Reforming the State Department

By Gordon Adams | October 21, 2007

For Washington to successfully address the security challenges it faces, the mission and culture at U.S. foreign-policy agencies such as the State Department must be revamped.

Those of you who read this column regularly know that I strongly believe there’s an imbalance in
the U.S. statecraft “toolkit.” We pour billions of dollars into the Defense Department, while we
trickle about one-twentieth of that into diplomatic and foreign-assistance programs. Moreover,
since 9/11 and the Iraq War, we’re asking the military to do jobs for which civilian agencies
should be better suited–reconstruction assistance, budget support for allied countries, etc. Worst
yet, integration of national security planning and resource allocation across agencies is almost

One way to better balance the toolkit would be to better fund civilian agencies such as the
State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). For decades the
foreign-policy agencies have pursued this path, but with minimal success–until Colin Powell’s
tenure as secretary of state. And while Powell succeeded in raising State’s funding, the additional
resources bought just enough personnel to staff the burgeoning diplomatic presence in Iraq and

Because the bulk of the funding growth went to new initiatives such as the president’s decision
to invest $15 billion in combating HIV/AIDS on a global basis and the Millennium Challenge
Corporation, which is designed to link bilateral development assistance to the performance of aid
recipients measured by social, economic, and governance indicators, the increase didn’t strengthen
the central architecture of civilian foreign-relations agencies. And the large supplemental funding
for civilian reconstruction and governance in Iraq only exposed the weaknesses of the civilian
diplomatic and foreign-assistance community in designing and implementing such a program.

Plus, resources are only part of a multifaceted problem. Amb. Robert Oakley recently lamented
the weakness of the U.S. ambassador when coordinating and integrating strategy in a given country.
1 Despite the fact that the ambassador (or country team leader) should integrate all of
the embassy’s government activities, he or she is often overwhelmed by the many agencies and
programs the embassy operates. Oakley cites diluted authority, antiquated organizational
structures, and resources as some of the sources of this problem.

Decisions made decades ago play a role in this dilemma. After World War II, the U.S. diplomatic
community decided to leave operational program delivery to other agencies, resulting in a
diaspora of foreign-policy institutions. Program funding (whether it’s bilateral
assistance, multilateral assistance, cultural programs and exchanges, or foreign lending) has
belonged to USAID, the Treasury Department, the U.S. Information Agency, the Export-Import Bank of
the United States, and others. This began after World War II with the European Recovery Program and
continues today with the creation of a quasi-independent coordinator for the HIV/AIDS effort and
yet another separate agency (the Millennium Challenge Corporation) for the new assistance program.
The bottom line is that State’s culture remains largely one of diplomacy, not one that seeks to
integrate overseas programs into an overall strategy.

This value permeates the foreign service. Diplomatic training doesn’t emphasize program planning
or management; nor does it provide deep experience in budget planning. There’s little expectation
that trained diplomats will be strategic planners, leading to limited strategic planning at State.
Few State foreign-service officers do rotations in economic development, civil-military billets,
and trade agencies–places where they’d acquire the program knowledge to help coordinate U.S.
policy either in Washington or the field. Upward mobility in the foreign service doesn’t reward
such a career path; the criteria for promotion may actually inhibit such interagency experience.
(There are some fine ambassadors and senior career officials who emerge from this career path as
good managers, planners, and implementers. But it’s more accidental than intentional.)

So it’s not surprising that Defense seeks its own authorities to define and implement
foreign-assistance programs or that other agencies resist State-suggested integration of policy and
programs. The failure of such efforts in the field (and Iraq is only the most recent example) don’t
inspire other agencies or the White House to look to State for leadership in shaping and
implementing integrated programs and policies that reliably address the international challenges we

Here are a few ways Washington can strengthen its diplomatic and foreign-assistance

  • Reinvent State so its missions are more balanced. Economic and development assistance, public
    diplomacy, cultural engagement, and humanitarian/disaster assistance should be put on an equal
    footing with the missions of political and military relations that dominate State’s mission
  • Consolidate overseas programs under the leadership of a restructured State (perhaps even
    renamed) and organize them according to the major missions outlined above. This means integrating
    foreign assistance into the overall purpose of U.S. statecraft and ranking development and economic
    engagement equally with political relationships. It also means rejecting the model of creating a
    separate Department of Development, which would only further isolate and marginalize the
    development mission.
  • Transform the model used to train and promote State personnel. The sometimes arbitrary and
    often invidious distinction between foreign-service officers, development officers, and
    administrative officers should be abolished, with a new service emerging that integrates a single
    career path. Incentives should be reexamined so that officers who focus on development, public
    diplomacy, and humanitarian assistance are rewarded equally with negotiators when it comes to
    upward mobility in the department. Skills in strategic, program, and resource planning should be
    part of the professional package, along with negotiating, representing, and reporting. Also,
    incentives should be given to diplomatic personnel who take assignments in other agencies that deal
    with national security issues, a requirement starting in 2008 for senior Defense personnel. (See
    “Pentagon to Require
    Joint Duty for Executive Promotions.”
  • Build upon the current effort to empower a Director of Foreign Assistance by creating a
    strategic guidance, program planning, budgeting, and performance evaluation structure at State.
    This process should be institutionalized in law and structured to be appropriate to the needs of
    overseas engagement programs, not a clone of Defense’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and
    Execution system. It should also focus on the long term, not just next year’s budget numbers. In
    addition, it needs to include authority over programs such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation
    (a promising model on the program side) and the multilateral development bank programs currently at
    Treasury (to integrate the U.S. overseas economic engagement).

State or a new foreign-affairs agency is likely to be significantly more empowered if it
possessed a more integrated mission. It can then structure itself around that mission, using the
mission as a guide on how to train and promote personnel and to develop long-term strategic and
budgetary planning processes. This would go a long way to revive the
diaspora of planning that prevails today and to give State the heft to weigh in on the
broader interagency discussions about how we define and execute national security strategy.

Admittedly, this is a tall agenda. But it will be virtually impossible to develop an integrated,
coherent national security strategy without reforming our foreign-policy agencies and changing
their personnel structure and incentives–starting with State. The issues facing us are too
challenging to limp forward under current arrangements. And it will be equally impossible to raise
the necessary resources needed for such endeavors unless the institutions that carry out our
statecraft can handle the mission.

1Robert B. Oakley and Michael Casey Jr., “The Country Team: Restructuring America’s
First Line of Engagement,” Strategic Forum No. 227, Institute for National Strategic Studies,
National Defense University, September 2007.

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