Battle Hymn of the Diplomats

Battle Hymn of the Diplomats

Mini Teaser: Awash in Wilsonian hubris, the State Department’s meandering and militaristic QDDR will ensure Foggy Bottom remains second-rate—both inside the Beltway and overseas.

by Author(s): David Rieff

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.

A vast program, particularly the bit about preparing ourselves for the world ahead—something one does not have to be an uncritical devotee of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan to understand is largely a fool’s errand. Many of the most serious and most urgent of the future challenges that U.S. policy makers will be confronted by will be unexpected—as recent events in Egypt amply demonstrate.

The QDDR was released with considerable fanfare at the end of last year. And as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton writes in her introduction, she made the report one of her “highest priorities” upon taking up her post. Her ambitions about what it was to accomplish could scarcely have been higher. Some of its goals are institutional and seem to break less new ground than the QDDR asserts: turning ambassadors in every embassy into “Chief Executive Officers” of “all U.S. government agencies working in their host country”; eliminating some reporting requirements; and, increasing the authority of officials on the ground rather than referring so much to Washington. But others, at least, were they to be implemented, represent real departures in the way U.S. foreign policy has been conducted. These include reforms that Washington can determine on its own, most notably “re-establishing USAID as the world’s premier development agency.” But it also cites important changes that go far beyond unilateral desires formulated by a few U.S. officials in Foggy Bottom, especially to “reform and update international institutions.” That particular project is laid out in the same sentence that pledges the State Department to using “21st century statecraft [sic] to extend the reach of our diplomacy beyond the halls of government office buildings.” Whether one chooses to call the United States an empire or, following former–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “the indispensable nation,” the fact that the authors of the report, whether intentionally or inadvertently, could bracket these two projects speaks volumes about how, in Washington, America’s continued hegemony is viewed not as something debatable but rather as a fact—one is tempted to say as a fact of nature.

ALMOST AS notable as the QDDR’s fantastic reach are the borrowings from military terminology. This should not be surprising. In a time of war, that was surely a sine qua non for the State Department to reclaim its pride of place. As Secretary Clinton notes:

When I was a Senator, I served on the Armed Services Committee, where I watched the Defense Department go through its impressive Quadrennial Defense Review [QDR]. I saw how the QDR provided a strategic plan for the department. It forced hard decisions about priorities. It was a clear-eyed answer to the question: How can we do better?

Whether the military’s QDR process, mandated by the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, is really that effective is more of an open question than one might gather from Secretary Clinton’s words. To a considerable extent, that process has almost always included any number of lowest-common-denominator compromises between the services. This does not mean the State Department’s QDDR will necessarily have similar problems, not least because the balance of forces between the secretary and the heads of bureaus and the administrator of USAID is far more lopsided than that between even the strongest secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, the QDDR seems to oscillate between being the first of a series of conventional reviews, as is the case with the Pentagon’s quadrennial reports, and the Obama administration’s major foreign-policy agenda, and thus more akin to a national-security strategy paper. The report implicitly acknowledges this with its generous reference to former–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s so-called transformational diplomacy initiative of 2006. The QDDR also has strong echoes of the Princeton Project on National Security, the program Anne-Marie Slaughter ran with her colleague G. John Ikenberry at the Wilson School.

Such ambitions should not raise any eyebrows. From Clinton’s confirmation hearings, when she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. foreign policy had three pillars—diplomacy, defense and development (through USAID)—and, were she to be confirmed, as secretary she would control two of them, with the QDDR, the secretary seems to have been determined to reclaim her department from the Pentagon. State had been almost summarily subsumed by the Department of Defense during the Bush administration, when neither the strangely passive Colin Powell nor the predictably compliant Condoleezza Rice were any match for either Donald Rumsfeld or his successor Robert Gates. This need not imply that Clinton and Gates have been at loggerheads; if anything, the opposite has been the case. One can hardly call the first two years of the Obama administration a success in bureaucratic terms, least of all at the senior levels of the national-security establishment (think of the unfortunate tenure of General James Jones as national-security adviser). But one area of strength has been their seemingly easy and productive collaboration.

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