Department of State - Leadership or management?




In the 1780s, Benjamin Franklin's diplomatic dispatches from France sometimes took months to cross the Atlantic. Two centuries later, flash cables or secure e-mail messages could be in the hands of the secretary of state within moments. Can, in short, the modern secretary of state, however talented and qualified, break free as Kissinger suggested from the management ethos?

The obstacles to such freedom were rather clear in duties and responsibilities of the secretary of state at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The secretary was a senior personal adviser to the president and the only cabinet officer primarily charged with looking at the nation as a whole in its relations with the outside world. The secretary of state was also the ranking diplomat in dealing with foreign governments at the same time that he served as an administration spokesman on American foreign policy to Congress, the country, and abroad. As chief of the State Department, the secretary was responsible to the president and accountable to Congress. Finally, the secretary was also in direct line to presidential succession. The modern secretary of state was thus adviser, negotiator, reporter of trouble, spokesperson, manager, and coordinator. One thinks of days filled with calls, conferences, talks with senators, ambassadors, delegations of private citizens, journalists, and bankers, not to mention the increasingly frequent global troubleshooting, all the time while running a department.

Secretary Stimson's biographer reports on one day, even in the more serene pre–World War II world, as follows:

A conference at ten o'clock with Silas Strawn, the United States delegate to a conference at Peking on Chinese tariffs. At 10:30 a press conference followed at 10:45 by an appointment with Dr. McClaren of the Williamstown Institute. Between 11:00 and 12:00 receiving the Spanish Ambassador and a representative from the Bolivian delegation. They were followed by Senator Howell at 12:00, Congressman Keyes at 12:40 and General Allen at 12:55. After lunch at 2:30 he began to sign the official mail, a task he had finished by 3:30 when Congressmen Robinson, Thatcher, Walker, Newhill, Kendall and Blackburn called upon him and talked for an hour. Elihu Root, Jr., appeared at 4:30 and remained until 5:00. Just before going home the Secretary called James M. Beck, then a congressman, in New York. That evening he attended a dinner given by the Chilean Ambassador in honor of the Chilean Minister of Finance.

How against these activities does one formulate the basic strategies and plans of action required? Even if time and attention are found, more myriad problems await in terms of the delegation of authority to bureaus that distrust each other's prerogatives or to individuals anxious for good assignments and promotions. Each bureau, each office within a bureau, each officer, is improvising from day-to-day, unaware, unprepared, or uninspired in the work of partners, neighbors, and colleagues.

Against this setting, some post–World War II secretaries of state have stood out in the effort to orchestrate the department's activities. Most notably mentioned by those in the State Department, George C. Marshall, accustomed to command, and Dean Acheson, experienced on the Hoover Commission for government reorganization, brought about a sense of planning amidst the chaos. Most secretaries of state since World War II, however, have been less engaged with the department itself and more in touch with the White House. Some, such as Dulles, Kissinger, and Christopher, were out of town a lot. Baker was George H. W. Bush's closest personal friend. Shultz stayed in the post for seven years in part because he was a better organization man than most, but he often clashed with Ronald Reagan's conservative loyalists, who thought Shultz was too close to foreign service liberals.

The task for secretaries of state has been difficult because the role of the State Department is, in the last analysis, so weak. Primacy in coordinating foreign policy itself, the lifeblood of the State Department's leadership in the days of Adams and Seward, has been challenged and the counterattack has had few bases for claims to legitimacy. The Constitution says nothing of the State Department and refers only to "executive" and "presidential" responsibilities. Congress has never helped. The original legislation setting up the State Department also recognized the president as supreme. Even when granting power to the secretary of state, it has always been under-stood that he or she "shall act under the direction of the President." Such direction has wandered from giving State considerable room to those who have wanted State out of foreign affairs.

Some analysts of American diplomacy go even further to suggest that the State Department, while it never had a constitutional or legislative claim to primacy, did, at one time in the nineteenth century, come to hold such a position by tradition and that the department itself gradually allowed such power to erode. One of the first four departments to be established (along with War, Treasury, and Justice), the State Department came to view itself as the first among equals. This, in turn, led to an attitude of general superiority in the federal establishment—an attitude that, regardless of ability, the State Department had a special dispensation to control foreign policy. If other valid interests arose in other departments, the State Department worked for too long not to foster them but to cut them off. Thus began a movement to place control of foreign policy in more reasonable and responsive hands. Also, the "legal mind" and "administrative efficiency" movement made State more introspective and took it further from the center of integrated policy.

