First published as a Public Diplomacy Council Commentary on March 18, 2014, this essay was addressed the new Secretary of State, John Kerry. Five years later, the threat of al-Qaeda has diminished, and other foreign policy problems compete with the war on terrorism. From the third paragraph, however, the essay reviewed issues that continue to enervate American diplomacy – and Public Diplomacy.
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Secretary Kerry, from your new desk at the State Department you now know, up close and personal, that America faces a decade of foreign policy migraines. Even a partial list of trouble spots is long: Afghanistan, Iran, the islands between China and Japan, the South China Sea, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, Gaza, South Sudan, Mali. In these and many other places, we hope to contain crises without resorting to military intervention. Will our diplomacy prove equal to the challenge?
The changes set in motion by the Arab Spring will have different outcomes in different countries, many adverse to our interests. The great intra-Muslim debate over the future direction of their faith has only begun. Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups can move fighters and weapons between unstable areas, so future Benghazis beckon.
A diplomat for three decades, I know that American diplomacy is strong when our economy is robust. Now, however, anemic economic growth and the debt and budget crises have diminished America’s standing overseas. If entitlement spending continues to grow, it will crowd out spending on foreign relations, and our diplomacy will deliver less.
Famously, every member of Congress will have ideas about how you should do your job. Think tanks, universities, and lobbyists gush with words of advice. The Department of Defense will advocate policies to sustain our global military presence. With the President, you must sort through all these clamors to set down the main lines of foreign policy.
As Henry Kissinger once noted, however, once policy is set, the State Department and the Foreign Service tend the “nuts and bolts.” It is American ambassadors and their staffs that make things happen. Foreign Service Officers inform the governments and the citizens of our allies, partners, and foes of new policies. They report local reactions, analyze old and new agreements, set up meetings, and deliver demarches. They fund initiatives and get people moving. The one word that captures all this activity is “implement.” What you conceive, the Foreign Service will implement.
It is part of Foreign Service DNA to never say “we can’t.” The never-complain character of the Foreign Service, however, now masks some substantial institutional deficits.
Dozens of studies have described them. Officers go overseas without adequate language training, and the system that regularly sends 50-year old officers to learn new languages needs review. There is no “float” to allow FSOs the same kind of sequenced professional education as officers in the armed forces.
Any FSO will tell you that “we do policy planning, but we don’t do operational planning.” The Department’s budget tangles show more of this management shortfall. The lackluster performance of the State Department in its “whole of government” role in Iraq and Afghanistan can largely be attributed to this planning deficit.
Staffing embassies in Baghdad and Kabul with more than a thousand Americans was too large an undertaking for the small corps of Foreign Service generalists, who number only about nine thousand in all. The State Department has only been able to absorb the extra work after 9/11 by using retirees and contractors, but when supplemental funds contract, that extra help won’t be available.
The Foreign Service is dispirited because it is exhausted. In the 1990s, it shrank as part of the “peace dividend.” Dutifully pledging to “do more with less,” it stretched to open new embassies and grow others like China and Nigeria. In 2001 it was already winded. Since 9/11, it has been running on adrenaline.
All this means that in addition to facing the many challenges in foreign policy, there’s another imperative when you become Secretary. The Foreign Service needs reform.
It has been so stretched that it has had no time or energy to reform itself. Few of the recommendations of outside panels have ever been implemented. FSOs continue to hope for additional funds. Given the new budget imperatives, I am afraid they are waiting for Godot.
That means that your Department must do what any corporation, university, or state government must do when budgets are short — stop doing things that are less vital, in order to free up funds for new, higher priorities. Those priorities must now include a hard look at the Department and the Foreign Service, aiming for reform and professionalization. A maverick Presidential candidate once spoke of “looking under the hood.” It’s good advice.
This reform cannot be given to outside panels, and the Deputy Secretary, the Under Secretary for Management, and the Director General of the Foreign Service cannot do it without your top level involvement. Or to use Plutarch’s more earthy saying: Nothing fattens the horse so much as the king’s eye.
Put your eye on reform of the State Department.
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Over to you, Secretary Pompeo.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.