TO: The Next President of the United States
FROM: Michael C. Polt
DATE: March 1, 2008
SUBJECT: Strengthening American Diplomacy
Mr. President, you have asked your Foreign Service to recommend ways to strengthen our country’s diplomatic capabilities. We are of one mind: For our diplomacy to continue to influence world events, we must fundamentally modernize and strengthen our profession for the 21st century. We recommend that you reaffirm the decisive importance of diplomacy as the front line of our foreign policy by ordering that modernization, summarized in the six recommendations proffered by this memorandum.
Since the end of the Cold War, under both Democratic and Republican Administrations, we diplomats have examined our role in a new foreign policy era without a name. “Post-Cold War” is still with us as the only substitute for a static old designation, except for the additional, tragic “post-9/11” identification. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked us to practice “transformational diplomacy” in this yet-to-be defined era. We now speak of an “expeditionary Foreign Service” as we take up posts in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
As your representatives abroad, we are not passive observers of events unfolding around us. We shape America’s foreign affairs environment in challenging and dangerous circumstances with persistence, patience and courage, and we achieve results at a fraction of the cost of the use of force. A recent study by a former Deputy Secretary of State coined the term “smart power” to describe the skillful use of America’s diplomacy, backed up by “hard capabilities.” Your diplomats fully subscribe to such a sequencing and combination of assets.
Our country’s post-Cold War, post-9/11 sense of national security has had to adjust to some serious body blows. In recent years, it has been prudent to ask how well we “do” foreign policy these days. Critical observers both in and out of government have argued that our national security structure is dysfunctional, that our policies are wrongheaded, that the wrong people are at the wrong place at the wrong time, or all three. In truth, you are not inheriting quite as bleak a situation as that. I would suggest, however, that you publicly renew a commitment to rely on your professional diplomatic service and invest in its people and infrastructure as the most effective and efficient way to achieve your foreign policy goals.
Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice both worked hard to address critical shortfalls in people and infrastructure. They achieved some important progress, but more needs to be done. Secretary Rice’s global diplomatic position realignments addressed a central reality: We need to constantly examine and adapt our national security posture in the face of rapidly shifting threats and opportunities. Secretary Powell successfully convinced your predecessor and Congress that, in addition to putting the right people in the right place at the right time, the diplomatic corps just simply needs more people. That remains the case: The imminent departure of many of the most experienced Foreign Service Officers due to retirement or “up or out” rules will leave you with fewer top diplomats when you need them most.
You justifiably expect intelligent and timely efforts from Foreign Service officers to meet our nation’s foreign policy challenges, and America’s diplomats will not disappoint you. We view “doing foreign policy” as neither an academic nor an amateur pursuit, and it is clearly not without danger. You can count on us to put ourselves in harm’s way as needed, as the names on the memorial plaques at the State Department’s diplomatic entrance testify. As we have done in the past, we will always serve you and our country where and when we are most needed, and we will hold ourselves responsible for our performance, no matter how complex a challenge you put before us. We have no foreign policy agenda other than yours and the Secretary’s, but until you make the final policy decision, expect debate among our ranks over policy and its implementation. That is not a sign of disrespect for your leadership—quite the contrary: You did not hire us for our lack of critical thinking or an inability to articulate our views.
1. Reconceive Embassies around the world. Think of U.S. Embassies not simply as fortified Federal buildings filled with multiple agency bureaucrats doing “their thing”, but as action platforms designed for the achievement of your policy aims. We must keep our facilities secure, but not to the point of rendering them dysfunctional. We need to make our Embassies more accessible again.
Your Ambassadors lead their staffs in Country Teams on your behalf. If handled skillfully, Ambassadors will maximize your delegated authority. Ambassadors must also be empowered to work through the maze of interagency and political competition both at home and abroad. Failure to do so would be costly and dangerous.
That goes for political appointees as well as FSOs. Despite an admitted bias toward career officials, most of us welcome outstanding non-career diplomatic appointees as valuable partners in making U.S. diplomacy more innovative and versatile.
2. Treat U.S. diplomacy as a serious profession, just as we treat our military professionals. We must invest in our human resource base and infrastructure consistently, and we must deploy our personnel wisely. We need to spend much more time and money to train our diplomats. As for budgetary concerns, the United States can afford it, and the American people will quickly see the benefits of investing a bit more than 1 percent of our Federal budget on diplomatic resources.
3. Reaffirm the diplomatic corps’ role as your principal agents for achieving your foreign policy agenda. By design, the Foreign Service is charged by you, Mr. President, with being in command on the ground. We are charged with making your foreign policy count, convincing both our friends and our adversaries of our country’s seriousness of purpose, and confidently representing a popular, as well as a sometimes unpopular, America. The Foreign Service is also charged with voicing respectful internal dissent in a system designed by Secretary of State Kissinger during the Vietnam conflict. We owe you our candid views—but confidentially, not via press leaks.
4. Create a single, substantial and consistent foreign affairs budget for all U.S. efforts and agencies abroad. Specialists from appropriate U.S. agencies should be detached to the Department of State to lend their specialized expertise to a common foreign policy effort. Just as the United States has one defense budget, we should have one diplomacy budget. Domestic agencies with overseas responsibilities should not have to choose between domestic and foreign affairs priorities. Their domestic funds are for them to manage, but their diplomatic activities should come from a separate, non-fungible pot.
Once central infrastructure investments—from buildings to communications to global program development—are satisfied, Ambassadors should oversee the remaining diplomatic budget to design and manage programs in the field on a country as well as a regional basis. Resist the urge to micromanage your diplomats, and strongly support ambassadorial authority as the bedrock of the effective management of all our foreign affairs pursuits abroad. A strong and confident ambassador, supported by you and the Secretary of State, makes America’s influence felt and can best exercise effective control of our official actions abroad. (As Ambassador to Serbia, I used your predecessor’s authority to break down traditional bureaucratic stovepipes and organized our diplomatic mission into highly effective interagency action teams based on our broad policy objectives for the country and the region. Initial bureaucratic resistance quickly faded as the newfound power enjoyed by these teams proved irresistible. I also routinely cooperated with my colleagues in the region on broader regional programs and issues, although admittedly I sometimes had to struggle against Washington’s predilection for central control. Washington’s role should be policy central, not directing management of executing policy on the ground.)
5. Create regional “Ambassadors’ Councils” to provide the flexibility in the field to manage bilateral, multilateral and regional diplomatic efforts. These councils would work with the appropriate State Department regional Assistant Secretaries to harmonize policy across national borders. Such a standing coordinating mechanism would routinize joint regional action among the President’s representatives.
Good Ambassadors and Assistant Secretaries already do all this on an ad hoc basis, so ambassadors can certainly form their own regional diplomatic joint “commands” overseas. An alternative approach to regional policy coordination proposed by some—putting additional “Regional Ambassadors” under U.S. military combatant commanders would put the military cart before the diplomatic horse. Civilians, not the uniformed services, must form the baseline and the umbrella for all U.S. foreign affairs engagements. Military commands already have representatives—Defense Attachés and Offices of Defense Cooperation—who serve on the staffs of Ambassadors to help coordinate country-specific and regional action. That need not and should not change.
6. Finally, trust us. America’s professional diplomats implement the president’s agenda, shape America’s international relationships, peacefully resolve issues before they boil over into military conflict, and help rebuild nations and ties in the aftermath of hostilities. Since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, we have consistently enhanced our nation’s understanding of its friends and enemies alike. After 233 years, U.S. diplomats need more professional respect, more resources and better coordination and communication to take us forward into this still-new century. Under your leadership, with your trust and support, we will help your foreign policy succeed.