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A Blog on Understanding, Informing, Empowering, and Influencing Global Publics, published by Matt Armstrong

State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board

Josh Rogin and others reported last month on the Secretary Clinton’s new Foreign Affairs Policy Board.  Organized as a Federal Advisory Committee, it is reasonable to expect that all of the meetings will be closed door, which is unfortunate.  Derided as the “newest effort” to make State more like the Pentagon, it actually draws on a reasonable practice of seeking outside expertise.  For example, take a look at the seven advisory committees the Department put together in 1951 on the advice of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information (now known as the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy).

A few notable members of these 1950′s committees were:

  • William Paley, Chairman of the Board of CBS
  • Theodore Streibert, Chairman of the Board of the Mutual Broadcasting Corporation
  • Charles Denny, Executive Vice President of NBC (and formerly the Chairman of the FCC)
  • Edward Noble, Chairman of ABC
  • James Farley, Chairman of the Board of Coca Cola Export Company
  • Ralph Reed, President of American Express
  • Randolph Burgess, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National City Bank of New York
  • Sigurd Larmon, President of Young & Rubicam
  • J. P. Spring, President of Gillette Razors
  • Warren Lee Pierson, Chairman of the Board of TWA
  • Allen Dulles, President of the Council on Foreign Relations

(By the way, the members of the Advisory Commission on Information at the time were Erwin Canham, editor of the Christian Science Monitor; Philip Reed, Chairmen of GE (owner of NBC); Mark A. May, a noted Yale psychologist; and Judge Justin Miller, Chairman and General Counsel for the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters.)

What matters with any advisory board is the quality of the recommendations and the effort to adopt the recommendations.  Equally important is the quality of the inputs: will the board (or committee, in the legal sense) receive full and complete briefings detailing the issues or will they come in at 50k feet and remain there?

The issue is not so much the grand strategy, but the challenges in implementing.  To use the analogy of a car, we may have a good driver and a good map, but there are many substantial problems between the steering wheel and tire on the road.  These must get sunlight and be addressed.

As for the comparison between State and Defense, a challenge for the State Department is opening up to outside opinions and accepting those opinions.  The Defense Department now has a long history of asking for advice.  The State Department, well, they don’t quite have that same history or openness of engaging outsiders.  You might describe the situation as mirroring the differences between diplomacy and public diplomacy: one is guarded and controlled and the other is open and agile.

The foreign policy of any country, especially that of a great power, is more a less a continuum building upon what has come before and outside factors.  What are we doing to truly align Government efforts to maximize their impact and value to both us and those they are to serve?  After 10 years of war where State (unfortunately) played the role of the junior (or absent) partner, there remains a dim understanding of what is involved in securing our future.  As Defense stands down and its budget reduced and reconfigured, the term “nation building” continues to be a dirty word.  This is understandable from the point of view of the Pentagon when it was charged with doing something it had long since forgetting it could or did do.  (Civil Affairs, anyone?)  State, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Agriculture, and other agencies have long done “nation building,” sometimes with the support of the military, and yet where the voices to highlight the relatively low cost and potentially high return of the civilian agencies?  The key is the structure of these efforts, which is why these committees must take a serious and unvarnished look at the real operations, not the theoretical or the Secretarial level of activity.  When will somebody stand up and acknowledge that USAID is less than it was in 2001 and now little more than a contracting shop often looking more closely at and promoting cash flows rather than impact?  (I will discuss this point more in a later post.)

Let’s hope these committees provide substantive recommendations, and equally, are provided with full and complete knowledge of the current situation and the causes for the current situation.

The State Department must be fixed if we are to have an effective foreign policy, economic policies, and national security.

  • Jeffrey says:

    Is there a real story here? State has had the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) for years. I don’t see this as an effort to imitate DoD nor anything new. http://www.state.gov/t/avc/isab/index.htm

    January 7, 2012 at 3:06 pm

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