Matt Armstrong's blog on public diplomacy, international journalism, and the struggle against propaganda

A Foreign Office for a World Power

There are certain challenges to having an effective global policy. We may often look toward the environment and other actors, usually adversaries, but often ignored is that interpretation of and responses to events are shaped by our institutions. These organizations greatly affect policy options and the execution of policy. A smart strategy, supported by well articulated missions and objectives, support the people and the bureaucracy to be more effective.

Recent articles and blog posts on the structural and personnel challenges in the State Department reminded me of a journal article I came across while researching my book on the history of the Smith-Mundt Act. The article, “The Reorganization of the Department of State,” was published in The American Political Science Review, Vol 38, No 2, in April 1944. The authors, Walter H. C. Laves and Francis O. Wilcox, were described as on leave from the Bureau of the Budget, the predecessor to today’s Office of Management and Budget, within the Executive Office of the President. However, both were diplomats and arguably public diplomats. Laves worked in the Office of Inter-American Affairs, a Presidential office intended to counter German influence in the Western Hemisphere, later the Deputy Director at UNESCO (1947-1950), and a professor of political science. Wilcox joined the State Department in 1942 and was the first chief of staff to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (1947-1951), and later the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (1955-1961).

While the entire “The Reorganization of the Department of State” is worth reading, I’ve copied the opening paragraphs below for your reading enjoyment.

“For many years there has been widespread discussion of the need for reorganizing the Department of State. Students, publicists, members of Congress, and members of the Department itself have repeatedly pointed out that the Department has not been geared up to performing the functions required of the foreign office of a great twentieth-century world power.

The chief criticisms of the Department have been four: (1) that there was lacking a basic pattern of sound administrative organization, (2) that the type of personnel found both at home and abroad was inadequate for the job required in foreign affairs today, (3) that the Department was too far removed from the public and from Congress, and (4) that it was not prepared to provide leadership for, and maintain the necessary relations with, other federal agencies.”

The paper was written after the first of two Departmental Orders of 1944 were issued to reorganize the State Department, dated January 15 and December 20. Let me emphasize that this reorganization was done by the Department and did not require Congressional pressure, at least direct pressure, or legislation. The Department is a more complex bureaucracy today with legislation more likely to refer to specific elements of the Department, thus potentially reducing autonomy of action.

Laves and Wilcox followed up with another journal article in April 1945, “The State Department Continues Its Reorganization.” The article is worth a read, but below are two excerpts that will be of interest to readers today.

At the outset, it should be repeated that it would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of these reorganizations for the conduct of our foreign affairs. For in spite of the importance of international organization to world order, we should never forget that the smooth functioning of the international machinery we set up and the success of the peace we establish will depend in large measure upon how effectively the various states organize their national governments to carry on the complicated relations of the international community.


Continuing attention will need to be given the complex problem of inter-agency relations resulting from the fact that domestic and international affairs are now so completely interdependent that the resources of all agencies of the government must be mobilized for the conduct of our foreign relations. This problem is clearly recognized in the functions given the Joint Secretariat, as well as in other specific arrangements for liaison relations under the latest reorganization.

It is interesting, and sometimes a bit distressing, that some passages from reports and articles that are 50-60 years old, when we were preparing for or engaged in an enduring “struggle for minds and wills,” could have been written today. The arc of U.S. public diplomacy might be more aptly described as a spiral: always in motion and nearly making a full circle as it goes up or down and covering an always changing surface area.



  • Michael W says:

    Indeed. Since I arrived at the Pentagon for my first DC tour (late 90s), the state of our national security apparatus has been criticized as Not Configured for the World We Now Live In. When you press for explanations, you get the sad expression and the phrase ‘you just don’t understand how hard it would be to change.’ Really? The primary obstructionist is usually as Congress! Congress! Ya mean, if a truly viable and independently developed proposal for a new national security apparatus complete with teeth-baring national security council were developed, Congress would say “DOA!” Really?