State of Disrepair

If the State Department really wants to lead U.S. foreign policy, it needs to stop complaining about the military and act more like it.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The most conventional of conventional wisdom in Washington in the past five years is that the U.S. State Department is dramatically undernourished for the work required of American civilian power. Since 2000, there has been a staggering number of think-tank reports advocating a more robust diplomatic corps. The last three secretaries of state and the last two directors of the U.S. Agency for International Development have not only had ambitious goals for improving their departments, they have actually implemented at least the resourcing of them: Congress has increased funding by 155 percent since 2003 and the size of the diplomatic corps has grown by 50 percent.

There has emerged strong support for "whole-of-government operations," by which is meant the coordinated use of all elements of state power. The Obama administration has dedicated itself to practicing "smart power," a further polishing of the concept, emphasizing a rebalancing of governmental effort away from dependence on military force and toward diplomatic and economic levers. Inside the Beltway, whole-of-government operations and smart power are the Holy Grail, much yearned for yet elusive. Earnest advocates of effective American engagement in the world envision the military’s role returning to small proportions as other government agencies, principally the State Department, increase their influence and activity.

Yet there is practically no one who believes the State Department is currently performing at a level adequate to the need. There are no voices arguing the State Department is a diplomatic equivalent to the dominance displayed by the American military, none who think America’s diplomats stand astride the world like a colossus. Our diplomats punch below their weight and carry less influence than our country’s power ought to deliver. Even sympathetic observers conclude that "today’s Foreign Service does not have to a sufficient degree the knowledge, skills, abilities, and outlooks needed to equip career diplomats to conduct 21st-century diplomacy." Despite the substantial increase in the workforce at State, it continues to contract out work to the private sector that is mission-critical or whose function is inherently governmental.

State has a better record than it gets credit for, certainly. It established 20 new embassies in Europe after 1991 without additional personnel, and the diplomats who have joined the Foreign Service since 2001 are much more likely to want to deploy to Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and to change the world for the better, rather than remain safely ensconced in embassies and report on changes as they occur.

Still, the Department of State underperforms, both for what the country needs and for the resources it has. Foggy Bottom chants the mantra of whole-of-government operations and yet it remains — even by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own assessment — inadequate to the task.

If further proof of this inadequacy is necessary to prove the point, look no further than the major swaths of civilian activity that continue to migrate to the military. The militarization of American foreign policy does not reflect an ambition by the military; it reflects the vacuum left by inadequate civilian power. Work needs doing, and the State Department remains incapable of doing it. In Afghanistan, small unit military leaders, rather than diplomats, are working to create local governance councils throughout the country. Moreover, the military command has established a high-level anti-corruption task force and is setting up legal and judicial structures — both functions that ought to be civilian activities. Despite the existence of an embassy staffed by more than 1,000 civilians in Kabul, those tasks have not been undertaken by civilians.

State’s inability to improve is not for lack of ideas or effort at the highest echelons of Foggy Bottom. Typically, secretaries of state invest little in the professionalization of the department. Instead, they spend all their time on policies rather than the functioning of the institution. But the last three secretaries of state developed major initiatives to improve the performance of the department: Secretary Colin Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s Transformational Diplomacy, and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Diplomacy 3.0. In all three cases, the leadership teams identified shortcomings, developed policies to redress the shortcomings, and were successful in gaining funding support for their initiatives. What none of them proved successful at has been substantially affecting the culture of the State Department.

Fundamentally, State is an underperforming institution.  It has significant reservoirs of capability but it makes poor use of them; it has needs it cannot find ways to meet. Its institutional reflex is to complain that it lacks the resources to create change — most recently demonstrated in the insistence of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) that State needs more money and more people in order to support training. Thus State both justifies its current inadequacy and shields itself from reforms that would improve the organization.

There are no more fervent advocates of a more vibrant American diplomacy than the American military. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen have been the apostles of greater State Department funding, routinely advocating for it publicly, to the Congress, and within government counsels. True, they have not declined additional defense spending in favor of diplomatic funding, or offered more than what would be considered a trivial amount of money in the defense budget to achieve that improved State Department (roughly $100 million in the defense budget has a dual key for spending on activities that State and Defense jointly agree need doing). But they have gone further than any other DOD leadership in supporting increased spending for diplomacy. Both Gates and Mullen testified with the secretary of state to Congress in support of greater funding.

