Getting State and the Foreign Service Back in the Game

Speaking Out

This is not just about diplomacy, either narrowly or broadly defined, but about analyzing and integrating all instruments of power and influence—political, diplomatic, economic and military.


For some time, there has been a spate of articles and other commentary (I might even say hand-wringing) about the diminished role that the State Department is playing in the overall “making” of U.S. foreign policy, as opposed to “carrying out” at least the non-military elements of it. (Witness Vali Nasr’s pointed analysis in The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, Anchor, 2014.)

Though I have never served in the U.S. Foreign Service, I would like to draw on my experience as a former ambassador to NATO and National Security Council staffer, and a current member of State’s International Security Advisory Board, to offer the following suggestions for getting State and the Foreign Service fully back in the game, where they belong.

Strengthening the Foreign Service is essential in its own right, but I believe it is also critical to focus on the role that the State Department must play in the interagency process, as well as in developing (and implementing) overall strategies for the United States in the world.

This is not just about diplomacy, either narrowly or broadly defined, but about analyzing and integrating all instruments of power and influence—political, diplomatic, economic and military. (And also cultural: I still bemoan one of the worst decisions affecting U.S. interests abroad in the last two decades, the elimination of the U.S. Information Agency, for which I spoke over many years and which should be promptly revived.)

The Paradigm Gap

This mission has become even more urgent since the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of a relatively simple unifying foreign policy paradigm. Indeed, there is now a “paradigm gap” that—absent a unifying “threat” from, say, China—will not be closed, given the nature of today’s diffuse international system and the likely systems of tomorrow.

This reality is reinforced by the sheer scope of U.S. interaction with the outside world, encompassed (for want of a better term) by the concept “globalization.” Ironically, we face fewer direct threats to the homeland than we did during the Cold War, but are perforce far more engaged in the outside world than ever before, and must therefore be both smarter and more creative.

Among other things, radical expansion of the term “foreign policy” means that there are a lot more players than ever before in U.S. policy formulation and engagement (not all of whom are in Washington), including the public and private sectors and nongovernmental organizations. These players all have an instantaneous capacity to interact and communicate that defies centralization under the authority of anyone, certainly including the Secretary of State—let alone any U.S. chief of mission abroad.

The country teams in many embassies are already too huge to manage, forcing the front office to spend more and more time gathering intelligence on what is being done in the name of the U.S. by so many different actors—including combatant commands that bear no allegiance to the chief of mission.

Back in Washington, State has often been sidelined since the end of the Cold War—not just because the White House has been drawing power to itself, but also because State has not sufficiently cultivated Foreign and Civil Service staff with the talents and skills to play effective roles in strategic thinking and policy integration. These are not, alas, generally requirements for promotion.

Killing off the mind-expanding Senior Seminar, on the specious grounds that senior people could not be spared for several months, is just one example of the problem. The same goes for the tendency often to send FSOs judged to be “unpromotable” at State to be political advisers at military commands, even when they are “square pegs” who lack the regional or functional expertise to be effective there. This robs the commands of solid diplomatic advice, deprives State of a source of seasoned intelligence on the U.S. military in action, and reduces the chances of integrating different aspects of policy.

Left on the Margins

While State continues to do its job well enough, often superbly, in terms of day-to-day activities (frequently under difficult circumstances), it has become steadily more marginal in the formulation of policy at the high end of the spectrum. This has been true of at least the last three administrations, and the resulting gap—though only in part State’s “fault”—has been largely filled by other entities.

In particular, the National Security Council staff has grown exponentially since the end of the Cold War, even though they, too, have often shown little penchant for “strategic thinking.” This is due in large part to the fact that every president after George H.W. Bush has seemed to believe, erroneously, that America’s role in the world is easier to manage in an era of reduced direct threats to the nation. (Also, the larger the NSC staff grows, the more it “crowds out” more experienced and expert people in the agencies.)

The drop in the number of FSOs in senior-level positions at State—50 percent is the common assessment—is a further problem, not just for the department but also for policy-formulation overall. The intrusion of political appointees many layers deep into the bureaucracy, even down to the working level—lots of whom, let’s be candid, are not up to the job—only exacerbates the loss of Foreign Service expertise.

This might have happened anyway, given the growth of patronage politics in recent decades. But it has not been helped by the relative lack of hard analyses and useful policy suggestions flowing from State to the White House, which could signal to the president that too much patronage politics at State could kill off a valuable goose and its golden eggs. And if the NSC staff itself proves to be inadequate in strategic thinking, the president does not benefit if the pros at State don’t fill the gap.

