On Being Inconsequential

Wednesday, November 13th 2013

Ambassador Laurence Pope

Some years ago, during a change in Administrations, an older, much wiser FSO explained to me that the transition from one Secretary of State to a new one was much like the opportunity to put “the ship of State” in dry dock and scrape the barnacles off. 

He pointed out that, throughout each Secretary’s tenure, the Department accumulates new offices, special envoys, Secretary’s representatives, policy coordinators, advisors, and other extraneous bureaucratic “enhancements” -- much the way a boat picks up barnacles under the waterline.  Like barnacles on a boat, those extra "enhancements" slow the ship of State.  They cause her to sail in lubberly fashion.

Take a moment to look at the pages of the Official Register of the Civil Service of the United States during the time Dean Acheson was Secretary of State.  Notice how many people were employed in managing the nation’s foreign affairs.

Ambassador Larry Pope, in a recent speech at the University of Maine, pointed out that the institution over which Acheson presided saved Europe from communism and implemented the Marshall Plan “with a total of nine officials of the rank of assistant secretary or higher, no deputy Secretary, and one Under Secretary.”

Today we enjoy at least thirty-two Assistant Secretaries, two Deputy Secretaries, and seven Under Secretaries of State. In addition, the telephone book lists at least twenty-two “coordinators, special envoys, and special representatives” under the Secretary of State. Another twelve have similar titles but without the direct line on the organization chart. 

Pope asks the question of the day:  “Is today’s State Department inconsequential because it is a management consultant’s nightmare, or is it a bureaucratic mess because it is so inconsequential?”  Ambassador Pope’s text – one filled with facts, humor and sobering insights –is worth replicating here so you can judge for yourself.

 

                                                                  Demilitarizing American Diplomacy Ambassador Larry Pope, the Leeke-Shaw Lecture on International Affairs

The Margaret Chase Smith Center, University of Maine, October 18, 2013

I want to talk with you today about our foreign policy institutions, especially the State Department, our foreign ministry, and our diplomatic service, the Foreign Service. My premise is that we need to reinvent them for the world of the 21st century.

We live in a world transformed by the information revolution. We watch almost in real time as innocent Syrians die at the hand of their own government. It is tempting to pull the covers over our head. We saw some of that in the recent debate over military intervention in Syria.  We do not have that luxury, and we have not had it for a long time.

Across the street from the post office in Portland, there is a small park named after a general, marked by a small monument. His name was Clarence Edwards, and he led the men of the Yankee Division who sailed off to France almost a century ago. They included many young men from Skowhegan, seventeen of whom, including high school classmates of the young Margaret Chase, died in Flanders, at places like Chateau Thierry. Three thousand men of them were wounded by poison gas, and many were never the same. Senator Smith learned at an early age about war’s cost, and she also learned that we do not have the option of seceding from the world.

She was of course a strong supporter of the national defense, the first woman to be a member of the Senate Armed Services committee. With that in mind, I want to acknowledge that the title for my talk may be misleading. Militarization is an easy word to throw around. It sounds a lot like militarism, which people in Senator Smith’s generation were fond of denouncing -- until Pearl Harbor.  

As a quick counterfactual thought experiment, imagine what a postwar world without American power would look like. China would be at the throat of Japan. A free and democratic united Europe would not have developed. There would be no Israel. No democratic South Korea. A lot of things would be different from the imperfect, troubled, but largely peaceful world we inherit today.

So I do not argue that we need less American military strength. The U.S. military is a remarkable meritocracy and a national treasure, for all its imperfections. Whether a half a trillion a year is more than we can afford, or not enough, may be worth debating.  Military procurement often resembles a self-licking ice cream cone. We all bear some responsibility for that. Most of us would probably agree, and certainly the Maine congressional delegation would contend, that while a destroyer built in Pascagoula is a waste of the taxpayer’s money, one built down the river at Bath is essential to the national defense.

