Democracy-Pushing Is Not Cutting-Edge Foreign Policy

The State Department needs to stop peddling the same old, stagnant plans and propose a worthwhile strategy for how to handle the world’s problems.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11:  Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (L) listen to questions during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony from top administration officials on President Obamas request to Congress for authorization to use force against ISIS.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (L) listen to questions during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony from top administration officials on President Obamas request to Congress for authorization to use force against ISIS. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

You missed it? How could you? The second-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) was issued last week with much fanfare, at least at the State Department. As may befit a late second-term document and a department whose budget resources have topped off and are starting to decline, the new QDDR is pretty unambitious. Thin gruel, in fact, for the future of America’s civilian statecraft. And that might explain why it didn’t get a lot of coverage.

Some people want the QDDR to tackle big strategy issues, but it is really about reforming and strengthening the structures and processes that run America’s foreign policy. It might be nice to have a big-picture strategy document, but you can’t pull the strategy cart if you don’t have the horses.

And this QDDR is even less ambitious than the first one. It doesn’t offer the foreign-policy community the fundamental reforms it needs to recover the primacy to direct America’s strategy and deliver the goods: an integrated approach to dealing with the governance challenges around the world, strengthened security institutions subordinated to stronger governance, or even an internal strategy and resource-planning process that would enable the State Department to make the hard choices it must with inevitably constrained budgets.

QDDRs are not like QDRs — the original Quadrennial Defense Review, done at the Department of Defense (DoD) since the mid-1990s. When then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set out to produce the first QDDR, published in 2010, the goal was not to lay out a strategy for U.S. foreign policy, but to improve the capabilities of the State Department to execute that strategy.

I was pretty hard on that QDDR at the time. It did make a decent effort to clarify that the State Department is not the Defense Department, emphasizing the role the State Department should have in conflict prevention and resolution, calling for major improvements in the State Department’s planning and budgeting, and clarifying the department’s relationship with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Although fairly unexciting, these were all good bureaucratic things to do.

But the first QDDR missed a great opportunity for fundamental change — change it might have pulled off with the star power of Clinton, which would have elevated the State Department to real foreign-policy leadership and would have eliminated some serious organizational dysfunction. It did not broaden the mission of the Foreign Service to include dealing with governance issues in other countries. It did not change training of Foreign Service officers fundamentally to provide skills in strategic planning and program development and management, and to make mid-career training and education available. It did not reform a broken architecture for security assistance at the State Department or make an effort to recapture leadership over U.S. security assistance policy from the Defense Department.

It did not end the division of planning and budgeting between a stovepipe over on the “management” side that does personnel, buildings, security, administration, and IT/communications support, and the other stovepipe over in the foreign assistance program office that plans and budgets for U.S. foreign assistance. And it did not even discuss the reality that the United States has far too many foreign assistance programs — an uncoordinated diaspora of offices and agencies scattered around the bureaucratic universe in D.C. from the Justice Department to the DoD to the Commerce Department to the Export-Import Bank to the Treasury Department and beyond, to the bewilderment of anyone the United States does business with overseas.

So I hammered away a little last year in this column after the new QDDR was launched, urging the new team to at least try to address some key institutional problems that make the State Department (and its USAID partner) dysfunctional and unable to lead U.S. foreign policy. I picked three themes: 1) make governance dilemmas in the world a core mission of U.S. foreign policy, and build the programs and training to implement that priority; 2) take civilian control of U.S. security assistance (much of it is now at DoD), and embed that effort in stronger civilian governance overall; and 3) centralize and empower a capacity at the State Department to do integrated strategic and resource planning.

It will not surprise you that this latest QDDR did not go for the gold on any of these three core problems. At best it gets a fairly weak incomplete. Secretary of State John Kerry, like his star-powered predecessor, earned few points; in the end he didn’t actually put his credibility and heft on the line to get fundamental change, a change the department needs if it is going to give reality, not talk, to its claim that it is the lead institution for U.S. foreign policy.

Make Governance a Mission and Build the Tools

Governance actually gets a lot of verbal attention in this QDDR — more rhetoric than it got in the first one, as I was reminded by several people who worked on the report. But some of that rhetoric is misleading, and some of it is even dangerous.

What’s wrong in the rhetoric? Specifically, on p.18, the QDDR says, “the movement toward accountable governance and the expansion of the global middle class are two of the most promising opportunities in recent human history.”

Unfortunately, neither statement is true. Accountable governance is not on the rise; it is being struggled for, and that struggle is failing, most notably in states like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States made a big show of promoting democracy. (And, for the record, the global income gap is widening, threatening the existence of the middle class, even in places like the United States. See Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream? or Joseph Stiglitz’s The Great Divide.)

So if the State Department is going to take the global problem of weak, ineffective, corrupt, unaccountable governance seriously, it has to start with reality, not wishful thinking. That leads me to the dangerous part. What do they mean by “governance”? The language in the QDDR is a bit slippery here, but one word keeps cropping up: “democracy.” On page 28, for example, it reads, “Democracy, accountable governance, and respect for human rights are essential for a secure, prosperous, and just world.… We are at a critical moment for democracy.” What the report is underwriting, once again, is that long, elusive, exceptionalist American project of bringing “democracy” to the world.

Thought we were over that, given, most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. But, no, here it is again — the American dream abroad, at least in language terms. After years of worrying this issue, my thinking is that the United States would do pretty well (and that is hard enough) to help other governments become more efficient and effective at providing the services they use their tax money to provide, while becoming a bit less corrupt and certainly more “responsive” to their citizens (the QDDR says “accountable,” which is certainly a more realistic goal than “democratic”).

