Reforming Diplomacy: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

June 22, 2017 By Abhik K. Pramanik

At last week’s hearing on the International Affairs Budget, Secretary Rex Tillerson argued that the State Department and USAID are in need of reform because they “have not evolved in their responsiveness …to a post-Cold War world that set in motion new global dynamics, and a post- 9/11 world characterized by historic new threats.”

Ensuring the State Department is effective in a dangerous world is the right goal, but Tillerson seemed to overlook efforts by the previous four Secretaries of State to make diplomacy and development stronger and more effective. As Tillerson considers potential reforms to our foreign affairs agencies, it may be worth revisiting past efforts to do so since the turn of the millennium.

Powell: Diplomatic Readiness

In his first week on the job, Secretary Colin Powell declared, “I am not coming in just to be the foreign policy adviser to the president. I’m coming in as the leader and manager of this department.” At the time, the State Department was reeling from deep cuts to its budget and personnel in the 1990s when lawmakers hoped to recoup a “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War.

From 1994-1997, the State Department only hired enough people to replace half the number it lost to retirement, resignation, or death. The U.S. Information Agency was also consolidated into the State Department in the belief that the U.S. would no longer need to engage in a war of ideas.

Secretary Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative sought to rebuild capacity at the State Department by hiring and improving training for Foreign Service Officers, improving its relationship with Congress, and modernizing State’s technological capacity. In FY 2002, State hired nearly 1,800 new Foreign Service and Civil Service employees, and by the end of Powell’s tenure, the percentage of State Department computers with secure internet connections skyrocketed from 2% to 100%.

 Rice: Transformational Diplomacy

Secretary Condoleezza Rice launched the “transformational diplomacy” initiative to reconfigure America’s diplomatic and development presence overseas and better reflect the challenges of a post-9/11 world. She noted “there are nearly 200 cities worldwide with over one million people in which the United States has no formal diplomatic presence.” Rice also highlighted that the State Department had the same number of personnel in Germany, a country of 82 million people, as in India, a country of over a billion.

 Transformational diplomacy contended that the largest challenges to U.S. security no longer came solely from other states but from within them, arguing that it was “impossible to draw neat, clear lines between our security interests, our development efforts and our democratic ideals.” To reflect this insight, Secretary Rice created the new position of Director of Foreign Assistance, which was dual-hatted as the USAID Administrator and given the rank of Deputy Secretary of State, to ensure greater coordination and coherence in U.S. foreign assistance.

 Clinton & Kerry: Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review

Launched by Secretary Hillary Clinton to mirror the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the first QDDR sought to tie America’s priorities and budget more closely. It argued that for “civilian power” to advance America’s core interests in today’s world, diplomats would have to be “as comfortable in work boots as wing tips.” It also launched the “economic statecraft” agenda to advance America’s global economic interests, identified fragile states and public diplomacy as core missions, and named USAID the lead on development-focused initiatives like Feed the Future and Global Health.

Under Secretary Kerry, the second QDDR tried to tackle the challenges America’s diplomats and development experts face in increasingly risky environments around the world. It called for making the State Department “more dynamic and agile” and for a new risk management policy to determine “how we can better operate in complex environments.” It also created a Global Engagement Center to better coordinate the U.S. government’s efforts to counter violent extremism, and continued to strengthen the capacity of diplomats to advance America’s economic and commercial interests around the world.

Looking Forward

Reforming diplomacy and development is ultimately not a debate about bureaucracy but about the tools America needs to respond to today’s global threats and opportunities. As Secretary Tillerson and the Foreign and Civil Service Officers he leads around the world face unprecedented challenges—including the largest number of refugees since World War II, four famines affecting more than 20 million, and the risk of another global pandemic—he should consider building on the success of his predecessors, who recognized the new challenges our country faces, rather than ignoring their contributions.

Image: State Department / Public Domain