The Foreign Service Journal - May 2014 - page 17

MAY 2014
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 “unpro-
motable” 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 diplo-
matic advice, deprives State of a source of
seasoned intelligence on the U.S. military
in action, and reduces the chances of inte-
grating 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 ColdWar, 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
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
its golden eggs. And
if the NSC staff itself proves to be inad-
equate 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) mem-
bers well-versed in strategic thought,
broad-scale analysis and integration
across regions and functions to pres-
ent 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 Transat-
lantic Compact embracing NATO and the
critical Transatlantic Trade and Invest-
ment 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 circum-
stances 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 assur-
ing 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 politi-
cal affairs has often been top-class in this
regard, but recent incumbents have rarely
been chosen for their capacity for strategic
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 judg-
ment, current Under Secretary for Arms
Control and International Security Rose
Gottemoeller and her able team. This is
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