Time for a National Conversation

A Message from the Hill


The world’s problems have only grown more numerous and complex over the past decades. Pick any region, and you stumble across conflicts and war (old and new), humanitarian crises and the increasingly rapid rise of regional powers—notably Russia and China—and non-state actors that erode the stability and predictability of the post-World War II international system shaped largely by the American victors.

In the span of almost 75 years, the global scene has gone from bipolar to unipolar (following the fall of the Soviet Union) to what can be best described today as an unstable, unpredictable multipolar world.

Through all of these dramatic changes, our diplomats and development specialists have been on the front lines, all too often in the crosshairs of the enemy. The knowledge and experience of these dedicated public servants are unparalleled.

They possess a skill set that cannot and should not be replicated or replaced by other United States government agencies, including the Department of Defense. It should not be lost on the American people that approximately 1.3 million active duty military personnel are on the government payroll, compared to just over 15,000 Foreign Service members.

The Role of Diplomacy and Development

The message sent to the Department of State, the United States Agency for International Development and Congress in the $40.5 billion Fiscal Year 2018 request for the international affairs budget regrettably raised more questions than answers on the role of diplomacy and development.

The response by Congress to the request (and proposed 30 percent cut from the previous fiscal year) was one of genuine concern, not only for its potential impact on operations, personnel and assistance for key allies and partners, but also for the effect on America’s standing in the world. As most any informed military officer will tell you, defense spending alone does not provide for America’s security.

While the new National Security Strategy provides much-needed detail on our global priorities, it leaves unanswered the grand question of what America’s role in the world today should be. Are we the same post-World War II power that crafted an international system that provided security, stability and predictability for decades, or are we a mere supporting actor on the world stage, content to react to events and crises rather than shape or resolve them? Should we remain the world’s sole superpower?

This is worth a national conversation. If a diminished role is preferred, the American people must be forewarned that weakened U.S. influence and soft power will most certainly translate into heightened global and regional insecurity and uncertainty as America’s standing is repeatedly challenged by international competitors.

The Point of Organizational Reform

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and USAID Administrator Mark Green deserve recognition and support for listening to the suggestions and concerns of those they lead in order to more effectively adapt and “redesign” their respective agencies to this changing global environment. They must work together on this much needed modernizing effort. The Senate Appropriations Committee welcomes an empowered and relevant Department of State and USAID that takes into consideration the views of its career staff.

However, the ultimate success of any effort to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness comes from buy-in for proposed reforms by both diplomats and the Congress. This is an ongoing process in its early stages; but in the meantime, these agency heads owe it to their employees to provide clear and coherent direction, adequate resources and appropriate decision-making authority to further America’s national interests abroad.

If a diminished role is preferred, the American people must be forewarned ...

There are many lessons learned from past organizational reform efforts, including that the 1990s cuts and hiring freezes may have saved money in the short term, but led to increased personnel costs down the line. We paid this price with the diplomatic and development surges for Afghanistan and Iraq following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As important as it is to retain those with deep experience at Foggy Bottom, ensuring a steady inflow of entry-level diplomats and aid workers is also important. Let’s not forget that today’s second lieutenants are tomorrow’s majors and colonels. Equally important is an unequivocal commitment by the president and Congress to the security and welfare of our personnel posted abroad and on the frontlines.

I have made clear to Secretary Tillerson that I support his efforts to reform and modernize the Department of State. However, reform for reform’s sake is not the point. The Secretary must clarify his vision of the State Department’s role and operations in our national security architecture once it is reformed. The unknown factor is how soft power and diplomacy fit into a stronger military and a more aggressive fight against radical Islam.

Prepared for Challenges and Opportunities

Without a clearly defined strategy of ending conflict through diplomacy and having a presence to prevent vacuums from being filled, a strong military response will be insufficient. Then-Commander of the U.S. Central Command General James Mattis said it best: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Finally, now is not the time to retreat from anticipated returns on investment from successful foreign assistance programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. In many countries, we have made measurable and impressive progress with respective foreign governments in combating diseases through PEPFAR and furthering good governance and the rule of law through the MCC.

In addition, America has been the undisputed leader as a humanitarian and pandemic first responder, whether in the Middle East, West Africa or Asia. It should not be lost on the American people that no one other country has the capabilities—or values—to project power, influence and assistance like America can.

The United States must be prepared for future challenges and opportunities in terms of both leadership and resources. As readers of The Foreign Service Journal know best, if we are flat-footed, Moscow and Beijing will be ready and willing to fill the leadership vacuum. America needs our diplomats and development specialists on the front lines today more than ever.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is chairman of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.