Thursday, September 14

Golden Oldie - Stand and Deliver: Bringing the US Department of State in line with today's world

Pundita is on vacation until September 16. The following essay was originally published in December 2005.

Hi, Pundita:
Re: your post about de-Europeanizing the US Department of State. As always, I enjoyed your essay, and don't disagree with the premise. Being human, however, I can always quibble about something.

One thing I've noticed about people who grow up (individually) in cramped quarters: disagreements to them are win-lose. Those of us who grew up with a little more space around us (even though the city grew out to change that) tend to think more in terms of win-win.

Oddly, societies seem to operate in somewhat the same way, though the flavor is a little different. Europe, with its history of so many wars fought over the same dreadful ground, sees all contests between states as win-lose, while the US, with its history of taking our kit and going elsewhere, tends to be win-win. You can have your way here; I'll just go over there, and we won't bother each other -- we might even trade a bit eventually.

But those Americans most likely to be the doers rather than the arguers are those least likely to be attracted to the State Dept. Most societies are older than ours, and so generally those attracted to old societies will be the ones who want to deal with them. The doers of that group will want to deal with them for profit (business), the talkers will gravitate to a talking shop: State, the UN, etc.

As for a universal truth, I think that wonderful set of clauses [in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence] may be just that, though John Locke had to spell it out for us. I've come to the conclusion that he had to spell it out because those truths are not self-evident. (Though it made a lovely bit of framing the argument, eh?) Further, it is because they are not self-evident we must say them aloud, indeed proclaim them early and often and defend them every time, lest they be nibbled away like a stream bank when no one is looking.

Since those serving at State and desirous of serving in the UN, et al, are those among us least likely to live that truth, perhaps we need to make government service less of a career opportunity, even at the risk of introducing new forms of ineffeciency. After all, the inefficiencies which come with our present career service model (including tenure, by any other name as sweet) are most dissatisfying.
Annlee Hines

Dear Annlee:
You should know by now that Pundita loves quibbles, which have inspired many Pundita essays and helped me (and I hope, readers) clarify thinking on a matter. Which is to say that knowledge does not build if everyone is in perfect agreement. I appreciate your comments, which are always thought provoking. I disagree with you on some points in your letter and see in them a need to clarify some of my statements.

I agree that environment, including the amount of "space" one inhabits, is a factor in attitudes about how far to carry a disagreement. However, my call to wrest the State Department away from Eurocentrism is grounded less in what the Europeans are like and more in what official Washington and the American public are like.

It is pulling teeth with an elf's tweezer to get the majority of Americans to think with any depth about global matters and thus, it's easy for State to operate outside the spotlight of the American public's scrutiny. This situation won't change markedly because America is a vast nation, Americans are such terribly busy people, and many matters of diplomacy are best carried out without the constant glare of media attention.

The other side is that because of America's superpower status, American foreign policy should not drift under the influence of foreign regional concerns and the increasingly globalized interests of American big business.

The latter reflects the viewpoint that characterized the foreign relations of the European colonial powers. Such attitudes are not necessarily the best for America's defense and the regions of no great interest to the business powers. Yet if 9/11 has taught anything, it is that no world region is unimportant in this era.

For this reason American foreign relations need to be brought closely in line with the only rational definition of foreign policy, which is to directly support the defense of a nation.

Toward this end, the US government must not fall in love with any one world region, bloc, alliance or other nation -- no matter how valuable they might be to US strategic resources and business interests. This is on the theory that the backlash from an oppressed, isolated, ignored or especially favored region can wipe out whatever security the US gains from focusing on a particular resource or region at the expense of others.

Yet during the waning years of the Cold War and running into the post-Soviet era the US Department of State was dominated by factions that were hyperfocused on Eastern Europe/Russia. The American public had only the haziest notion of how the post-Soviet era in those regions was shaking out and so was unaware that the Cold War did not stop with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, a few other things were going on in the world, as Americans learned on 9/11 and again, when France and Germany rose up in 2002 at the UN to tell America to go sit on a tack. And again as it dawned that Beijing had not sat on their hands with the power accorded them by the big Western trading nations. This was a power considered by the NATO allies to be a 'necessary evil' to offset Soviet expansion, and which continued unexamined by the State Department after the Soviet Union dissolved.

So I take issue with your implication that State is a talker and not a doer. If only State had confined themselves to talk! The problem for the American people and the world at large is that throughout the Clinton years, State continued as a big doer.

