From Instinct to Evidence in Foreign Policy Decision-Making

An argument for the practice of diplomacy to be more science and less art.


“We have a window before us to make historic, lasting change,” began Secretary of State Antony Blinken in announcing his Modernizing Diplomacy Initiative at the Foreign Service Institute on Oct. 27, 2022. Blinken’s track record on implementing his vision is admirable and should earn him a place on the list of Secretaries of State who have left the institution better than they found it.

But let’s turn our sights toward the necessities and opportunities for deeper reform at Foggy Bottom. Achieving President Joe Biden’s stated goal of elevating diplomacy to the lead role in U.S. foreign policy remains a distant dream. Deep, structural challenges to the effectiveness of the State Department remain unaddressed: The clearance process continues to produce least-common-denominator consensus rather than maximize impact; promotion procedures incentivize staffing up and risk aversion; a cultural distaste for training and learning hobbles the organization’s ability to advance; and the decision-making process relies too heavily on instincts and opinions at the expense of the best available evidence.

These problems have been identified in depth in a series of reports over the past two years: Revitalizing the State Department and American Diplomacy (Council on Foreign Relations Special Report No. 89), A U.S. Diplomatic Service for the 21st Century (Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), Less Art, More Science: Transforming Foreign Policy through Evidence, Integrity, and Innovation (fp21), and others.

Do any of us believe the State Department is performing at its potential?

This topic is personal for me. I joined the Foreign Service because I wanted to have an impact. But the bromides I heard along the way about what it took to be a great diplomat left me skeptical. Effective diplomacy was (and still is) consistently described in highly ambiguous terms—as more an art than a science, requiring innate talent and gut instincts. But is the field of diplomacy really that subjective? I think not. Even art requires mastery of the fundamentals.

Let’s face it. Merit does not thrive in an environment that lacks clear standards of success. Unclear standards may help explain why presidents continue to stuff Foggy Bottom full of outsiders despite the Foreign Service’s insistence that careerists are best suited for the job. The solutions are straightforward but far from simple. The State Department must propagate a new vision of expertise grounded in evidence.

A New Culture of Decision-Making

Reforming the State Department and building a more modern policymaking process will take small but meaningful interventions at every stage of the decision process. Let’s examine four stages: knowledge management, analysis and decision-making, tools for learning, and curriculum for vital skills.

Knowledge Management. First, knowledge for foreign policy needs to be made more explicit. Explicit knowledge is captured and written down, in contrast to tacit knowledge, which is more like “street smarts” and “common sense.” In today’s State Department, tacit knowledge reigns supreme. State’s overreliance on tacit knowledge explains the absence of handover procedures for its constantly rotating officials, the lack of prescribed doctrine to delineate best practices, and meager investment in research or training. Our current system of cables and policy memos does not cut it: Contributing to the flood of information, they are ephemeral, flashing bright before disappearing into the archives. Too much of the extraordinary knowledge gathered in our foreign missions is never used by policymakers.

An improved system of knowledge management would continually fortify a foundation of shareable, widely accessible knowledge for policymakers. It would allow knowledge to be easily organized, trained, evaluated, and replicated. It is the infrastructure on which policy success will be constructed.

In today’s State Department, tacit knowledge reigns supreme.

Analysis and Decision-Making. Second, we can improve the analytical and decision-making prowess of the department. The methods policymakers use today to conduct analysis are ad hoc and subjective. Decades of research on decision science and cognitive psychology offer opportunities to greatly improve the effectiveness of our decision-making.

The U.S. intelligence community has standards for good analysis that are codified and trained, while the State Department has none. Improved analytical standards and rigorous training at State will help distinguish today’s diplomat from the arm-chair prognosticator. Some of this is already taking root at State, especially in the Center for Analytics, though its placement within the Office of the Under Secretary for Management rather than Political Affairs was an unfortunate choice. It suggests analysis is a service provided to decision-makers rather than a fundamental part of the policy process.

State should also implement a new clearance process that rewards analysis with the strongest evidentiary basis. Policy debates must be won not merely by the force of one’s conviction or one’s position in the hierarchy, but by the quality of one’s evidence. An updated decision-making system can be an antidote to turf battles and risk aversion, and it can arrest the slide into politicization of the bureaucracy.

Research conducted on forecasting tournaments offers one exciting and research-backed approach for surfacing the people and methods with the best analytical accuracy. In a four-year study hosted in collaboration with the Director of National Intelligence, a team of trained forecasters outperformed professional intelligence analysts by 25 to 30 percent and beat the control group by 60 percent. Decisions in foreign policy are often built on assumptions about the future, and formalizing these forecasts may help test these assumptions and learn from the outcomes.

Tools for Learning. Third, diplomats need to design new systems for learning. Uncertainty is unavoidable, and one can never be sure exactly how a policy will affect events on the ground—nobody expects perfection. But when the State Department neglects to examine a policy’s effectiveness, bureaucratic inertia will sustain a misguided approach for far too long.