Bringing the Pentagon’s sensibilities to the problems of improving American diplomacy sheds light on why State has not been more successful. The Department of State is deficient in three crucial cultural areas in which the Department of Defense excels: mission focus, education, and programming. Adopting DOD attitudes and commitments to these areas may prove more valuable to State than any additional money DOD leaders could help attain.

The U.S. military exists to fight and win our nation’s wars; everything else is subordinated to that essential task. Moreover, it is the function American taxpayers and their representatives in Congress value, and demand of, their military. The Department of State has no equivalent focus. To the extent the institution can identify its priorities, what State values about American diplomacy is engagement in multinational negotiation and reporting on international activity. These are the functions that shape the culture of the State Department; they are not, however, the functions of greatest value outside the institution.

Protecting Americans at home and abroad through excellence in consular service should be the primary function of America’s diplomats: preventing dangerous enemies from attaining visas to travel to the United States, ensuring Americans traveling overseas have the protection of their government, encouraging educational and other involvement with talented foreigners. These are the bread and butter — what prospectors would call the "grub stake" — of diplomacy, the activities that can only be performed by diplomats but on the success of which all Americans rely.

Yet they are also the activities least valued by the State Department: Consular service is the lowest priority "cone," or specialization, in the Foreign Service. Talented diplomats are not tracked into that branch. It is as though the Army and Marine Corps did not consider ground combat their principal function. This needs to change if the State Department is to build a strong institutional base as the lead agency for U.S. foreign policy. State needs to clearly embrace consular activity as its essential function and realign the incentives and thereby the culture of the institution. Doing so would bring the State Department significant advantages, both in the operation of the organization and in its support by the public and Congress.

The people of the State Department are among the American government’s most talented. They come into the diplomatic corps with, on average, a graduate education and 11 years of work before joining the Foreign Service. State’s personnel policies utilize the skills developed before entry into the service; they do not build skills. Hiring needed skills rather than developing them isn’t a bad strategy, but it hinges crucially on identifying skills the institution needs and recruiting them. By its own admission, State is not hiring the skills it identifies as essential.

The Department of State compounds the error of not recruiting the skills it needs by not investing in the kind of professional education and training that will make our diplomats successful for the demands they face as their careers progress. The people who are successful in the State Department are people who can be thrown in the deep end of the swimming pool and not drown; but the department never teaches them to swim, and the successful ones even come to discredit the value of swimming lessons, because they succeeded without them.

State has twice in the past seven years been authorized increases in staffing levels to build time into diplomats’ careers for education and training: Secretary Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative in 2003 and Secretary Rice’s Transformational Diplomacy Initiative in 2006. More recently, Secretary Clinton has also requested and received additional Foreign Service and civil-service positions. Yet none of these substantial increases of people resulted in American diplomats receiving appreciably more professional education and training, or building time into their career tracks to participate in it. Training remains either a voluntary (off-duty) activity or something the department’s most valuable people are not freed up to participate in. Secretary Powell made mandatory some valuable leadership training, but there has been no major effort to develop a core curriculum of knowledge that diplomats need at different thresholds in their careers or to develop a process by which diplomats are rewarded for undertaking it.

It merits mention that even the most starry-eyed believers in leading through civilian power assess the cost to produce it to be minimal. They are not arguing to double or triple the State Department budget; they are arguing for marginal annual increases. One of the most functionally ambitious and carefully accounted studies of increased funding puts the sticker price of achieving sufficiency at only $3.3 billion across four years. Such a sum is roughly a 1.5 percent increase per year over the $52.8 billion current spending for operations of the department, a small number even before comparison to the $525 billion baseline budget request of the Defense Department for the coming year. Think of it: 1.5 percent per year for four years.

Two conclusions leap out from this fact: First, that it would take pathetically little to invest at the level diplomatic experts consider fully funding their needs; and second, that if these experts believe their performance can be so vastly improved on such a thin margin of additional resourcing, they probably have very little idea what it would take to actually make themselves a successful organization.

