Monday, March 14, 2016
US foreign policy for the 21st Century
US foreign policy for the 21st Century
Gerard M. Gallucci & Philip Christenson
Maintaining US leadership in the 21st Century no longer means means having the biggest and best military or seeking to manage all of the changes that come with globalization. Rather it means concentrating America's resources on ensuring its domestic economic and technological strength along with a foreign policy directed at fundamental national interests including helping to ensure a fair, open world market. The US can do this with a leaner State Department operating within a revamped foreign policy apparatus.
As Washington’s response to events since the Arab “spring” suggests, the US foreign policy apparatus seems woefully unprepared for global change driven by competition for economic advantage and failed political systems. China, India, Brazil and other rising countries are pushing their economies to grow within the global market of trade, advanced technology and resource exploitation. Others remain burdened by poverty and authoritarian and corrupt political systems and face the difficult choice between unleashing democratic forces that may bring chaos or finding transitional means to preserve stability while allowing reform.
The traditional forms of US power – military, political and economic – are less relevant and often push Washington to focus on the wrong things, in the wrong way and at the wrong time. The US fights wars against “enemies” that it cannot eliminate and contests on asymmetric terms. It preaches democracy and human rights without consideration of the complexities of societies – not as privileged as America – that must somehow make their way in a world in which the dominant powers have left them little room to maneuver. Meanwhile, and as a result too of its own questionable behavior in Iraq and Guantanamo and with drone warfare, the world looks less to America for moral guidance.
While the US economy remains the world's most potent, the resources needed to maintain leadership in innovation and production are considerable. America needs to update its infrastructure and education system, support basic and applied research, develop alternative energy and invest in retaining the high ground of space exploration. To fund these efforts, America should look to cost savings from reducing a bloated and outdated military and intelligence establishment while refocusing on rapid intervention capabilities to protect direct US national interests abroad and serve as part of international peacekeeping operations where necessary. Reducing the US military to these core missions and ending redundancies in the intelligence community could gain substantial savings.
Reducing federal spending has been pushed to the top of the US national agenda. The defense budget is usually immune to real cuts – the current sequester notwithstanding – while funding to help prevent conflict through diplomacy is rarely protected. In the 21st Century, national security should be understood to include diplomacy as the means to avoid and manage conflict and serve national economic and commercial interests abroad. But the US can do more diplomacy with less by reforming the policy making process and changing how its national interests are served abroad.
The first track would focus on rebalancing the inter-agency process and streamlining the State Department. The proliferation of special envoys would end and the traditional role of the core assistant secretaries be restored. Development of regional expertise would be emphasized along with priority given to prior experience in the policy process in choosing senior officials.
The second track would move away from "universal" representation by utilizing US Foreign Service assets more efficiently and looking to alternate forms of US presence abroad. Alternatives might include conducting bilateral relations with some countries through an enlarged US Mission to the UN in New York and centralizing or regionalizing reporting functions. Full-blown embassies overseas might be limited to areas of special interest – such as Russia, China, India, Nigeria, Brazil, Western Europe and Japan. Beyond these, the US presence on the ground could be limited to that necessary to provide essential consular and business services.
Track One: The Washington Foreign Affairs Process
The Department of State was established in 1789 as the sole federal agency to support the President in carrying out his responsibility for foreign affairs. Yet over the past decades, the foreign affairs establishment has grown to include dozens of agencies and departments while State's role in leading policy formulation and implementation has eroded. The inter-agency process – coordinating US objectives and efforts across the wide range of issues an Administration choses to prioritize – has become a jungle of working groups in which the State Department is usually just one player. Participants often come to interagency meetings chaired by the National Security Council (NSC) and with each participant having, in effect, an equal voice. The NSC has few staff of its own and depends on other agencies to provide personnel. This tends to skew its work toward the perspectives of the largest, richest agencies and those with special interests. The NSC presides over what is effectively an example of typical American interest-group politics.
