These should be salad days for the State Department. It is on its fifth in a string of “rock star” secretaries with world-class political skills and major public followings at home and abroad. The U.S. public has just told its representatives as decisively as at any time in the past half-century to pursue diplomatic, not military, solutions to world problems. As Hillary Clinton put it at the end of her tenure as secretary of state, “In today’s world, when we can be anywhere virtually, more than ever, people want us to actually show up.”
But over that same period of rock star leadership, it has become less and less clear whether American diplomacy can “show up” effectively. The downward trend of State’s funding—and its influence in Washington—has been disrupted but not reversed. Assistant secretary positions, the highest-ranking civilian posts dealing with entire continents, sit vacant for months. And on global measures, from global public opinion of the U.S. to progress on solving the toughest international challenges such as climate change and Israel-Palestine, U.S. diplomatic influence is middling at best.
The practice of American diplomacy itself urgently needs modernizing, as developments in the 21st century have not so much outstripped it as taken away its monopolies. But the profound domestic divisions in how Americans regard government, and how we understand our place in the world after more than a decade on a war footing, have erected obstacles that are significant—and may be insurmountable.
First, the traditional forms and modalities of diplomacy—and even the construct of the place diplomacy occupies in world affairs—have come under strenuous challenge from developments in the democratization of politics, the diffusion of power and the opening up of communications technology in recent decades. Diplomacy’s place and content will be dramatically different in another 20 years. Meanwhile, Washington will find itself perhaps the least able it has ever been to shape its own citizens’ notion, let alone that of global publics, of what government’s role should be.
Second, modern U.S. diplomacy grew out of the exigencies of the Cold War, which shaped its construction and institutions, its successes and excesses. Diplomacy’s decade-long eclipse by the “global war on terror” construct of national security policy hid the reality that we lacked both a national consensus and strong innovative voices on what diplomacy was for.
Third, diplomacy remains eclipsed by a war framing for U.S. national security policy, which itself is now being challenged strongly by a call to turn inward and focus on domestic and economic needs. To the extent that the opposite of a war footing is perceived to be an inward footing, diplomacy has little or no place.
At least two of those three challenges will have to be met for State Department diplomacy to thrive again. The process of answering them may well reveal that the diplomacy the United States needs will not, in fact, look like the State Department-centered operation of the past.
Diplomacy in the Internet Age
Retired diplomat Daniel Serwer points out in his book “Righting the Balance” that the State Department exists on 19th, if not 18th, century principles: It was originally the Department of the State, handling all functions not otherwise taken up by the attorney general and the departments of the Treasury and War. That is actually not a bad description of the modern embassy, which attempts to facilitate, manage and occasionally even rationalize the activities of the dozens of U.S. government agencies that have a presence overseas.
Into the 21st century, the practice of diplomacy remains founded on several assumptions from its earliest days: that governments can do business in secret, and keep it secret; that capitals need professionals gathering information and reporting through secret channels in order to understand events properly; and that government leaders need professional messengers to pass information, negotiate and use their own best judgment on behalf of a distant ruler.
But heads of state now can pick up the phone and call each other, and the role of diplomats is often to prepare and scribe—and even try to manage—those conversations and negotiations.
As for information-gathering, while there was a time when embassy reporting was a unique source of insight into many societies—and foreign services officers were prized above all for descriptive and narrative writing skills—today the problem in analyzing even the remotest societies tends to be one of sorting through and assessing reams of data available through traditional media, social media, American travelers and other government officials doing business in the relevant place.
Much of that data is available instantly and openly, while the process of official government information-gathering is, by necessity and habit, slow and closed. Reports must be cleared and re-cleared, and edited both to reflect consensus views and to avoid suggesting unverified conclusions.
The problems of secrecy and hypocrisy in diplomacy have been at the forefront of public discussion in recent months. Both in information-gathering and in negotiation, diplomacy evolved as a privileged, insider channel of discourse. Governments and private individuals risk their standing, their financial interests and sometimes their lives by what they share with Americans. If they don’t, the system simply doesn’t work.
The WikiLeaks and National Security Agency revelations of recent years have implications for American diplomacy that have perhaps been underrecognized: The State Department and U.S. diplomats are the most affected by the leaks but are not their cause and have no ability to stem them; the hypocrisy the leaks expose is a foundational part of U.S. and indeed all diplomacy; yet U.S. “soft power,” unlike that of many of history’s great powers, was substantially based on the premise that core U.S. principles are not subject to hypocrisy.