It is tempting just to give State all the money it could imagine (years of chronic underfunding have badly diminished its ability to even imagine truly ambitious horizons) and hold it accountable for producing the dramatic improvements in performance its advocates believe are just barely out of reach. But the State Department lacks the rigorous culture of program analysis and evaluation that exists in the Defense Department, and which provides DOD a much stronger basis for advancing and defending its spending requests within the executive branch and to Congress. It is arguable that the second most powerful person in the Pentagon is not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the comptroller, who develops and defends the budget. Until 2009, the State Department didn’t even have a parallel figure; it still lacks the analytic offices undergirding DOD’s comptroller.

It is perverse that the chronic underfunding of the Department of State (and there isn’t even a faction of serious policy analysts who would argue that State has been adequately funded since the end of the Cold War) created a vague budgetary culture. One would think that resource demands competing for limited funds would foster careful husbandry and transparent accounting. Just the opposite is true. State has a terrible reputation on Capitol Hill for pulling rabbits out of its budgetary hat instead of carefully costing and tracking programs in ways that would build congressional confidence in its ability to manage larger budgets. For State to achieve the kinds of sustained budget increases that advocates of stronger civilian power seek, it will need to develop a long-term budget perspective and the ability to prioritize its activity to make better use of the resources it gets.

Deficiencies in focus, education, and programmatic proficiency impede the State Department’s work; investing in those areas could, in the space of just a few years, produce American diplomats who genuinely are the peers of their military counterparts and who can undertake with a high level of skill the work at which our country urgently needs them to be successful. The means are actually largely in the State Department’s authorities; very little legislation or funding would be needed from Congress to bring about the change.

The militarization of American foreign policy is bad for our country. We can and should strengthen our civilian power. But the State Department has not proven capable of identifying and redressing its inadequacies. The recent QDDR claims to pose the question, "How can we do better?" but its answer can be summed up as, "By having more money and more senior positions." Yet resources cannot wholly be the answer, given the influx of money State has received in the past decade.

State must develop the means of assessing activity so that it can make a credible case that money spent on civilian power is a better investment than the alternatives. Asserting leadership has not worked; it must be earned by demonstrating the intellectual and operational proficiencies that will draw adherents. Credibility begins with demonstrating excellence and asking for it to be rewarded once achieved. Instead of surveying its own ranks (as the QDDR did), State should throw itself open to the kind of consumer satisfaction surveys that would inform its priorities and resourcing. It would learn an awful lot from interagency partners, recipients of both civilian and military engagement, aid organizations, and other stakeholders.

Imagine a State Department that actually does lead American foreign policy, one whose ideas for shaping the world in positive ways drive the agenda of America’s engagement and build a broad basis of public support to which elected leaders would respond. Imagine a State Department that produces data that drive public and congressional analyses of problems and programs and whose diplomats are so expert that they are foreign and domestic journalists’ preferred interviews and major universities’ preferred hires. Imagine a department that is a magnet for entrepreneurial people of diverse skills and which puts those skills to creative use, fostering professional growth, with employees whose ability is so obvious that they are pulled by other agencies and constantly at risk of being poached by the private sector so that State has to fight to keep them. Imagine a department in which competition for retention is so fierce that it drives a personnel pyramid wide at the base, with an educational program so rigorous it equips our diplomats to succeed at every level of their career and draws applicants from the military and foreign countries to learn what our diplomats know. And imagine a department with personnel policies that identify emergent needs and encourage activity rather than description; one whose senior leadership is so proficient and commands activity so expansive that the Pentagon would seek to place four-star generals as deputies to diplomats rather than give diplomats consolatory slots in our military headquarters.

We should not just imagine such a State Department. We should demand it. And we know how to achieve these things; we do it in our military. Businesses all across the country achieve it. We just don’t bother to do it in our civilian agencies on which the success of our military efforts depends. The State Department and the Obama administration should seize the moment and create a more solid basis for civilian-led American diplomacy. The country deserves it, and the good people of the State Department deserve it, too.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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