence within the foreign affairs establishment. Other new agencies have also been created, among the Peace Corps and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, while existing departments including Commerce, Labor and Agriculture, sent specialists overseas.

Despite the NSC, Washington’s foreign policy apparatus has remained extremely cumbersome. Critics have usually focused on the State Department as the culprit, charging that is has failed to be the strong "coordinator" which several Presidents, most notably Kennedy and Johnson, expected. Richard Neustadt, for example, testifying before Senator Jackson’s subcommittee in 1963 observed: "The State Department has not yet found means to take the proffered role and play it vigorously across the board" (emphasis added). Other critics have been harsher, and the strongest attacks have come from former high-ranking officials of State and the White House staff, people who were in an unusually good position to observe the problem.

They have accused the State Department of being overly cautious, unimaginative, filled with career officers thinking only of their own promotions, incapable of producing coherent recommendations or carrying out policy once the President has decided what the policy should be. In book after book of memoirs and analysis, the career Foreign Service has been found incapable and unwilling to serve the President, regardless of party, with the effectiveness, brilliance, and courage which is expected of it. In particular, State has been taxed of failing to "take charge" in 1966 when President Johnson set up a Senior Interdepartmental Group (SIG) under the Undersecretary of State.

The critics generally suggest that if the State Department had the right sort of creative, courageous, and effective people (whatever that means), then everything would be fine, and State would assume its rightful place at the center of American foreign policy, or as Arthur Schlesinger put it in A Thousand Days, as the "Presidential ‘agent’ of coordination."

All these criticisms have validity. But the critics of the Department, in understandable frustration and bafflement, have nonetheless been blaming the Foreign Service for a situation which has long been out of its — or anyone’s — control. They have repeatedly suggested remedies which are beyond the power of the Foreign Service and the State Department to administer. The critics fail to see the significance of the fact that every other agency involved in foreign affairs jealously guards its prerogatives and fights back whenever State makes the slightest movement to broaden its role; that Presidential exceptions frequently have weakened the theoretical hegemony of the American ambassador over all other official Americans; that several other major agencies have their own independent and private channels of communication back to their own headquarters in Washington; that the funds available to several other agencies for their overseas operations exceed those available to the State; that the While House has not always given State the necessary support. Those who hold high hopes for a resurgent State Department are, in short, victims of wishful thinking. They have failed to recognize how unlikely it is that any other agency will ever voluntarily relinquish its policy-making prerogatives, o release its grip on the levers that really matter — personnel assignments, promotions, recruitment, and the budget.

A desk officer in State has recently calculated that while in theory he is the focal point of all Washington efforts concerning "his" country, in fact there are 16 people working on the country in Washington, in different chains of command. They are receiving information directly from the Americans in the country through up to nine different channels. No one sees all the communications in every channel. Through great effort the desk officer has come to know all the other officers, but, he points out, they change regularly (himself included); someone is always out of town or sick; and most importantly, each one has his own boss, who can determine his future career; each one has his own set of priority projects and problems. "All I can do is try to stay on top of the really important problems," he says.

In fact, at its present size and with its present structure, the foreign affairs community cannot be pulled together under any central agency — not even the White House. Larger coordinating staffs are always possible, and perhaps inevitable; within the last year alone both State and the NSC have added or enlarged offices designed to fill a central coordinating role. But coordinating levels of government do not solve the problem, nor do large bureaucracies. In time, as former Secretary of State Dean Rusk once pointed out, most new levels become additional layers, and only slow down further the movement of policy recommendations or action through the machine. Thus, many "routine" matters — problems of importance not necessarily requiring close attention from Presidential appointees — become immobilized by the requirement for "interagency coordination." Inertia takes over. Someone whose signature is required is off on a trip or too busy with something else; papers sit in in-boxes; no one ever says no but action is somehow not taken. The process has been brilliantly and precisely described by Professor Parkinson, and his Law seems to govern with inexorable force.

A junior member of the White House staff gets involved in a subject not normally of interest at the White House — routine training programs for overseas assignments. He finds that each agency runs its own training programs, emphasizing different points of view and in effect training its personnel for the bureaucratic battles ahead. Hearing this, a high Presidential assistant now decides to support a unification of the training programs for Vietnam. Every agency gives lip service to this concept. Everyone says it is necessary — but every agency offers technical reasons why it must continue its own separate training programs. Finally — and only because of high-level White House intervention a unified training program for Vietnam is set up. The unusual White House involvement has resulted in a temporary combined training program, but there is little chance that it will be duplicated as it should be  for other areas of the world.

Over time, each agency has acquired certain "pet projects" which its senior officials promote. These are often carried out by one agency despite concern and even mid-level opposition from others, as part of a tacit trade-off: "We’ll let you do your thing, and you let us do ours." Such deals, or "non-aggression treaties," are almost never explicit but are nonetheless well understood by the participants. The results from such arrangements obviously vary. Sometimes programs are in direct conflict. Waste and duplication are frequent; lack of information about what one’s colleagues are doing is common. These are all direct costs of the multi-agency system, which is too large and scattered to come under one driver.