My contention is rather that over a decade and more of nation-building wars a systemic imbalance has crept into our national security system.  At the National Defense University last May, President Obama recalled James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare’,  and he also said that “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight...” He is right about that -- but he could be more precise in his diagnosis. It is after all a situation for which he bears some responsibility after five years in office. He took office without significant government experience, and on his watch two of our foreign policy institutions, the State Department and the Foreign Service, have continued to decline to the point of irrelevance.

To be fair this has been a long process. In 1950, when Senator Smith spoke out against Joe McCarthy, Dean Acheson had just succeeded George Marshall as Secretary of State. It was under Marshall and Truman that the architecture of the postwar world was created. The newly created Defense Department, an amalgam of the Navy Department and the Department of War, played little role. No wonder McCarthy concentrated his fire on the State Department, and an ambitious young politician named Nixon ridiculed Acheson’s “college of cowardly communist containment”. In 1971, just before his death, Acheson wrote an article for Foreign Affairs titled “the Decline of the State Department”, critical of the concentration of power in the White House staff under a national security advisor named Kissinger.

Today, there are perhaps ten times as many White House staffers doing foreign policy as there were in 1971. The State Department is reduced to a mainly administrative role, and power is centralized at the White House. An elaborate superstructure has been created there which replicating and superseding the geographic and functional organization of the State Department. The so-called National Security Staff created in this administration has become a sort of off the books agency of government, where hundreds of officials report to a score of “special assistants to the President and senior directors” -- exempted by executive privilege from accountability to Congress and the public. It is no way to run a railroad.

During the prolonged debate in the Administration over Afghanistan policy in Obama’s first term, which we can follow as almost if we were in the room thanks to the leaks which are endemic in the beltway these days, the President was reduced to dictating a lawyerly “charge sheet” to his own generals. Meanwhile while at the State Department Hillary Clinton’s emissary, Richard Holbrooke, a relentless operator with a black belt in bureaucratics, was marginalized in his attempts to create a political track. (There may still be a Taliban team in a five star hotel in Qatar waiting for somebody to talk to.) In a similar vein, the estimable Senator George Mitchell was systematically undermined at the White House by the inevitable Dennis Ross.

Dean Acheson and George Marshal would not recognize the contemporary shape of the institution they used to shape the postwar world. It’s organization chart is absurdly bloated, a management consultant’s nightmare of dotted lines leading nowhere. The institution over which they presided had its faults, like all institutions, but it saved Europe from communism with a total of nine officials of the rank of assistant secretary or higher, no deputy Secretary, and one Under Secretary. There are now some thirty-two officials of the rank of Assistant Secretary, plus two Deputy Secretaries and seven Under Secretaries of State, while the massive Defense Department, famous for its labyrinthine bureaucracy, gets along with one Deputy and five Under Secretaries.  The Department’s website lists a total of twenty-two “coordinators, special envoys, and special representatives” who report directly to the Secretary of State on paper, plus another twelve unfortunates with similar titles who lack such direct access even in theory.

Is the State Department inconsequential because it is a management consultant’s nightmare, or is it a bureaucratic mess because it is so inconsequential? It is hard to separate cause and effect. No wonder in any case that modern Secretaries of State largely ignore the institution over which they are supposed to preside, traveling the world with a personal staff, trading photo ops and miles traveled for influence over foreign policy.

With the exception of the six Assistant Secretaries for regions of the world, a blip on the organization chart not much changed since Acheson’s day, the reach of these wildly proliferating functionaries is global -- everywhere, which is to say nowhere. There are officials at the State Department in charge of Global Intergovernmental Affairs; a Global Partnership Initiative; Global Women’s Issues; Global Food Security; a Global Entrepreneurship program, and so on. The Office of Global Intergovernmental Affairs headed by a Washington lawyer who served in the Clinton White House. He is said to “foster(s) diplomacy by conducting outreach to domestic and foreign sub-national leaders, participating in domestic and international conferences to engage state and local officials, and coordinating peer-to-peer opportunities for sub-national dialogue.” A recent initiative listed on the website of the office involved “Promoting Growth Through Brazil’s Major Sporting Events”.

