Election 2020

The U.S. Foreign Service Isn’t Suited for the 21st Century

Created for another age, Washington’s foreign-policy institutions have atrophied. The next administration should rebuild and reshape them.

This article is part of Election 2020: What We’re Missing, FP’s series of daily takes by leading global thinkers on the most important foreign-policy issues not being talked about during the presidential election campaign.

The U.S. Department of State building in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019.
The U.S. Department of State building in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019. ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images

The United States’ institutions for wielding 21st-century power have atrophied. Americans may proudly point to their vast lead in hard power, but much of this hard power—and most U.S. spending on defense and intelligence support—is substantially irrelevant to the security objectives in our new era. These include biological security; digital security; economic and financial security; security against transnational crime, corruption, and terrorism; and the security of the biosphere we inhabit. One of the painful lessons of recent years has been that brute force rarely achieves the desired results.

Even if one is concerned about security dangers from China, Russia, or Iran, a closer look at plausible scenarios will reveal that a major part of U.S. hard power would be irrelevant in a conflict. The deeper issue, however, is that U.S. policies are mostly conceived and debated around available instruments, predominantly military, rather than the other way around. The core problem isn’t one of resources: The core problem is reconceiving the deeply neglected institutions—including the U.S. State Department and various agencies—that will allow the United States to attain its foreign objectives.
The 21st-century agenda is a different mix, requiring a broadly based and attuned foreign service.

If the United States doubled the size of its foreign service, which it should, the budgetary impact would scarcely be noticed. But the U.S. Congress will not, and should not, pour fresh water into the same old vessels. Instead, an agenda for reconceiving U.S. foreign-policy institutions for the 21st century should include:

Redefine and broaden the concept of foreign service beyond a single department of the government. This reconceived foreign service should be interdepartmental, while the State Department’s focus should be narrowed to provide more and better analysis of foreign developments and orchestrate the foreign efforts of various agencies applying their specialized knowledge and skills.

Restore the State Department’s central role in the U.S. government’s day-to-day analysis of developments around the world. This job is done now primarily by the intelligence community and its institutions, whose central roles evolved during the Cold War and the so-called war on terror. But the 21st-century agenda is a different mix, requiring a broadly based and attuned foreign service at the center of the daily flow of analysis.

Reduce reliance on outside contractors and maintain more of the professional expertise to solve problems and implement policies inside the government. When U.S. foreign policy was at its most effective, in the mid-20th century, the core professional expertise lay in the agencies. Outsourcing this expertise, over time, also outsources the expertise to guide the work, resulting in gutted agencies whose staff focus on contract supervision, not policy design. To extend the base of expertise even further, a “foreign service reserve” should be built across the country, available as needed.

Overhaul and radically strengthen professional training within a greatly enlarged, interdepartmental foreign service. The current foreign service and the relevant civil servants at the State Department and other agencies are not trained to perform the analysis and policy design required to meet 21st-century objectives. Their professional education is barebones with weak supplemental training, in part because staffing is so thin that what’s known as a training float (similar to what the U.S. military relies on to support its lavish program of professional education) cannot be maintained. The growth of the National Security Council staff—which itself is poorly organized and trained—is a symptom of the problem, not a solution. If funding and talent are overwhelmingly directed toward training and equipping military problem-solvers, then the United States will mostly rely on military solutions, whether they are optimal or not.

This reconception of the U.S. foreign service should be an action agenda for the next administration to “build back better.”

Philip Zelikow holds professorships in history and governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He also worked on international policy as a U.S. government official in five administrations.

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