A new Under Secretary of State discovers that a routine cable the kind that Under Secretaries are not supposed to see on the Food for Peace Program has received 27 clearances before being sent out. No one is able to convince him that 27 different people needed to agree to the dispatch of such a message.

The size of each of the five major agencies leads to additional problems. The distance and number of layers through which information must travel creates difficulties and misunderstandings. From the Secretary of State (to say nothing of the White House) to his country directors and desk officers is a long way. For many officers charged with responsibility for a specific country, the route to the four top policy-makers of the State Department may include the "alternate" country director,1 the country directors, a deputy assistant secretary of state, and the executive secretariat. And on the way up, any policy recommendation must receive clearance with all concerned horizontal layers. Sixteen bureau chiefs of assistant-secretary rank, with 2,500 personnel below them, report to the Secretary of State on policy matters. (On routine business, or during the Secretary’s absence, they may report to one of his three top deputies or 336 staff members.) A separate set of officials in State, with more than 3,000 employees beneath them, handle "administration."

In producing a draft for the President’s "State of the World" message, every State Department country desk was asked to submit a paragraph or two on its area. These paragraphs wended their way upward, were collected and sent to the White House along with a covering summary in a "huge bundle." "They didn’t use a word of it not a word," recalls an official who worked on the message.

On matters of an immediate and pressing nature, the President and his senior aides can usually decide, after the normal give-and-take, on a policy. If it involves few enough agencies and few enough people, the government can even carry it out with precision. But the number of issues that can be handles in this personalized way is very small, and is necessarily restricted to those matters of the greatest importance, and usually the greatest immediacy. If the press knows about a problem, big or small, that problem is far more likely to receive the personal attention of senior policy-makers than if it remains a well-kept secret.  A former official of State puts it this way: "The amount of high-level interest in an issue varies with potential press interest."

On matters of long-range concern, the President and his senior aides can and do try to lay out a rational "long-range policy." But between the generalities of a vague policy document and its implementation by hundreds of people most of whom will never have read the policy document — lie many places for miscalculation or derailment. With each agency deciding for itself what a policy means in terms of specific programs, there is more than enough room for disaster or, at the very least, confusion. Stalemate is one danger of the structure: the possibility that routine matters will not be dealt with until they become well-publicized problems.

A modest corollary to Parkinson’s Law: The chances of catastrophe grow as organizations grow in number and in size, and as internal communications become more time-consuming and less intelligible.

Can the new era of shrinking commitments be one in which our huge bureaucracies also shrink in size? The odds, as every serious student of Professor Parkinson knows, are against it. Bureaucracies cling to their office space, their secretaries, their official cars, and their every allocated dollar and personnel position with a tenacity that drowning men might well envy. (The analog may be apt in more ways than one.)

The person who has the most to gain from a massive reform of the foreign affairs machine — besides the American taxpayer — is the President himself. If a manageable and responsive apparatus is a true Presidential priority, then he personally must order major changes. Each President must decide whether or not he will attempt major changes, or instead choose to build small, personally loyal, bypass mechanisms with which to carry out policy on those matters of overwhelming high-level interest. Increasingly in recent years, the White House has chosen the latter route.

Since it would cut personnel and budget levels, major reform should be a popular move politically. Who except the bureaucratic losers themselves would voice serious opposition? Except for the military, the bureaucracies do not have much congressional support to fall back on. But the President must want reform and make it his personal priority if it is to succeed. For a man with far greater worries facing him daily, it is tempting to defer action on such an issue. In the absence of White House pressure, minor reforms and reorganization can always take place, but they are unlikely to be more than small adjustments, part of the self-protective coloration in which bureaucracies wrap themselves.

The test is not yet at hand. The plans, the discussions, the criticism of recent years do not go far enough. The White House — regardless of its occupant — will not be measurably better served in the future than it has been in the past unless major changes take place in every agency —  unless, in fact, some agencies disappear. Fundamental questions, long submerged under the imperatives of the "postwar era," must be examined by people who are neither indebted nor subservient to the bureaucracies.

This is not a plea for the hegemony of the Foreign Service or the State Department as we know it today. It is clear to most people who have worked in Washington that State is presently unequipped to run U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, no one is equipped to run the foreign affairs machine today  — a machine that fails. It requires a complete remodeling by people who are not predisposed in advance to one particular solution, but who are committed in advance to the search for a model which can be driven by the only man in it elected by the people — the President.

Such remodeling requires study. We have been surfeited with task forces in recent years, but — with the notable exception of the 1949 Hoover Commission Report — the studies have had their vision restricted, their mandate limited. If there is another task force, it must be able to deal with the entire foreign affairs/nation security apparatus. But how the President gets his answers — whether from a task force or from an individual who has his confidence — is not important. It is important that the President be personally committed to action. If he is not, then the bureaucracies sensing indecision and ambivalence, will evade, and avoid, and survive.

Hard questions must be asked. Some of them have been raised in the press and in Congress. But they are rarely asked within the executive branch. Samples of such questions:

The United States Information Agency: Should we still maintain a world-wide information service with its own personnel, priorities, problems, programs, and promotion system? Do we need it?