But to plant the flag in “democracy,” a thing the United States isn’t even doing well itself, sets up the State Department for something that neither it nor anyone else can do abroad — create democracies. Put that one on the shelf.

Plus, the QDDR does little to strengthen the State Department’s tool kit when it comes to governance. There is nothing here as basic as saying the department will revise the standards it uses for training and promoting Foreign Service officers to include knowledge of governance and the ways in which the United States might, at least minimally, focus its assistance agenda in that direction. Oh, there is language about USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance. And if the department were really focused on governance, as I said last year, it should certainly start by making USAID fully buy that mission as a necessary precursor to successful “development.” But, there they go again; “democracy” gets the headline, not governance.

And if fragile states are part of the governance target, there is nothing new here about how to deal with that. It’s the same old, same old bureaucratic solutions, including rhetoric about the role of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), created in the last QDDR. The CSO got itself torn in two last year in a conflict, I am told, between people who wanted it to be on the front lines of fragile-state transition, with teams in the field, and people who wanted it to retreat into planning in D.C. for somebody else to act on.

The State Department’s inspector general wrote up this sad story last year. And, apparently, the latter team won, and the QDDR group did not get the memo about how CSO’s nails got clipped this April, when its missions overseas were scrapped. According to an anonymous submission to DiploPundit, one of the best trackers of the inside stories at the State Department, the CSO will be even less relevant than it was:

Yes, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) has a new mission: “CSO advances the Department of State’s understanding of how to anticipate, prevent, and respond to violent conflict through analysis and planning; monitoring, evaluation, and learning; and targeted, in-country efforts that inform U.S. government policymaking.”    Since there’s no longer any mission element about stabilization and stabilization operations, why is that being left in the Bureau’s name?

Security Assistance Is Still a Hot Mess

If I only got a rhetorical half-loaf on governance, what about getting the State Department’s act together on security assistance programs? They weren’t even discussed in 2010’s QDDR. They’re barely discussed in this year’s QDDR, with just a paragraph on security-sector reform and one on security-sector governance. But America’s deepest engagement in the governance of other countries is being driven by the GWOT (George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror), which has become Countering Violent Extremism. When war is the metaphor (and in Syria/Iraq, the reality), armies are the tool, and the United States is deeply engaged with the armies of the world.

America does it through security assistance and what the DoD calls “security cooperation,” or “building partner capacity.” And the country handed a lot of that task over to the Defense Department, despite decades of having budget and policy responsibility in the State Department, spending upwards of $15 billion a year doing it.

There are lots of ways the QDDR could have tackled this mess. Calling for a strategic overview of security assistance policy, for example. There has never been one, and despite the publication of a presidential policy directive in 2013 (PPD 23), there is still no coordinated strategy. Instituting a systematic evaluation of the payoff from spending more than $10 billion a year (including by the DoD) would be a good idea.

Challenging other countries to make sure accountable governance overall is part of what determines their eligibility for U.S. security assistance dollars would be a nice thing.

And frontally dealing with the reality that the Defense Department and the combatant commanders have pretty much taken control of security assistance and cooperation and it is time to return policy and budget responsibility to the civilian foreign-policy agency — well that just seems to be a bridge way too far. The paragraph in the QDDR on security-sector governance simply describes, in vague language, what the United States purports to do now; it offers nothing new. And the report even says the State Department is in charge of security assistance “with the exception of DoD SSA [security sector assistance] appropriations,” which kind of begs the issue.

Last year I wrote, “The State Department rarely takes its statutory responsibility for security assistance seriously as a core mission.” I know, from personal experience, that the people who work this issue at the department, at the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (can we change that first word?), do take it seriously. The QDDR did not, and is not, going to help them much in reforming the system.

Strategy, Planning, and Budgeting Take a Hike

And how about that third priority issue for the State Department — making strategic planning a reality and tying in all the planning and budgeting so that the department actually has something we can call a respectable strategic plan?

The QDDR is pretty good about the progress made here over the past six years. There actually is a functioning foreign assistance budget process. It even includes planning at the embassies, which do integrated country strategies and pass them back to Washington, where regional bureaus do joint regional strategies and where functional bureaus (like CSO and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) do functional strategies. And every year, the embassies and bureaus do a resource request for the next year. Under strong leadership, the State Department’s foreign assistance budget office has made a real contribution to budget planning at the department, more than I have seen in over 20 years following that process.

But, and there is a big but, the pieces are not together to do a real strategic plan at the State Department, and the QDDR does not make any progress on assembling them. For one thing, broader strategic planning, to the degree it is done, is done in that other planning office I mentioned — the management side of Foggy Bottom. This means, of course, that people, IT, communications, buildings, and, above all, personnel policy are not meshed with program planning in the foreign assistance office. Not something the Pentagon’s Programming, Planning, Budgeting, and Execution System would let happen for a nanosecond.

Do people, training, and investments in support have nothing to do with programs? Not plausible, but the new QDDR does not bite the bullet and finally create a full-service planning and budgeting office under the secretary of state. Ducked that one, again.

And while they were not at it, they also ducked the question of making that office a statutory one. Right now, the foreign assistance office just depends on the goodwill of the secretary; the next one could blow it away without any trouble, and might. And there would go all that previous progress.

Wait Until Next Year

This time around, the QDDR took a walk, by and large. It described a lot of what the State Department does now, made some of it look new, took a few small steps ahead, but punted on the big ones. Which leaves the job to the next secretary, and to the next QDDR, if it happens. If past is prologue, the next secretary of state will look at the management and planning side of Foggy Bottom and leave it to someone else while he or she flies around the world doing the “fun” stuff. And the longtime effort to reform and strengthen the State Department will be handed off again, as it has been for decades.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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