By the end of the Cold War State had gathered tremendous power; I believe they got more power than the Congress and White House to set and direct foreign policy. During the Clinton era no small part of the power was placed under the control of George Soros and the Marc Rich crowd, US corporations wanting to cash in on the breakup of the Soviet Union, and congressionals who listened to lobbyists here and abroad who didn't want to stop with 'winning' the Cold War; they wanted to take control of Russia's government and destroy any possibility of the Soviet Union rising again.

By the end of Clinton's presidency State was virtually running the Central Intelligence Agency and controlling the Pentagon's agenda. And it's not much of an exaggeration to say that State was by then run from a post box in Brussels; i.e., they fell in line with the foreign policy of the European Union. This policy was in turn (and still is) influenced by the 'Chirac School' of multilateralism, which is a thinly disguised rationale for allowing trade to dominate all other issues.

One cannot blame all this on America's foreign office, and one certainly can't blame it on the European Union. During the Clinton era State acted behind the screen of public inattention, which reflected the US media's hyperfocus on domestic issues and battles between the US political left and right.

Nor can State's power be tracked solely to the Cold War and the US determination to retain the NATO alliance after the Cold War ended. The power State accrued over decades was an inevitable consequence of the inbuilt tension between the congressional and presidential branches of US government.

The tension serves the checks and balances in the US Constitution in that it acts as a corrective measure when one branch becomes too powerful. The downside is that the constant jockeying for power between two elected branches of government gives power to a civil service agency. This is because a bureaucracy is buffered against the revolving door of political appointments and attendant shifts in political winds.

People who understand this warned passionate supporters of the Bush doctrine not to pin great hope on Condoleezza Rice's appointment to State, particularly during the first years. The Secretary of State does not run Foggy Bottom. Those whose entry into the State Department is through presidential appointment, or who come to State hand-picked by appointees, must find ways to negotiate with powerful civil servants they know can outlast a term of political appointment.

Generations of those civil servants at State were trained to give the highest priority to NATO aims, which meant little adjustment in thinking when the focus went to chipping away at Moscow's hold on the waning Soviet empire. The Bush doctrine, while retaining lip service to NATO, represents a completely new day for US foreign policy -- and a very dangerous, untested one, in the view of State's most powerful chiefs.

What happens, they ask, when Bush leaves the presidency and Rumsfeld leaves Defense? The United States of America could be out there bouncing on the limb of democracy yappity-yap and with no safety net provided by our oldest and most powerful allies.

These civil servants see themselves as the tiller on the ship of state, which in a democracy is buffeted by the winds of politics. They are there to keep America's foreign policy on a steady course through the storms of change wrought by political winds. They provide the continuity that democratic politics does not necessarily allow.

Is their view of their function right or wrong? There is no easy answer, until you stop and think it through very carefully. Let's begin with the obvious questions. Do we really want our foreign office to act as a pioneer? To always place integrity above the exigencies of dealing with a flashpoint situation? Do we want them to march in lockstep with the latest power shift in Congress and presidential election?

From the other side, is the US foreign office supposed to set US foreign policy and shield the decisions from control by the Congress and White House?

That's a question the Founding Fathers didn't think about because at the time the US Constitution was framed, the Union was not the world's lone superpower nation in a world of many governments and alliances with global power. But we can feel our way to the answer because the Founders designated three and not four branches of US government. This was alluded to during a recent debate on PBS NewsHour. An ex-State official fumed that State was being shut out of a place at the table by the Bush administration when it came to decisions on Iraq.

The other guy stared at the official in quiet amazement then said something like, "State is a bureaucracy. They don't get a seat at the table."

Britain's foreign office does function as a virtually autonomous branch of government. But in our version of democracy our laws do not allow for a fourth branch of government.

This brings me to another disagreement with your statements. I am in great sympathy with the position of America's foreign service workers. Whether they serve in diplomatic missions or at Foggy Bottom, they are at the mercy of political appointees who often can't find their country appointment on a map and whose knowledge of diplomatic matters would not fit on the head of a pin.

Time and again, these appointees have wrecked months and even years of delicate negotiations through sheer ignorance or the desire to carry through a political party's agenda at the expense of sane actions. But I am reminded of the punchline in Under Siege, when the ex-Navy Seal tells the disgruntled ex-CIA operative that if you don't like taking insane orders, don't sign up.