The Ideas Gap

All too often, today’s Foreign Service does not encourage (or promote) members well-versed in strategic thought, broad-scale analysis and integration across regions and functions to present for presidential-level decision the perspectives and potentialities for U.S. effectiveness in the world. Too often, insight and initiative are stifled in the lower and middle grades; cutting-edge analysis is heavily sandpapered on the sixth and seventh floors, before smooth but uninspiring “consensus”—i.e., “fully cleared”—recommendations pass to the White House.

Thus, expertise at State has made less of a dent in the interagency process and has been less on the “front lines” of ideas than should be expected. These lacunae in State’s policy leadership notably include, for instance, fashioning a new Transatlantic Compact embracing NATO and the critical Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—on which Treasury and USTR have marginalized State; most areas of Middle East policy (including the necessary integration and trade-offs of contending aspects of U.S. interests and policies); charting courses to deal with the consequences of U.S. disentangling from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and providing context and political content for the “rebalancing” to Asia.

Another area, evident recently, in which the White House came up short and State did not fill the void, concerns NATO, Central Europe and Russia. Had circumstances been properly understood and policies well-formulated and executed, clear-sightedness just might have headed off the recent crisis over Ukraine.

It has been years, if not decades, since State’s Policy Planning staff has played the creative role for which it was designed. Too often, its director has lacked the skills, experience and stature to provide the necessary leadership in choosing and motivating staff and assuring that S/P’s products meet the needs of the Secretary of State. (To be fair, though, the Secretary has often failed to use S/P effectively or demand that it be “brought up to snuff.”)

At the same time, many regional bureau assistant secretaries—even when Foreign Service and not political—are selected for their capacity to “manage” a bureau—which, of course, is important—but not to produce (or draw out from their teams) the perspectives needed for State to play a critical role in the formulation of policy. The under secretary for political affairs has often been top-class in this regard, but recent incumbents have rarely been chosen for their capacity for strategic thinking.

Of course, there are pockets within the department that traditionally have played an effective “strategic” role and some continue to do so, notably, in my judgment, current Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller and her able team. This is one area where State’s leadership role has long been acknowledged throughout the government.

Filling the Leadership Vacuum

Part of the problem is also insufficient leadership at the top of the department. To be blunt, several Secretaries of State in the past two decades never understood that their real influence derived from their ability to bring ideas to the table, not just success at implementing policy or sitting at the president’s right hand in the Cabinet or situation rooms.

They compounded that mistake by defining success in terms of the narrow instrumentality summarized as “diplomacy”—even when expertly carried out—without reference to strategic thinking, analysis, planning and presentation of policy alternatives.

There has also been weakness at the top at the State Department in terms of fighting for money, including failure to enlist presidents in that cause. The first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review four years ago was a noble venture in essaying a counterpart to the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, thus opening the door to challenging DoD’s 13-to-1 share of the national security budget pie.

But aside from some increase in the number of Foreign Service positions, what did the QDDR accomplish? The creation of three new bureaus just added to bureaucracy without enhancing State’s “clout”—whether in diplomacy and development or, more importantly, in strategy.

Cast a Wide Net

What is to be done? Addressing the problems and possibilities of the Foreign Service and of the State Department requires taking a broad look at the role of State in an age when more factors than ever before must be integrated to enable the United States to be effective in the world.

It means placing added emphasis on developing people with the capacity for strategic thinking; and it means reforming the selection, promotion, organization and management processes within State, especially to emphasize and reward the skills and perspectives that produce ideas that can truly add value not just to the “interagency process” but also to securing U.S. interests and values abroad.

Each Secretary of State needs to make building an effective, top-class, “strategically-oriented” team his or her first order of business before plunging into diplomacy. Otherwise, State’s role will continue to be depreciated, and the Foreign Service will increasingly be seen not as a policy development instrument but as a team of negotiators—however able.

It follows, too, that strengthening State’s role in foreign policy and national security must include not just Foreign Service officers and others whose experience is largely limited to the department, but their colleagues from other agencies, the private sector, NGOs and non-FSO “policymakers”—where strategic thinking and integration of different perspectives and instruments of policy and action will also be in critical demand.

Of course, all of this must be directed from the top, by U.S. presidents who understand the need for a first-class team in foreign policy and national security, structure and organization to enable them to be effective and his or her commitment to lead. This, too, is needed for State and the Foreign Service to get back in the game.

Robert Hunter served as U.S. ambassador to NATO (1993-1998), lead consultant to the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (also known as the Kissinger Commission, 1983-1984), director of West European and then Middle East affairs at the National Security Council (1977-1981) and foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy (1973-1977), among other positions. He is currently a member of the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board and the American Academy of Diplomacy.