State Department personnel and operations were among the most affected by the leaks, with a number of ambassadors having to be recalled after WikiLeaks released confidential diplomatic cables, and negotiations on a variety of trade and security issues made more difficult by the NSA revelations; but in neither case did the leaks come from State, nor were the leakers motivated by State Department actions. U.S. diplomacy, in both cases, was compromised by military and intelligence establishments that have developed enormous technical capacity to create “secrets,” but not the human capacity to ensure that those agencies’ own employees keep them.
It has become increasingly apparent, as well, that our political and bureaucratic decision-making systems do not have, at the highest levels, adequate mechanisms to integrate and judge the necessary tradeoffs—to balance, for example, the use of secrets to aid diplomacy versus those practices’ corrosive effects on the diplomacy itself.
Right now, U.S. diplomacy is uniquely affected. But over time, other democracies are likely to experience similar strains between the machinery of secrecy and public expectations of oversight. Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore write in Foreign Affairs that“few U.S. officials think of their ability to act hypocritically as a key strategic asset,” and note that one of the great strengths of U.S. diplomacy has been the extent to which U.S. elites believe our own rhetoric.
If that was, indeed, a core foundation of U.S. diplomacy—one not shared by many of the historical great powers—it may be that U.S. diplomacy will never recover. So one of the prime challenges to U.S. diplomacy is not so much a challenge for diplomats as for their masters—crafting a combination of what the U.S. does in the world and what it says its principles are that is either less inconsistent or less burdened by its inconsistency. As will be seen below, however, it is far from clear that U.S. elites have the will or see the need to take on that task.
Diplomacy: What Is It Good For?
Historians will note that what states use “diplomacy” for has changed dramatically through the centuries, from sending messages between heads of state, to information-gathering, to negotiating, to creating and keeping a set of international rules. Much recent thinking and writing by professionals like Serwer, as well as former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, has argued that the next iteration of American diplomacy must be “expeditionary.” Rice proposed “transformational diplomacy,” shifting the focus of the State Department from facilitating relations between governments to promoting changes inside other societies. In 2006, she argued:
The fundamental character of regimes now matters more than the international distribution of power. In this world it is impossible to draw neat, clear lines between our security interests, our development efforts and our democratic ideals. American diplomacy must integrate and advance all of these goals together.
The Obama administration disavowed the explicit goal of using U.S. power to change the fundamental character of regimes, but similarly saw the goal of diplomacy as integrating security, development and democracy—as well as economics—to promote U.S. security.
Then-candidate Barack Obama proposed, and Clinton oversaw once he was elected, the first ever Quarterly Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), patterned on the Defense Department’s Quarterly Defense Review (QDR), long a cornerstone of defense planning and a reference point for national strategy. Clinton talked about development and economic statecraft being as important as defense, and sought at the beginning of her term to shift back to State competencies related to foreign assistance that had shifted to the Pentagon over the preceding eight years.
Recently, Foreign Policy magazine and the U.S. Institute of Peace launched a new joint venture aimed at promoting and developing a framework for American foreign affairs that would center on peace as “a pragmatic policy option. . . as the achievement of conditions that promote the kind of opportunities that drive people to work within, rather than against, the economic and political systems in the countries in which they live.” This they perceive as requiring U.S. diplomacy to highlight “negotiations, post-conflict reconstruction, peacekeeping and related issues of development.”
Longtime diplomats such as Serwer identify a related, but not identical, set of new challenges and call for revamping the State Department to achieve them: conflict prevention, helping states reform and strengthen their weak institutions, countering the growth of violent anti-American ideologies and using public diplomacy to improve the image of the United States.
Though their arguments derive from different underlying ideologies, diplomats past and present tend to have common elements in their views of what the purpose of diplomacy should be: to shape or help shape other societies that can partner with the United States to build the global order and security we want; to end or prevent conflicts, and defuse or deter the growth of ideologies, that pose security threats to Americans; and to improve global understanding of and attitudes toward our country, society and people.
This set of goals raises two questions: Can the State Department in fact take up this role, and do the American people and their elected officials want it to?