Nor is that the end of the globaloney. There is a post for a Special Advisor for Global Youth -- a recent incumbent was the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen -- perhaps of Frank Sinatra. His responsibility was to “coordinate and enhance the Secretary‘s efforts to empower, engage, and elevate global youth issues” --  in an Alice and Wonderland world where words have lost their meaning, a staffer can coordinate the efforts of the Secretary, and issues, those inanimate objects, can be empowered.

The Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues, Catherine Russell, is a former White House and Senate staffer responsible at the NSS for the promulgation in 2011 of a “National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security”. (She is married to President Obama’s former National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon.) The Action Plan in question commits the United States Government to “institutionalize a gender-responsive approach to its diplomatic, development, and defense-related work in conflict-affected environments”. What this could possibly mean in practice is impossible to say -- but at the State Department, Ambassador Russell has a staff of 24 to translate it into action.

This dysfunctional structure has taken a generation or more to shape, in response to the enthusiasms of the moment. Once created these office may shape shift but they never entirely disappear. What secretary of State would want to be accused of insufficient zeal for the issues they purport to represent?

As a result of recent reforms, the State Department’s counter-terrorism coordinator, where I once worked, no longer reports to the Secretary. Created in response to the mainly Palestinian terrorism of the 70’s and 80’s, run for a while by a tough bureaucrat named Jerry Bremer who was later miscast by Donald Rumsfeld as the Lord Protector of Iraq, it once had real power. Today its website declares that its mission is to “to forge partnerships with non-state actors, multilateral organizations, and foreign governments” -- presumably in that order.  It sponsors a meeting at the ministerial level called a “Global Counterterrorism Forum”, which issues toothless statements and sponsors regional working groups without significant participation from military, police, or intelligence officers. The job has been vacant since last December, and nobody much notices or cares. Terrorism policy and counter-terrorism operations are run exclusively from the White House.

To console itself for its irrelevance, the State Department has taken to social media. The problem is that Twitter and FB and YouTube and Instagram and all the rest are individual expressions, while diplomacy requires speech on behalf of the state. According to a recent inspection report, State Department offices and bureaus have established “more than 150” social media accounts, each one in the name of a component of the State Department. Nobody is responsible for ensuring that what is said on these Facebook pages and Twitter accounts is consistent with American policy. The State Department maintains two competing Persian language FB pages, and newly confirmed ambassadors now make You Tube videos -- our Ambassador to Spain used his to introduce his three dogs to the Spanish people.

The institution at the heart of the State Department is called the Foreign Service of the United States. It is what passes for our diplomatic service, and a brief definition of that fraught word, diplomacy, may be useful here. Essentially it involves people speaking on behalf of states. States are abstractions, and they can’t speak for themselves. People do that, and they are diplomats, whether they work for the White House, the Treasury Department, or the State Department. It isn’t diplomacy when Dennis the Snake Rodman meets his friend Kim Jong Un, the autocrat of North Korea.  The word is synonymous with tact, but that is misleading.

The word itself wasn’t coined until 1800 or do, despite its air of antiquity. The Enlightenment know only negotiation, which had the virtue of clarity. The practice itself developed before there was a name for it around 1640. It was Cardinal Richelieu who as prime minister of France developed the notion of what he called permanent negotiation, resident embassies not sent for a particular purpose, but based permanently in capitals. Today Richelieu’s innovation has conquered the world. US has some 250 consulates and embassies, France 150 or so, and so on. Every one of the 192 member states of the UN can’t afford to exchange embassies with all the rest, but a lot of them do, along with international organizations like the UN and the European Union, which even has a foreign minister of sorts, at least for a little while longer.

There is an advanced notion in the air, in the academy and even in the Washington beltway, that sovereign states, like dinosaurs, are the wave of the past, and that we are entering into a post-sovereign world. If that is the case -- and I would only note here we Americans are quite attached to ours -- diplomacy is on the way out too. Without sovereign states, there would be no diplomacy. I think myself that in the 21st century states have quite a bit of mileage left on them.

