Pushing Humpty Dumpty: the rebuilding of State

There are few that would question that the US State Department is a dysfunctional organization. The structure, fiefdoms, and bureaucratic knots have many knowledgeable analysts whether it is possible to bring State into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century. I believe it is possible, indeed absolutely essential but doing so requires major Congressional intervention as State cannot or will not revamp itself, regardless of the leadership of the Secretary of State or of her Under Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries (many of these critical leadership positions, by the way, remain empty).

Yesterday I asked whether the State Department is so full of problems today that it must be rebuilt from scratch if there is to be effective civilian leadership of America’s foreign affairs? The question was came out of my latest conversation with a colleague who, like many others, wants to break apart the State Department because of the because the impression the present structure is incapable of change. Different constituencies want different things, but the general idea is to break it into smaller pieces, like pushing Humpty Dumpty and don’t him back together again: create an independent USAID, independent USIA-like entity, remove or dramatically revise INR and so on.

Spencer Ackerman (a fine judge of intellect, by the way) is rightly concerned whether there is a constituency or motivation to rebuild State in Congress or elsewhere. 

There is no congressional constituency in Congress for destroying the State Department to create some fantastical super-totally-capable-New State Department. If there’s a constituency at all for destroying the State Department, it’s a constituency that wants to weaken diplomacy as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. See, for instance, Newt Gingrich’s long-forgotten 2003 rant about the State Department representing a fifth column within the Bush administration. … My suspicion is that overhauling the State Department will miss the point in the same way that the post-Vietnam era military purge of counterinsurgency capabilities missed the point or the period calls to abolish the CIA miss the point.

Spencer’s right: in the past, including the recent past, there were severe pressures against empowering the State Department. Arguably denying a role by State in foreign affairs was best executed by the previous Secretary of State, unintentionally or not. That the Administration and some in Congress viewed the State Department as a subversive threat is far from new (it is the foundation of the “firewall” that today treats US public diplomacy as dangerous for Americans to see and hear while perversely leaving foreign government propaganda alone). 

However, today is not like yesterday. Despite the many reports to reform the State Department, public diplomacy, and foreign assistance, Congress has done little, very little… until this year when in a “burst” of activity it authorized more funding and an expansion (even if minor compared to requirements) of both State and USAID, pushing for expanded access to public diplomacy resources, exploring rewriting foreign assistance legislation (to which State told Congress to back off), the failure to support and task public diplomacy officers in the field, and increasing concerns of the military’s role in strategic communication. These are the tip of the iceberg as a recent internal State Department report on the Africa Bureau should raise more concern in Congress. 

State’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) may not head off the increasing interest and concern percolating in Congress about the failure of State to address and reverse the militarization of foreign affairs, from public diplomacy and information activities to development. Will the QDDR address the fact State isn’t asking for more money or resources? Will State continue to resist help from Congress in the form of legislation?

Prominent voices in reversing this trend and creating a more capable State Department include Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, as many have noted. Last year, then-Senator Joe Biden questioned “an important trend affecting this country…the expanding role of the military in U.S. foreign policy” as he noted the “migration of functions and authorities from U.S. civilian agencies to the Department of Defense.” (See also here.) House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senator Lugar, Congressmen Adam Smith, John Murtha, and many others also question the trend.

State pushes back in more areas than one. See, for example, Adam Graham-Silverman’s reporting in Congressional Quarterly on August 5, 2009, that both the House and Senate are pushing to rewrite the 1961 law authorizing foreign assistance, Public Law 87-195:

Both the House and Senate are considering changes to overseas aid programs. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., is circulating a blueprint for a complete rewrite of the 1961 law that governs foreign aid spending. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., expects to mark up a bill (S 1524) after the August recess that would take more modest measures to strengthen USAID as a first step to broader change. …

Lugar, a coauthor of Kerry’s bill and a supporter of a stronger, overhauled USAID, said the department has not been enthusiastic about the Senate’s legislation.

“They gave the impression that our action was less timely than we had thought,” he said diplomatically. The department has been telling Congress “we have our own discussion going on,” he said.

Congress should not get involved in day to day operations, but the dysfunction at Foggy Bottom is reaching a boiling point at the same time we have an Administration who understands, if implicitly, that America needs a Department of State and a Department of Non-State. There must be a cultural change, a human resource change, and more. The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. It must be to create a partner to and balance out the Defense Department.

Spencer is right that my suggestion is “crazy” but it is better than pushing Humpty Dumpty over the wall to create an even smaller and marginalized State Department. 

See also:

4 thoughts on “Pushing Humpty Dumpty: the rebuilding of State

  1. I’m watching some the articles here as I have been thinking about applying for being a DoS public diplomacy FSO. On the one hand, I’m being given a line about reform, increased resources and bountiful opportunities by the DoS. On the other, I see voices saying that it’s as bad as it ever was.My background (languages, pr and public policy experience from abroad) seems to be the kind of thing that DoS seems to be asking for. I’ve already got a career and can move in a number of different directions. I’d hate to take oddles of time to try to get recuited to a, well, sinking ship.
    Is now the right time to consider a move to State or is it better to wait and see what happens in the next 12-18 months?

  2. I don’t see organization as being the State Department’s primary problem. I view the main problem as being simply a lack of personnel. People at State work much harder than people at other federal agencies at least in part because State does not have as many people as it should. I’ve seen people who on occasion literally need to be in two places at the same time. The people who want to work for State exist, but the recruitment process and budgetary realities make it difficult for State to move with the speed that it needs to.

  3. Don’t let the fierce criticism you’re reading color your decision. One of the unsung glories that has always marked PD is the room for creativity and flexibility at all levels, much more so than in other State functions. We create our opportunities, and have the tools to act strategically as well as to respond to specific cirumstances immediately. If this is attractive to you, we need you in PD now. If not, State has plenty of slow-motion, paper-pushing alternatives.

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