U.S. Department of State, Leading Through Civilian Power: 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (Washington, DC: Global Publishing Solutions, 2010).
ONE UNDERSTANDS that government reports make dull reading, but perhaps starting Leading Through Civilian Power, the State Department’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), with a geostrategic fairy tale was what the French like to call “a false good idea.” First comes the scene setting:
Somewhere in the world today, a jeep winds its way through a remote region of a developing country. Inside are a State Department diplomat with deep knowledge of the area’s different ethnic groups and a USAID development expert with long experience helping communities lift themselves out of poverty. They are on their way to talk with local councils about a range of projects—a new water filtration system, new ways to elevate the role of women in the community, and so on—that could make life better for thousands of people while improving local attitudes toward the United States.
If one were presented with these sentences without knowing their provenance, it would be easy to mistake them for an excerpt from some updated version of The Ugly American, Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer’s best-selling 1958 novel about American diplomats, soldiers and development workers stationed in an imaginary Southeast Asian country, battling Communists for what today we would call the hearts and minds of the population. If there is a difference, it is that the novel is the more realistic narrative. For in the QDDR, unlike in The Ugly American, there is no conflict between development experts in the field, the good kind of ugly American—like the book’s engineer Homer Atkins, with his commitment to hands-on assistance, his dirty fingernails and “the smell of the jungle about him”—and the bad kind—the American diplomats back in the capital who rarely venture into the countryside, who always “smell of aftershave lotion” and who are only interested in big, showy development projects that do little good for ordinary people. To the contrary, in this contemporary retelling, every State Department worker—from the ambassador on down—is utterly dedicated both to serving his or her country and to aiding the poor of the nation in which they are stationed. They are expert in its history and cultural and ethnic complexities, and utterly uninterested in their own creature comforts:
They are not strangers to this region, nor are they the only American officials to visit. Their mission is part of a larger coordinated strategy that draws on all the tools of our foreign policy. They have been preceded by colleagues from other agencies—irrigation specialists from the Department of Agriculture, public health professionals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts in the rule of law from the Department of Justice, and more.
At the nearest U.S. embassy, our Ambassador manages a diverse and dedicated team drawn from across the U.S. government. Other U.S. posts around the region contribute insight and expertise. From Washington, colleagues are sending strategic guidance and resources [sic].
In other words, the problems that hobbled America’s linked development and counterinsurgency goals in the 1950s (and that Burdick and Lederer dressed up in the thinnest of fictional cloaks) are no more. Everyone understands the mission; everyone is committed to seeing it through:
To build an effective partnership with their host country and advance America’s interests and values, these U.S. civilians on the ground will often have to work as a seamless team, bringing their unique strengths to bear and adapting together to fast-changing circumstances on the ground. That is exactly what they have been trained to do. They are the leading edge of America’s forward-deployed civilian power, as comfortable in work boots as wing tips, and they are on the frontlines of our country’s efforts to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st century.
We are only four paragraphs into the executive summary of the report, and already the self-congratulation quotient is so high that the thought “they’ve got to be kidding” can no longer be resisted. All that is missing is an addendum along the lines of “and thanks to the devotion and dedication of the U.S. State Department, America was made safe, the world was made a better place and we all lived happily ever after.” By comparison, the Lives of the Saints reads like an exercise in self-criticism. But bizarrely, the authors of the report, who worked under the direction of the head of policy planning at State, Anne-Marie Slaughter (formerly dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and now back at Princeton), appear to believe that critical thinking is exactly what they have been engaged in during the year they spent working on it. The QDDR, they assert, sets forth:
a sweeping reform agenda for the State Department and USAID, the lead agencies for foreign relations and development respectively. . . . [and takes] a comprehensive look at how we can spend our resources most efficiently, how we can achieve our priorities most effectively, what we should be doing differently, and how we should prepare ourselves for the world ahead.