U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance: The momentum for reform

By Gordon Adams | December 17, 2007

Four recent reports outline ways in which Washington can fix the dysfunctional, underfunded civilian agencies that define and implement U.S. foreign policy and assistance activities.

As we approach the 2008 general election, it’s heartening to see the amount of work being done
on devising ways to fix the dysfunctional and underfunded U.S. civilian agencies charged with
foreign policy and assistance activities. In November and December, four key reports were released
on this theme: The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS)
Commission on Smart Power focused
broadly on how to strengthen the civilian, or “smart power,” foreign policy institutions and
programs; Helping to Enhance the Livelihood of People Around the Globe (HELP Commission) examined foreign
assistance and development funding;
a Senate
Foreign Relations Committee staff report
focused on how to budget and manage foreign
assistance; and the CSIS
Task Force on
Nontraditional Security Assistance
called for reform in the relationship between civilian
agencies such as the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the
Defense Department–especially given Defense’s growing role in providing security and development

All four reports agree that Washington doesn’t possess a coherent, integrated strategy for
global engagement and that its current foreign policy structures don’t allow it to properly deliver
such a strategy or the right mix of resources to support it. The Smart Power Commission proposes
creating a new position to develop and manage a strategic framework through which the government
could plan policies and manage resources. This “smart power” deputy to the national security
adviser and the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would carry out a “smart
power review” every four years, focusing on the integration and use of civilian tools in support of
the strategy.

This is similar to a recommendation
Cindy Williams and
I have made during the course of our study on national security resource planning and the
recommendations of an earlier CSIS study,
“Beyond Goldwater-Nichols.” More
specifically, both proposed a quadrennial national strategy review, supported by a more detailed
biennial national security strategy guidance review prepared by the National Security Council and
OMB. It’s critically important that resources are attached to the review, or it’s merely a
hortative exercise. Though the Smart Power Commission is most explicit on this point, the HELP
Commission and Senate Foreign Relations Committee share this view, especially concerning the
definition and integration of foreign-assistance programs.

This brings us to the second common finding in the reports: U.S. foreign assistance is
dysfunctional, scattered, and underfunded. Officially, there are at least 15 different U.S.
agencies involved in providing foreign assistance–and according to the Smart Power Commission, if
bilateral assistance programs in other departments and agencies are counted, there may be as many
as 50. Worse yet, Washington keeps creating new ones–the Millennium Challenge Corporation,
HIV/AIDS Initiative, President’s Malaria Initiative, etc. Recent efforts by State’s new Office of
the Director of Foreign Assistance (DFA) to integrate State/USAID foreign assistance planning and
link it to a strategic framework haven’t yet fulfilled the need for serious reform across an array
of programs.

These reports provide a range of prescriptions. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee argues
that State should “provide strategic direction, transparency, and overall accountability to foreign
assistance.” It advocates that the DFA be confirmed by the Senate and that it maintain oversight of
all foreign assistance programs–including those at Defense and other agencies. Further, it
recommends that a separate official run USAID and report both to the secretary of state and

Likewise, the Smart Power Commission outlines options for reorganizing foreign assistance. State
could absorb USAID, or USAID could be the implementing agency for State’s programs. It proposes
other scenarios as well: A separate Department of Global Development could provide development
assistance independent of State, or the White House could appoint a foreign-assistance “czar.”
Czars, of course, are a mixed blessing; they usually fail to deliver the integrated programs they
promise. (See my September column,
“When National
Security Meets Government Bureaucracy.”
) Even more ambitiously, the commission suggests we
might replace State and USAID with a Department of Foreign Affairs, which would bring together all
foreign assistance and diplomacy programs in the government.

A majority of the HELP Commission, which Congress created in 2005, thinks this last solution
makes the most sense. The new department would have four equal missions–trade and long-term
development, humanitarian and post-conflict assistance, political and security affairs, and public
diplomacy and consular affairs. It would train professionals to carry out these tasks, incentivize
their careers by requiring cross-issue service, and integrate strategic planning at the top of the

This approach may make the most sense. Creating something like an independent Department of
Global Development would only make coordination more difficult; it would add yet another
independent agency to the institutional diaspora that has badly weakened our civilian foreign
policy toolkit. Most problematically, because it focuses on development, such a department would
not include assistance programs not aimed at development–post-conflict reconstruction,
counternarcotics, counterterrorism, training peacekeepers, demining, and foreign military training.
These programs constitute 50 percent of U.S. foreign assistance. Of course, someone would need to
administer them, which probably would result in the creation of yet another foreign-assistance
implementation agency in State, inadvertently adding another layer to the current coordination

Because of the scattered character of our civilian foreign-assistance programs, each report
expresses concern that Defense is becoming the de facto U.S. foreign affairs agency. (It’s a
concern that I share; see
“The U.S.
Military’s Growing Role in Foreign Policy.”
) They urge attention be given to this problem,
which, as the Smart Power Commission puts it, “further undercuts the demand that civilian agencies
develop these competencies.”

Defense’s foreign-assistance programs have grown from less than 6 percent of the total U.S.
foreign assistance reported by Washington to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development, which keeps track of development assistance spending by its 30 member countries, to
nearly 22 percent in 2006. This assistance includes bilateral budget subsidy payments to such
countries as Jordan and Pakistan for counterterrorism support, emergency economic assistance in
Iraq and Afghanistan, and a major program to train and equip security forces there. Defense now
wants to make the latter two programs global in scope and part of its permanent mandate.

The CSIS Task Force on Nontraditional Security Assistance deals with this issue head on. It
recognizes that this trend has grown out of operational requirements, but that it also reflects the
“relative incapacity” of civilian agencies. Over time, the task force notes, this trend will
undermine civilian capabilities. It urges that Defense programs be “nested within broader U.S.
efforts to build effective, accountable, and sustainable local institutions” to deal with
terrorists, reconstruction, and humanitarian needs. And it argues that these Defense authorities
remain only temporary and that authority be vested ultimately in adequately funded civilian
agencies such as State and USAID.

These reports are significant. They point to weaknesses in U.S. foreign-assistance programs and
provide effective ideas for reform. Better still, they describe ways to put a more civilian face on
U.S. global engagement, relieving Defense of this burden. If the next administration pays
attention, these reports can help create a stronger, more integrated, and better respected U.S.

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