The foreign aid program: Should AID remain in its present confused status? The Peterson Report of last February made some thoughtful recommendations, looking to the abolition of AID. But it also suggested a proliferation of new agencies. Could these proposals be reworked to fit the broader needs of a coherent foreign policy?

The Pentagon: Privately, almost every senior official of the past two administrations has lamented the power and bureaucratic strength of the Armed Forces. The recent Fitzhugh Report made some intriguing suggestions for cutting this power down. But, again, can Pentagon reforms be folded into a more inclusive scheme which encompasses all foreign affairs bureaucracies? And — in this case — will there be sufficient political strength to overcome the military and its allies?

The State Department: How can anyone reduce the layers between the "experts" and the policy-makers? How can the Department play its proper role of adviser to the Secretary of State and the President?

The Foreign Service: Should the FSO spend almost half his career in Washington, where he seems so ill-suited to the requirements? Should the Foreign Service continue to insist on a "well-rounded" officer, which results in men who know little about any specific area or functional field — but who are experts on surviving bureaucracies? How can the Foreign Service attract specialists — or, if it cannot, how can the State Department attract them from outside the Foreign Service? What is wrong with our professional diplomacy? ("Kennedy was angry because he thought the Foreign Service was too conservative. Nixon thinks they are too liberal," says a man who worked in both Administrations. "They are both wrong. The Foreign Service is just the Foreign Service.")

The Central Intelligence Agency: Is the CIA out of control, an "invisible government"? Why do so many ambassadors claim little or no knowledge of covert CIA operations in their countries? Should the CIA be allowed to conduct its business with little State Department involvement? Should State desk officers know exactly what the CIA is doing?

Career vs. Political: How can we reconcile the legitimate need for a professional career structure in foreign affairs — a corps of professionals — and the overriding need for more Presidential control?

Who is in charge: Who, finally, is to be put in charge of running the foreign affairs machine? Who will see that the policy, once decided, is carried out? Will it be the State Department, with its faults glaring at us from the pages of every memoir and almost every memo? Or the NSC structure, growing stronger every day? Or the Pentagon, finally taking charge through sheer bureaucratic strength and longer hours of work and better briefing charts than anyone else? Or will we continue the inefficient system that now exists — with bureaucratic stalemates and compromises, with Presidential decisions carried out (sometimes) but lesser matters usually deferred, with agencies either going their own way or becoming stalemated by "inter-agency coordination"?

I do not pretend to have the definitive answers. But my own conclusion is that a major reduction in the number of organizations and chains of command must take place, or else the bureaucratic chaos will get worse, and more bypass mechanisms will be created, and more layers will spring up, and…

If this vital premise is accepted, then institutional change could follow one of several possible paths. Ideally, the organization that is called the State Department could become the central point of the foreign affairs administrative structure. The balance of powers in our government is such that it would be a mistake to put central coordinating power into the hands of the NSC staff, which is immune to the legitimate and constitutional desire of Congress to play a role in policy through the appropriations process and through the confirmation of Presidential appointees, and hearings on policy. And much evidence piled up over the last decade shows that overreliance on a White House staff isolates the President from the great departments of government and leads to costly mistakes. 

But only an ideal State Department, not today’s State Department, could play the central role. Only a reformed organization, residing perhaps on the same physical shell but altogether different in internal structure, can do what must be done. Here, indeed, is where the greatest reforms, the most drastic surgery, must occur. More political appointees are surely needed, men on whom the President and the Secretary can rely; fewer FSO’s on short Washington tours; a larger number of permanent Washington-based officials who understand both the Washington bureaucratic game and their regional specialty; much closer relationships between the other agencies (in whatever form they survive) and State; more authority to the desk officers and country directors, who should be aware of everything affecting U.S. relations with their country; and fewer layers between the desk officer and the Secretary of State. 

During one recent discussion of this endless subject, an academic observer who is a devout student of bureaucracies scoffed at the chances of ever seeing the kinds of major reform which are proposed above: "Why even the Russian Revolution never produced anything that revolutionary."

Maybe he is right. Certainly there are many people in the government who do not believe that it is too big, or too cumbersome. In some recent studies, expansion of the foreign affairs apparatus has been advocated. But if a President wishes to get the machine under his control, he can — provided he is willing to upset a few established applecarts along the way. The price would not be as high as many people think, and the return, to the President and to the people, would be substantial.

It’s a famous story, but it bears retelling. Ellis Briggs, diplomat of much experience, was Ambassador in Prague in the late 1940’s when the Czechs expelled all but 12 members of the swollen U.S. mission. If the Communists thought they were hurting the United States, Briggs recounts, they could not have been more wrong. They had, in fact, accomplished what Briggs had always wanted to do: to reduce the size of the U.S. mission in Czechoslovakia. "It was probably the most efficient embassy I ever headed," Briggs says.

*The views expressed here are the author’s alone, and not a statement of government policy.

1 The Alternate country director is really a deputy. But when the present system was proposed to Dean Rusk, then Secretary, he said he did not want additional layers. Thus, the semantic solution: the Secretary is satisfied; the bureaucracy still creates a new layer.

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