As the State Department failed to keep abreast and federal agencies multiplied, new voices emerged to decide, negotiate, and implement foreign policy. When the State Department cried "foul" but showed little aptitude, foreign policymaking moved elsewhere. The emergency experience of World War II, in particular, put personal presidential policy in the forefront. Self-defensively, the State Department took to eulogizing its establishment, and the American people had to be reminded frequently after the war that "the Department of State, under the direction of the President, in cooperation with Congress is responsible for the advancement of our foreign policy objectives."

In reality, however, such leadership moved most directly to the National Security Council. Created by the National Security Act of 1947 (the same statute that established the Central Intelligence Agency), the National Security Council was, in fact, charged with the responsibility of "effectively coordinating the policies and functions of the departments and agencies of the Government relating to the national security." It was provided with a staff and set about operating, close to the White House, as an interdepartmental committee with functions most immediately related to questions of foreign policy. Thus was created what the State Department had once been, a coordinating, orchestrating mechanism for the various elements of policy at the highest level. The State Department, at least in the contemporary United States, was not a part of the primary machinery by which the nation would set about to meet the demands of increased world leadership.

In the competitive world of Washington's bureaucratic politics, the State Department is one of the smallest players. Its annual budget and number of employees are dwarfed by such behemoths as Defense and Health and Human Services. Although the total amount is secret, the annual funds for the CIA far exceed those of State. With a lack of resources and an increasing centralization of foreign policymaking in the White House, it is not surprising that other departments and agencies in Washington often have more influence in shaping U.S. foreign policy than does the State Department.

Despite these challenges, the State Department has made various efforts to revitalize its headquarters' operations in the somewhat aptly named Foggy Bottom section of Washington. The program Diplomacy for the 1970s, embarked on by Secretary of State William P. Rogers and his chief assistant, Elliot L. Richardson, was one of the most publicized and professional. Yet it must be noted that when one scratches underneath the rhetoric of the program, it was, in short, still another management reform package, not unlike in design, if not in definition, the earlier programs that had failed and, in part, led to disaster for the department.

The Rogers-Richardson proposals at least incorporated the knowledge, which had begun with Wristonization, that structural reforms were not universally productive. Indeed, they noted, "substance can suffer at the hands of technique; spirit can be alienated from operation." The lessons of the participative managers, more serious than the mere superficiality of a suggestion box, were also deeply ingrained. A prime focus of Diplomacy for the 1970s was a new era in management-employee relations. Openness and creativity were encouraged. There was even concern, for the first time, for ensuring equal employment opportunities and new openings for women. The role of the foreign service wife was redefined, giving her more training and staff support for her unique position as an unofficial representative of the United States.

Still, characteristically, the new proposals clung to the same brass rings. First was the commitment to a belief that this was the only real, significant reform where all the acknowledged previous attempts were specious and superficial. All previous reformers of management guidelines had believed similarly about their proposals, from Huntington Wilson's geopolitical divisions through Wriston's merger. Second was a still-unshattered faith in techniques, no matter what the preamble, to solve problems. Demonstrating this faith was a program called Policy Analysis and Resource Allocation (PARA), under the aegis of the secretary's Planning and Coordination Staff (S/PC). One of the tasks of the program was to provide a structural way back into the top echelons of decision making for the department by writing annual reviews designed to serve as common denominators for discussion in the department, the Inter-Agency Group of the National Security Council, and the White House. In turn, Policy Analysis and Resource Allocation was to feed into an even more centralized executive council known as the Secretariat. The authors of Diplomacy for the 1970s proudly acclaimed this Secretariat, at the "heartbeat" of department operations, as "thoroughly modernized" and ready with "up-to-date techniques and equipment for high-speed telecommunications and automated information handling." Thus, Secretary Rogers urged development of a new operations center and improved information management known as Secretariat Automated Data Indexing System (SADI).