If there has been a secretary of state who didn’t plead in vain with Congress for the resources necessary to compete with the Pentagon and intelligence establishments since those organizations’ creation, I’m unaware of his or her existence. But neither Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s vision of the U.S. as the “essential nation,” Rice’s notion of transformational diplomacy nor Clinton’s QDDR have produced more than one-year blips in an overall post-Cold War decline in the State Department’s standing. Advocates and analysts alike have written at length about the structural impediments diplomacy faces, including few stakeholders at the state and local levels and economic and security effects that are second-order and hard to dramatize. None of the goals for diplomacy advanced in recent years does anything to alter these impediments.
It must also be said that the traditionalist mindset endures. Ambassador Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser and U.S. envoy to Iraq and India, gave Harvard’s Kennedy Center 15 criteria for a successful diplomat. No one would argue against diplomats being well-versed in history, skilled at writing, resilient, self-aware and loyal, as Blackwill advocates. But 21st-century international affairs also demand fluency in economics, politics and science; and they demand skills in public speaking, information technology and managing both human and physical resources.
State continues to select as diplomats fewer than 10 percent of the individuals who take the written foreign service entrance exam; between post-9/11 patriotism and a tough economy, it has an elite and increasingly diverse pool from which to choose. But the process itself is still designed to yield early career generalists, while the goals outlined above demand a much higher proportion of specialists with years of knowledge and experience in fields such as conflict resolution, local area studies, development economics and public health. State has worked hard to improve and reform its training, and could still do more, but a yearlong training module is no substitute for knowledge acquired through experience.
The foreign service model has created terrific, skilled, discreet and dependable analysts, interpreters and negotiators. It could probably be tweaked to produce a class of excellent project managers—to some extent the U.S. Agency for International Development has done this—or public diplomacy leaders, global community organizers or peacekeeping liaisons. The foreign service model cannot possibly be tweaked to produce all those things at once, in quantity. So if American diplomacy is to do all those things at a world-class level, it will have to get its personnel some other way. The foreign service, of course, resists a move away from the career service, and neither political party has produced a secretary willing to make it her or his priority to develop a comprehensive alternative and take the service on. It is also the case that an alternative would not be cheaper. Without offering prospects of career advancement and long-term job security, State would find itself paying more to hire shorter-term employees to meet shifting expertise needs. Members of Congress who might be pleased at busting the powers of the Foreign Service Association and civil service unions are unlikely to be happy about the higher personnel costs that would accompany this move.
Critically, too, some of the tasks traditionally shouldered by the State Department are being addressed elsewhere. Public diplomacy is perhaps the clearest example. During the Cold War, some aspects of information dissemination—propaganda, less politely—could only be handled by governments, as the societies the U.S. was most concerned with were closed to private-sector penetration. Moreover, well-integrated and influential diasporas from those societies were eager to make their talents available to craft cultural and information programs that were famously well-received.
Neither of those factors obtain today. For better or worse, Washington can do little that competes with Dennis Rodman’s visits to North Korea or the release of Rambo movies in Lebanon. With entertainment and cultural products one of the most successful American exports, any budget Washington could approve for public diplomacy would be dwarfed.
Under Clinton and some of her predecessors, State has tried hard to compete, bringing in a string of leading private-sector news and entertainment executives to lead public diplomacy, hiring technology and new media advisers and undertaking unusual partnerships with Google and other leading private-sector actors. A small band of career officials deserve credit for innovating with few resources and even less bureaucratic support. For every public embarrassment, such as the infamous Cairo Embassy Twitter feed, they have had better or less-well-known successes, from collaborating with Twitter during Iran’s “Green Revolution” to the 334,000 Twitter followers of Susan Rice and 55,000 followers of Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
Yet over the same period several things have become clear: World views of the United States are shaped by Washington’s actions, and perceptions of those actions are shaped by a vast sea of private and other government information sources now available via radio, Internet and text message all over the world. When it comes to public opinion surveys on views of the United States, it is hard to identify public diplomacy initiatives that make a dent. Technology moves private content much faster and cheaper than there is any prospect of the U.S. government doing.
Our diplomatic competitors, moreover, are taking steps that the U.S. government is unlikely to be prepared to duplicate: starting global English-language broadcasting services, as Qatar, Russia and China have; or taking control of a city’s bid for a global sports event and then having the national treasury pay the bill, as China, Russia and Brazil have.
Washington does have a vital role in public diplomacy, but much of it is better conceived as increasing global access to America’s cultural production, promoting cultural exchanges and above all facilitating student and visitor visa programs.