The State Department is not the guardian of the American nation. It is not the tiller of the ship of state. That function falls to the American people as a whole and elected representatives to the Congress and White House. State is there to carry out orders by elected officials. If they don't like them apples, find another place to work.

That does not mean America's foreign service workers do not have a legitimate beef. One cannot put competent workers in the position of receiving dangerously inept orders from idiots and expect them to be cooperative. We saw this in starkest terms during the Viet Nam war, when reportedly US soldiers sometimes replied to clearly insane orders by shooting the idiot who issued them.

Certainly, State's vast bureaucracy, which I sent up in The US Department of Pack Rat, needs pruning and refurbishing for the post-Soviet era. However, I don't think less is more in this case. America is a superpower nation in an incredibly complex world of many competing powers; we need the best diplomats (and foreign office) that US tax money can afford, not "less." We need a meritocracy at State, one that does not pass over intelligent, experienced and very dedicated workers in favor of a 'political' promotion.

Foreign service employees posted abroad often work under very dangerous and difficult conditions and are always looked upon as spies by the host government. Despite this, they do not garner respect and gratitude in the American society in the way that police do. Bureaucrats are not held in high esteem in America and the foreign service is no exception. The American public needs to become more aware of the contributions of the best field workers yet at the same time they can't just because those workers are placed in more danger by the spotlight of public attention.

Also, we need to give our foreign service workers protection against Americans who are handed power and diplomatic posts simply as a plum because they wrote out big donation checks to a political candidate and did big fundraising. The American public needs to realize that such plums are very counterproductive and even very dangerous in this era.

A good analogy is Michael Brown's appointment to head FEMA. During a settled weather pattern, it didn't matter so much that FEMA was run by someone whose greatest expertise seemed to be showing Arabian horses. Then came the perfect storm.

There many storms during this very unsettled era. Gone are the Kabuki-like days of Cold War diplomacy, when moves by other governments were so predictable that an American with no foreign service experience and not even speaking the language could be expected to hold down a diplomatic post. The 9/11 attack was the perfect storm in US foreign policy circles. Congressional attention to the needs of our foreign service has not reflected this because such discussion boils down to pay scale hikes and more money spent on training. Yet at the least we need to move past the era when being a great friend to a political campaign is the sole criterion for determining competency to run a diplomatic mission.

Let the friends sleep in The Lincoln Bedroom or run the White House Easter Egg Roll. Give them any kind of plum except the work of US diplomacy.

I also take issue with your statement "Americans most likely to be the doers rather than the arguers are those least likely to be attracted to the State Department."

We desperately need the best arguers we can find. Arguing skillfully about highly abstract concepts that underpin different types of government is very much a "doer" occupation, and one that has been tragically neglected on American shores, which carries over to US diplomatic missions.

Yet I will grant that the sentiment you express about talkers and doers is a hallmark of American thinking. Thus, in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand took a thousand pages to bash home the point that despots such as Josef Stalin did not think up Communism and its rationale; that was done by philosophers who were quite distant from the clock-punching workaday world of "doers."

The view among many Americans is that to see American success is to love democracy and capitalism. So if we just keep doing our thing, eventually everyone will see its value. Tell that to someone who lives in a country taken over by transnational dope-selling gangs that are models of free market enterprise after they've murdered all dissenters in the government.

Tell that to a country taken over by a cadre of foreign investors and bankers practicing free market economics, cranking out pro-democracy tracts and stage-managing "democratic" elections while taking zero interest in the welfare of the populace.

The Bush democracy doctrine is not a real doctrine in the sense of a developed philosophy of foreign relations. It is an outline of ideas, which must run the gauntlet of many thoughtful, subtle and shrewd disputes if it's to outlast Bush's presidency. America's foreign service workers are on the front line of the disputes, which means they need to hunker down to serious talking -- and keep talking outside the narrow channels of diplomacy.

In the bars of Calcutta, the coffee houses of Cairo, the shopping malls of Shanghai, they must talk and talk and talk. They must learn to talk skillfully, intelligently, and thoughtfully when challenged by arguments that elevate profit motive, national security, internal social order, and religious law above democracy.

Before talk must come hard thinking. Months ago I warned a reader that America is facing the fight of our lives. The battlefield is ideas. I say with a smile that you have already made that point, and eloquently, so I will close with repeating your own words: is because [the truths stated in the Preamble] are not self-evident we must say them aloud, indeed proclaim them early and often and defend them every time, lest they be nibbled away like a stream bank when no one is looking.

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