As he takes office as the sixty-eighth U.S. secretary of state this week, John Kerry will surely take time to reflect on his priorities. He would be wise to note that every secretary for the past half century has seemingly regretted the capture of his or her agenda by the immediate over the important, the tactical over the strategic. Each seems to have passed that wistful regret to his or her successor. Yet each successor repeats the same pattern with, ultimately, the same regret. The pattern seems unavoidable.
The secretary of state, as the representative of the largest single power with widely dispersed global interests, will constantly be pulled in multiple directions. Every smoldering tension, large and small, will beckon for the secretary’s attention, as will every foreign minister and many heads of government.
At least as diverting is the internal departmental competition by every undersecretary and assistant secretary for the boss’s interest, a tussle mirrored inside the White House at the National Security Council. There are also the interagency turf battles, including too often one between the State Department and the NSC over foreign- and security-policy supremacy (or at least participation). There is a fear that if the secretary is not personally engaged in every simmering tension, turf will be lost to other countries—or worse, to other U.S. agencies.
This anxiety about turf drives a splintering agenda in which the immediate constantly overwhelms the strategic, the current displaces the enduring and the secretary is inherently distracted. Pressures to engage personally always and everywhere are constant, as are the demands for travel and face-face meetings. The last few secretaries seem to have had a running competition for miles traveled, as if somehow they were accumulating frequent flyer points. Only the most disciplined president and secretary with a compelling vision can hope to exercise the control necessary to overcome that intrinsic pressure to become distracted from strategy.
Yet, apart from a strong personality with determined ambitions, institutions and procedures can also force some discipline. Indeed the imposition of some relative predictability is among the primary purposes of institutions and procedures. The first step is the development of a considered vision or plan. Knowing that a continuing series of usually unpredictable mini-crises will engulf that agenda, the president and the secretary should establish for themselves at most two to three strategic foreign policy objectives for their tenure. What do they want to accomplish at the end of the administration? What goals do they have? How would they like the world to be different when they leave, if they could have their way (even as they recognize they cannot)? What are their long-term, ex ante priorities? If there are insistent demands for immediate action on “targets of opportunity,” which purposes do the opportunities serve? Or are they traps? Which immediate actions cause a lack of strategic focus, or perhaps even strategic losses?
Without a set of defined purposes, everything will be episodic. The secretary, the president and the national-security advisor will be total prisoners of the daily buffeting they will need to resist in order to achieve those strategic goals. In the absence of a few resolute objectives, decisions will not even be tactical, since tactics are derivative of strategy. They will instead be episodic, sporadic and idiosyncratic.
Institutions within State and the NSC should also be charged with protecting and advancing these few strategic goals. That is a fundamental purpose of the entire NSC—to help the president define the administration’s security- and foreign-policy program and then harness agency resources to execute it. But in recent years the NSC has become more operational and therefore more engaged in details between agencies and even within them. It is as if the president’s entire agenda is in the hands of the NSC and that the other agencies, especially State, cannot be trusted to implement it.
Within State, the obvious institution is the Policy Planning Staff, the secretary’s personal team. Its main purpose is to establish policy and effect the secretary’s program. But, as with the NSC, Policy Planning has become more absorbed in details: clearing cables, joining regular meetings and attending to specifics. Perhaps all of that is now a necessary duty for the NSC and Policy Planning Staff, but if so some sub-unit should be established in each as the keeper of the big-picture strategy, insulated somewhat from daily events. Every week or two, these pesky strategic folks should pop up and insist on time for the larger agenda. At the very least the president, the secretary and the national-security advisor need to consciously bless the shifting of attention from large picture to small. At the end of the term, they should not be marveling at distractions and diversions. They should be able to point to the specific moments when they themselves decided on the departures, when to abandon this for that.