Like its State Department parent, the Foreign Service has fallen on hard times. A recent op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Presidents are killing the US Foreign Service”, signed by three pillars of the Washington establishment, made scarcely a ripple in the Washington pond. It resembled nothing so much as the last squeak of a frog who has finally noticed that the water in the pot is reaching the boiling point.

The FS is a meritocracy, run on the up-or-out principle like the military services, and entry is still by competitive examination. It is very small indeed by the standards of Washington bureaucracies. There are about 8,000 FS officers, known as “generalists” to avoid the fatal taint of elitism. This compares to 14,000 FBI special agents, and 30,000 career members of the Forest Service -- not to mention CIA 22,000 case officers, according to the 2012 budget submission for the intelligence community leaked by Edward Snowden.

Not all of this people are diplomats. Many of them are quite young -- not that there is anything wrong with that -- the product of hiring which has increased the total by some 30% over the last decade. A lot of their experience is on the visa line or on heavily guarded compounds in Kabul, Baghdad, and elsewhere. The total includes 1500 so-called management officers, State Department-speak for administrators of various kinds, plus 1400 so-called “public diplomacy” officers, the remnant of what used to be the separate USIA. The number of senior diplomats is in the hundreds, and a lot of them are not qualified by temperament or experience to run embassies or occupy policy jobs at the State Department. Almost two thirds of our ambassadors are still career people. Political appointees go to places like Australia, and Spain, and France, and they are supposed to have strong career deputies, but unfortunately that is not always the case.

Given the scarcity of senior career diplomats with the right qualifications, two things are happening. One is that capable people are being sent to one demanding post after another to the point of exhaustion. Another is that retired people are being brought back in unprecedented numbers. In Libya, I reported to a retired officer named Beth Jones. In India, not a minor place, the State Department has relied on a retired officer to run the Embassy in New Delhi for a total of fifteen months over the last few years, while political ambassadors came and went. If you are a retired person it is nice to be wantedBut what would we say about the Navy, if it couldn’t find anybody in active duty capable of running a carrier battle group, or the Army couldn’t find anybody capable of running a division?

Within the State Department the importance of the Foreign Service has declined dramatically -- a gradual but continuing process which has accelerated in recent years.   President Kennedy was deeply interested in the FS as an institution, as well as skeptical of it. There is a entire chapter in Arthur Schlesinger’s memoir of Camelot about this. Richard Nixon wanted to destroy it as a hotbed of liberals, and he was prevented by doing so by Henry Kissinger, who had a deep admiration for the institution. So did Kissinger’s successor George Shultz. Since then, it has been all downhill.

The numbers tell part of the story. In 1975, 61% of senior positions in the State Department were held by FSOs. Today, that figure is 24%. Of the Department of State’s thirty-five  special envoys, special representatives, and the like, only 14% were Foreign Service Officers. It is quite possible to hold a meeting in the State Department today to hold a meeting without the presence of a single FSO.

The American Foreign Service Association, which seems to be more concerned these days with pet policies than with professional issues, sponsors four annual awards for dissent. In 2012, there were no candidates for three of them. The one award granted went to an officer who protested overly restrictive security policies. His protest had no impact whatever on the Department’s operations. AFSA has been conducting an internal debate over whether awards can still be given for policy-related activities at all.

Does any of this matter?

The answer depends on how you think about the United States and its place in a world.  The senior reaches of the Washington beltway resemble six year olds playing soccer, with everybody running to the same ball in an effort to give it a kick while the rest of the world goes on  -- and it is a large and complex place. Muslims are persecuted in Burma. A savage war in the Congo is barely contained by a UN force guilty of rape. (We pay about a quarter of the cost for UN peacekeeping but take no responsibility for UN operations). Turkey picks a fight with Israel. The Central African Republic falls apart. The Brazilian President cancels a state visit despite a phone call from the President promising to get to the bottom of this NSA business. Egypt is a mess, and so is Libya. Once in a while, when the leverage is there, like Archimedes it is possible to move the world in a different direction. That is what American diplomacy is about -- or what it ought to be about. Career diplomats are no wiser than anybody else, and a White House staff of lawyers and policy wonks can do a lot of things, but a world of sovereign nations requires sustained and serious attention, and that is what a foreign ministry and a diplomatic service are for.