Into this nerve center of the Department of State in 1973 moved Kissinger, who had challenged the hegemony of efficiency while an outsider. It is difficult to perceive how a Kissinger or certainly a Remsen, Adams, Seward, Adee, or Evarts could function in the kingdom of PARA and SADI, that is, an environment where "substantive problems are transformed into administrative ones." What was the remaining role of leadership and policy in a department that could issue forth Airgram 5399, concerning the use of the title "Ms."? The message read in part: "The Department has added 'Ms.' to the personnel title codes … maintained in the automated master personnel file. All documents which access these codes and which are printed by the computer may now employ this form of address."

The "Ms." example reveals not only a preoccupation with management details but also a diversity problem in State. For the department specifically charged with representing the United States to the various peoples of the world, the career officers in State had always been remarkably homogeneous. In the 1970s the department made great strides to catch up with other government offices in the area of diversity. The number of new female foreign service officers doubled during the decade, and by the end of the decade the department was actively recruiting African-American candidates. As a result, by the end of the century the number of female and African-American ambassadors had noticeably increased even before the nation had its first woman as secretary of state with Madeleine Albright and its first African-American secretary of state with Colin Powell.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the State Department continued its parade of re-reorganizations that had begun with creation of the first geographic division in 1908 and the professionalization of the foreign service with the Rogers Act of 1924. The Foreign Service Officers Act of 1980 aimed to make career officers more effective through reform of the promotion and recognition system. The bureaucratic pyramid of functional and geographic divisions was continually readjusted, but the process of getting a policy recommendation through this maze of specialists remained time-consuming and an obstacle to policy innovation. During the Clinton administration a new undersecretary of state for global issues was added to make the department more responsive to contemporary world problems, such as the environment and population growth. One of the most significant changes of the 1990s was to bring the previously independent U.S. Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the department to save costs and enhance management efficiency.

The explanation of the shifting power of the secretary of state and the department itself since World War II was not in internal organization, or in major historical events like the Vietnam War and the end of the Cold War, or in scandals like Iran-Contra. The key was in the growth of power and complexity of the modern presidency, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and continuing thereafter. Much public discussion focused on the relative balance of power between the National Security Council after its creation in 1947 and the State Department. During the Johnson years, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and national security advisers McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow were seen as overshadowing Dean Rusk. Under Nixon, Kissinger dominated the policy process through his NSC staff and his direct access to the president within the White House. Reagan claimed that George Shultz would restore the primacy of the State Department, but Shultz was often in conflict with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and later the NSC staff over dealings with Iran and Central America. With the end of the Cold War, Bill Clinton elevated another player in the policy game, the secretary of commerce, as he gave priority to economic competitiveness. The determining consideration in all of these cases was how the president chose to exercise his executive prerogatives.

Despite efforts to improve its own organization, the State Department was unable to reclaim the leadership and coordination of foreign policy of which it had once been able to boast. The centralization of policymaking in the White House that had begun during World War II and increased during the Cold War remained. The National Security Council staff had the advantages of greater access to the president, more rapid response to changing situations, and more domestic political awareness than State. Indeed, bureaucratic battles between the department and the NSC staff at times—such as in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s—wrecked the policy process. No national security adviser after Kissinger ever equaled his level of control over decisions, but policy unity was always difficult. The Defense Department, CIA, NSC, and other departments often had as much or more input into foreign policy than did the State Department.

The juxtaposition of Airgram 5399 about the use of "Ms." and Remsen's original instructions put one in mind of a debate between two diplomatic historians about the utility of speedy publication of foreign policy files by the Department of State. While both scholars supported such a policy, their reasons differed dramatically. The first argued the administratively defensible position that quick access to such documents and the resulting historical monographs, sure to follow, would teach contemporary diplomats how to do a better job. More reflectively, the second historian suggested that while scholarship and research demanded quick access, better policy would emerge not from monographs, but from "wisdom."

Leadership, the quality of greatness inherent in the work of an Adams or a Seward, is still possible. The Department of State is not beyond its grasp. Yet one must conclude that its achievement slips further and further out of reach in the wake of those variables the department has come to identify as progress since the mid-twentieth century: complexity, bigness, and accelerated change.

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