Foggy Bottom Review

The clock is ticking on the State Department's grand strategy review. Can John Kerry match his predecessor's record on the QDDR?

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Getty Images

When he was a senator, he loved it so much that he thought it should be mandatory. But as secretary of state, will he be so sure?

I am referring, of course, to Secretary of State John Kerry and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR.

A bit of history is in order. The QDDR is the grand strategic review of how America conducts its diplomacy and development through the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The QDDR mimics the congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, through which the Pentagon assesses its key strategies, programs, and resources every four years.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, eager to put the State Department on more equal footing with the Department of Defense, announced the first-ever QDDR in July 2009. Clinton, who had grown familiar with the QDR process as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that the QDDR would be the very epitome of "smart power," and would "help make our diplomacy and development work more agile, responsive, and complimentary."

Clinton recognized, as did many of her predecessors, that the architecture of America’s diplomacy was more retro than modern, and the QDDR offered the promise of pushing through major reforms and presenting a policy vision without needing to get legislation approved.

But it also required a gestation period just shy of most elephants’, taking 17 months to complete. During those 17 months, hardly a week went by when outsiders weren’t told that the QDDR would be arriving "soon." As Josh Rogin noted in these same pages, the QDDR was first planned for release in March 2010 and then April 2010 and then September 2010, before it was finally released in December of that year. The actual QDDR report was a sprawling, but largely reasonable, document, and its findings would have generated an even warmer welcome if they had been delivered without such a lengthy wait. The Pentagon usually takes about half as much time to conducts its QDR, so the repeated delays gave the impression that the State Department had bit off more than it could chew.

Now, the speculation has begun as to whether or not Kerry will conduct the second-ever QDDR. Most think he probably will, but no official announcement has been made. For his part, Kerry almost has to lead a QDDR or else face an embarrassing climb down from his prior positions.

When Kerry was still in the Senate in 2012, he joined Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) in introducing legislation that would have made the QDDR mandatory. Although the bill did not pass, it would be difficult for Kerry to explain why he insisted on a QDDR from Capitol Hill but resisted it from Foggy Bottom. Such evolutions do occur when officials move from one end of Constitution Ave. to the other, and views on issues like executive privilege and congressional consultation obviously change depending on where you sit. But killing the QDDR would be a particularly stark example nonetheless. Kerry may also feel pressure to complete a QDDR during his tenure because his predecessor did, and the secretary seems to feel a measure of rivalry with Clinton.

To live up to the "quadrennial" designation in its title, the next QDDR should be completed by around December 2014. (The Pentagon has largely adhered to the four year schedule, completing QDRs in 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2010.) But given that the original QDDR took 17 months to complete, Kerry will need to move soon if he hopes to keep the process roughly on track. The second QDDR should move more quickly than the first, but it will still take real time.

Moreover, Kerry will be conducting his review at a time when resources are tight. And although it doesn’t take a lot of funding to carry out the QDDR, budget constraints can put a real crimp in grand strategies. The first QDDR called for adding 5,500 new foreign and civil service personnel, a suggestion that doesn’t seem likely to fly in today’s sequester-dampened budget environment.

So what should Kerry take on in the QDDR? Clinton stressed that the first QDDR was a bottom-up strategic review designed to provide both short-term and long-term blueprints that would guide strategy, resources, and personnel at both State and USAID. That standard is still a reasonable one.

But given the challenges presented by the Arab Spring and its aftermath, a number of key areas deserve particular attention. How, for example, has the United States, the longest and most vocal promoter (albeit an often uneven one) of democracy around the world come to be seen as the enemy of the average reform-minded person in the streets of Cairo? Is America’s broken image in the region a function of badly managed public diplomacy or a direct result of years of misguided policy choices that have only selectively condemned autocracy?

Similarly, is it time to fundamentally rethink and review the State Department’s role in directing security assistance around the globe? A look at the roughly $2 billion the United States has shelled out annually to Egypt since 1978 suggests it might be.

And in the wake of massive leaks by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning — not to mention the death of Amb. Christopher Stevens in Libya — it is clear that the United States has to bolster the physical and electronic security at U.S. installations around the globe. But the response can’t just be more secrecy, more layers of classification, and higher embassy walls; U.S. diplomats are already too far removed from many of the societies in which they operate. The QDDR presents a perfect opportunity for a broad accounting of how the United States should balance risk and opportunity as it engages with the world.

Kerry’s QDDR will need to look forward and envision the world as it will be in decades to come. As more and more urban centers outstrip entire countries in terms of population, how will the United States refocus its diplomacy on global megacities? How will it balance outreach between national officials and major players in local government?

The hard reality of dealing with climate change will also need to be front and center. House Republicans can still pretend that climate change doesn’t exist, but the secretary of state doesn’t have that luxury. How will the United States revamp its diplomatic and humanitarian relief operations to meet a world where increasingly severe weather resulting from climate change is spurring more volatile patterns of migration and potentially sparking political instability?

Kerry’s advisers have been quick to make the case that the secretary sees himself in the model of notable predecessors at Foggy Bottom like George Marshall, James Baker and Henry Kissinger. Kerry may well see Middle East peace as potentially his grand diplomatic triumph, but getting the QDDR right is the kind of architectural triumph of foreign policy that has eluded most modern secretaries. The question is: will it elude Kerry?

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