The absence of the State Department and the Foreign Service has been filled by what I will call euphemistically a “military-intelligence complex”. To take one unclassified example from recent Congressional testimony by the Commander of Special Operations, Admiral MacRaven, there are a total of 26 military propaganda teams around the world, known as MISTs, for Military Information Support Teams, to “support the Department of State by augmenting and broadening their public diplomacy efforts”.  That is just the tip of a very large iceberg involving the operations of DOD’s regional commands, the latest of which has been created in Africa. It isn’t a matter of money. The State Department’s budget for salaries and expenses is about 4 billion a year -- less than half of the annual budget of the U.S. Special Operations Command whose operations span the globe, with teams of one kind or another in over 100 countries. Nor is this increased military involvement in civilian spheres of operation some Strangelovian conspiracy. What happened is that saddled with unwinnable nation-building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military services which unlike the State Department are learning institutions, discovered two things. 

The first was the ancient truth that war is a political activity, not some exercise of technological mastery. (The counterinsurgency doctrine associated with General David Petraeus was part of that, but it was a far larger cultural transformation.)

The second was that in Iraq and Afghanistan it was mostly home alone. The State Department was AWOL.

As this conclusion settled in over the last decade, there were well-intentioned attempts in the beltway to turn the State Department into an ersatz colonial ministry.  A new bureau of Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations was created, headed by a good guy from Boothbay Harbor named Rick Barton. He has had a hard time finding any conflicts to stabilize in his first year of operations -- foreigners turn out to be resistant to well-intentioned Americans who are just here to help --  and the corps of problem-solving bureaucrats he was promised has never showed up.

I will spare you the inside baseball details, but this was all part of a massive Hillary Clinton reform initiative. It culminated in  a 242 page document developed over 22 months by five working groups and twelve task forces, not to mention a “cross-cutting task force on gender integration” -- you couldn’t make this stuff up -- which nobody, and I mean nobody, has read, with the possible exception of me, and I’m not even sure about me.

So what’s to be done? I have no ten-point plan. John Kerry is the son of a Foreign Service officer, but to arrest the decline of the Foreign Service he would have to spend scarce political capital, and there will be considerable resistance from the White House.

In the end President Obama is right: we do need to “discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, or we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight”. American power in the rest of the 21st century is bound to decline in a relative sense as other powers rise, but this is not the end of the world. There are worse things than a world of sovereign states acting as check on each other’s freedom of action, and in the 21st century world of states, the field of play for American diplomacy has never been more open. We have no military peer. Most of the threats we face in cyberspace or from terrorism will not be susceptible to military solutions. We need to keep our guard up while we climb down from the barricades -- not an easy task. As Obama suggests without taking his own ideas to their logical conclusion, we need to change the way we think about our place in the world. This will come in time -- reality is a harsh taskmaster.  When it does, the realization will set in that we need not just a strong military, but effective diplomatic institutions too.  Politicians are fond of quoting John Winthrop, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, about a shining city on a hill. They forget that Winthrop’s reference was to the gospel of St. Matthew: “ a city on a hill cannot be hidden”. Today our city on a hill sometimes looks to the rest of the world more like 19th century Prussia than the modest Republic of our founders. That needs to change, and the reform of our diplomatic institutions should be part of that change.

Laurence Pope

Brian E. Carlson

Board member


Summary: An experienced public diplomacy officer, Ambassador Brian Carlson advises the InterMedia research organization on military and foreign affairs issues and serves the State Department as a senior inspector. For the last three years he was the State Department liaison to the Department of Defense on strategic communication.

 

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Author: Brian Carlson

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