Strong organizations learn from today’s successes and failures to improve the likelihood of success tomorrow. Fortunately, there are well-developed and tested tools to build a culture of learning. Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems, which are already ubiquitous in the programming space, are a good starting point. The U.S. military leans heavily on after-action reviews, and most government foreign assistance programs already incorporate M&E tools. Yet, strategic-level policymakers rarely use M&E systems to track the impact of their policies. The relentless pursuit of policy success—and an honest accounting of inevitable failures—can help restore trust between the Department of State, White House, and Congress.

The Department of State’s new “Learning Agenda” offers an exciting opportunity. Mandated by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, it is a systematic plan to answer a set of policy-relevant questions critical to achieving the department’s strategic objectives. Atop the agenda is studying the effectiveness of senior-level diplomacy. Can you imagine how much the State Department would change if it were discovered the circumstances under which senior-level visits were and were not impactful? Can you imagine how much time, money, and resources would be suddenly made available?

The State Department should set a goal to become the most highly trained decision-makers in the U.S. government. Diplomacy’s competitive advantage in the interagency cannot derive from the number of its tanks or the size of its political constituency.

The Department of State’s new “Learning Agenda” offers an exciting opportunity.

Curriculum for Vital Skills. Fourth, any improvement of the foreign policy process must begin and end with our most valuable resource: the officials who staff the organizations every day. But the skills associated with foreign policy expertise are ambiguous.

Take Ambassadors William Burns’ and Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s description of diplomacy’s “fundamentals,” for instance, in their 2020 article, “The Transformation of Diplomacy: How to Save the State Department.” In their words, diplomats require “smart policy judgment” and a “feel for foreign countries.” They must possess a “nuanced grasp of history and culture, a hard-nosed facility in negotiations, and the capacity to translate U.S. interests.” Certainly this is all generally true, but Burns and Thomas-Greenfield (like the Department of State’s promotion process) offer little guidance on what good judgment actually looks like. There’s simply no framework for identifying real expertise.

This casts doubt on the efficacy of State’s promotion process. While the Foreign Service’s promotion precepts include categories such as substantive knowledge and intellectual ability, these qualities are rhetorically admirable but difficult to evaluate. Virtually no training or feedback is offered to improve one’s substantive knowledge or intellectual abilities. The resulting evaluations are largely subjective, and there is little ability to compare between officers. In the absence of clear understanding of merit, it’s predictable that diversity suffers as the system selects people who look and think in a homogenous way.

The Foreign Service Institute boasts an impressive array of class offerings, ranging from language training and area studies to consular procedures. But a core curriculum of vital skills necessary for success for diplomats remains absent. These skills deficits have contributed to State’s marginalization in the policy process and an overreliance on military instruments of power.

For better or worse, Congress is getting involved. In the State Authorization Act signed into law in December 2022, Congress required new oversight and study of the training curriculum at the Foreign Service Institute, and “a comprehensive review of the policies, personnel, organization, and processes related to promotions within the Department [of State]” from the independent comptroller’s office. The State Department’s impulse will be to say, “Our current systems are perfect!”—but I hope it will take the opportunity to set a bolder vision for the future.

A more scientific foreign policy will demand new standards for hiring, promotion, and training. State should conduct longitudinal studies to identify the skills and competencies most associated with policy success. It should also develop more objective, comparable criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of our diplomats. Official and informal promotion procedures create powerful incentives for how work gets done in an organization. New standards must help State promote the most effective staff, train personnel on today’s most effective skills, and recruit a diverse pool of talent.

More Science, Less Art

In recent years, experienced U.S. diplomats have warned of a “crisis” inside the State Department: “a reluctance to speak truth to power, a lack of individual accountability … [and] an aversion to professional education and training.” Two senior Biden administration officials argued in a Council on Foreign Relations study that a “decades-long failure to implement essential reforms” has produced a “policy environment that has, in some priority areas, evolved beyond the core competencies of most Foreign and Civil Service officers.”

The modernization of the State Department and the return of diplomacy to its rightful place in the U.S. national security infrastructure—on top—will require more than small tweaks at the margins. Blinken’s modernization initiative is commendable, but more is required.

A new organizational culture must relentlessly pursue policy success. Achieving this will require the practice of diplomacy to be a little more science, and a little less art. To be clear, science is not about producing magical right answers. Instead, science is merely a method of carefully accumulating knowledge. Features of a scientific process include an emphasis on testing theories rather than asserting them without evidence, establishing clear parameters of success, committing to methodological transparency, and continually learning from successes and failures. All of these features are largely absent from today’s State Department, which relies too heavily on intuition rather than accumulated knowledge.

The good news is that State can implement most of these changes internally without any help from Congress or the president. That is more desirable than the alternative in which reform efforts are thrust upon it from the outside—sometimes inexpertly designed and often facing much internal opposition.

As this country’s first executive agency, the State Department helped design a stable and secure world order. It houses an impressive array of public servants whose hard-earned expertise is born from years of experience, study, and training. American diplomats know a great deal about the world. Yet as the world grows more competitive and complex, the State Department must evolve apace.

Dan Spokojny (@DanSpoko on Twitter) is the founder and CEO of fp21, a think tank dedicated to studying foreign policy reform. He served in government for more than a decade as a U.S. Foreign Service officer and a legislative staffer in Congress. He also served on the governing board of the American Foreign Service Association. He is finishing his Ph.D. in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on the role of expertise in foreign policy.


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