Public diplomacy is the most obvious aspect of diplomacy that the private sector has flooded into, but not the only one. David Rothkopf and Kristin Lord note that the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is government-funded but operates without many of the strictures of being Washington’s official diplomatic headquarters, has “hundreds” of employees in countries embroiled in conflict, where they are able to operate more freely than officials in our too-often bunker-like embassies. A dizzying variety of “track two” negotiators, not-for-profit and for-profit entities operate alongside government officials in trying to build unity among the Syrian opposition, bring peace to feuding parties in South Sudan or even progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Those collaborations are essential—and challenging. No improvements to the U.S. government side of the process will streamline them.
In the 21st century, we see the beginning of people-to-government diplomacy as the Internet permits organized networks of citizens to talk back to governments. In the 22nd century, we will see the maturation of networked diplomacy through people-to-people engagement that bypasses government leaders altogether if they fail to respond to the needs of communities.
On trade, development and cultural exchange, it is more and more the case that diplomatic professionals are the facilitators, managers and arrangers for the specialists doing the negotiating—a pattern that first started to emerge with trade and arms control negotiations decades ago. If the future for diplomatic professionals is one of facilitating the U.S. role in the world rather than leading it themselves, that leads us directly to a third vexed question about American diplomacy.
What Does Washington Want to Be?
With the exception of the years immediately after 9/11, secretaries of state and presidents from both parties have pleaded steadily for more resources for U.S. diplomacy, which currently takes up just 6 percent of overall national security spending. Yet Congress has proven largely immune to their calls. And the decade’s largest increases in funding for elements of diplomacy—disaster relief, security assistance, even the public affairs component—have gone not to civilian diplomacy but to the Defense Department, whose regional and combatant commands enjoy resources, flexibility and regional oversight that diplomats can only envy. (Though under the sequester, no element of U.S. power projection is spared.)
There are reasons for this. The country has been at war, and Americans have been told over and over that our most vital challenges are the ones where the military is in the lead. Under that logic, it makes sense that diplomatic functions would come to be a supporting partner for the military, or more extremely a supporting element of the Pentagon.
Rosa Brooks, who served both as an Obama administration appointee at the Pentagon and at the State Department during the Clinton administration, argues that we have created artificial divides between diplomacy, development and defense. Is protecting the United States from cyber threats, for instance, a military mission or a civilian mission? Is counterterrorism a military or civilian mission? What about stability operations and post-conflict reconstruction activities? Rather than denying the blurriness of these boundaries, Brooks argues provocatively, we might be better off simply accepting the impossibility of neatly separating civilian and military roles. This has an institutional corollary: “Rather than viewing the migration of resources and authorities from the civilian sphere to [the Defense Department] as the reprehensible ‘militarization’ of U.S. foreign policy,” Brooks suggests, “it might be more useful to view the same trend as the ‘civilianization’ of the Defense Department. Instead of seeking to shift funds and authorities away from [Defense] and back to State and [USAID]—which is probably a lost cause, politically—why not make a virtue of necessity, and focus instead on helping [Defense] get better at development, diplomacy and other traditionally ‘civilian’ activities?”
But there are also very good arguments against such an approach. Around the world, violence is decreasing, and more human beings than ever before are living lives not defined by armed conflict. The foundations of American power, including our unsurpassed military power, are economic and cultural. Surely, while maintaining our military edge, we want the interactions the majority of the world’s people have with us to be civilian-based.
The voices in favor of diplomacy come from the military itself: Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly said that war in Afghanistan would end through diplomacy, not force. Counterterrorism leaders have warned that we cannot bomb our way to victory. But voices in favor of diplomacy also come from the American people, who resoundingly tell pollsters, and not just in the case of Syria, that when it comes to challenging international problems—including security problems—they prefer negotiated solutions and working with partners.
Yet the cold structural facts don’t suggest a clear route to making sure those security leaders’ voices are heeded: Spending for diplomacy keeps declining; foreign affairs decision-making continues to be centralized at the White House; government overall keeps falling further behind private sector standards for flexibility and openness; and the desirability of the role of government is an unsettled fundamental argument in our political arena.
It is possible, and even likely, that United States diplomacy will fall into the role of convening, facilitating and connecting the larger, better-funded and more flexible drivers of American power and outreach—both nongovernmental and governmental. This could happen in a deliberate, planned way; but if not, it will certainly happen by default.
Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network. She served as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House and on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, and has written extensively on conflict prevention and resolution.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the staff and families at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, Apr. 8, 2013 (U.S. State Department photo).
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."