The result is a hodgepodge approach to issues that produces, all too frequently, policies that are little more than postures. The Department of State – with its experienced staff, expertise and direct access to personalities, issues and information abroad – is treated as just another player. Without State leadership of the interagency process, policy-making is deprived of the executive branch's greatest resource for achieving a degree of informed coherence and focus in a timely fashion. Issues often become stuck in the “interagency” process, requiring senior level “deputies” involvement or higher to sort out disagreements. The State assistant secretary should almost always lead the interagency process to better ensure that those who know the situation best lead the framing of the issues.
State has added to its problems by diluting the role of the assistant secretaries through creation of a herd of special envoys. (Once a “special” envoy or office is created – often to suggest “action” on the day’s hot issue without actually formulating any new policy approach – they never seem to go away.) Special envoys demand their own staff, their own perks and their own seat at the table. They may be presented as an effort to bring together the various USG actors on an issue but often simply add to the confusion while appeasing outside constituencies. It is also unfortunate that the choice of assistant secretaries – career and political – often leaves much to be desired in terms of experience. These jobs are often seen as political plums or places to recognize the political importance of special interests. The President should appoint as assistant secretaries seasoned regional or functional experts – whether from inside or outside – with records indicating they are able to carry their weight within State – including professionally managing their bureaus – and in the interagency process. The special envoys should go and the number of assistant secretaries reduced.
State Department bureaus – especially core regional and functional ones – can call on hundreds of dedicated and experienced staff. While State has most often treated its Civil Service staff as second class, they are a great reservoir of talent and expertise and probably could take on many of the functions now filled by Foreign Service officers serving domestically as well as some abroad. In places such as the Intelligence and Research Bureau (INR), but also on country and functional desks, State should develop and reward those willing to spend a career working on – and gaining in-depth knowledge of – one region or issue set. The CIA used to have a cadre of subject matter experts on the analytic side. But it has come to see its people as inter-changeable parts and has eroded its expertise by moving staff around rather than allowing them to do one thing but that one thing well. State should not follow this pattern. Also, much of the State Department's reporting functions now carried out abroad could be more efficiently done by domestically based subject-matter experts. The wide availability of information – obtained through open sources and intelligence – plus the power of centrally available analytic tools in the hands of those properly trained means many reporting positions now abroad can be kept in Washington. State's contribution to foreign policy formulation and implementation would improve by cultivating subject matter experts and putting them to work at the headquarters level.
Track Two: The US Government Abroad
State follows two traditional approaches that have outlasted their usefulness: officers writing dispatches from abroad and the rule of "universality" requiring a US presence in all foreign states with which it has relations. Adherence to the first is mostly a matter of habit. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, political officers went abroad to observe foreign parts and send reports back across the ocean to the country desks. The major innovation was the use of the telegraph. (Even now, State officers send their email reports in cable form.) But while it remains useful to have eyes on the ground in places where US interests are most in play, in many others there is little reason to have a highly trained and expensive foreign service officer work to provide information and insight already available through Google or intelligence agencies. This is true for those covering economic matters as well as political. Also, there would seem to be only a limited number of instances where US national interest requires labor, environmental or human rights watchers on the ground. (Their public output – such as the yearly Human Rights Reports – have come to seen as intrusions into the domestic affairs of other states and may cost America more influence than gained.) State should look to reducing the number of reporting officers abroad and either abolishing or relocating many of these back to Washington. Other US non-military or non-intelligence agencies should be required to zero-base their overseas presence and justify positions they request through the State Department at least every five years.
“Universality” is an anachronism in an age where communications is instantaneous and travel quick and affordable. One may argue that US has a responsibility to treat all states equally and therefore must be physically present everywhere. Physical presence also might also be seen to facilitate lobbying each state with a seat in the UN and other international organizations where the votes are equal whatever the size of a country. “Universality” also reflects America's eagerness to instruct the many governments and bodies that make up the international community on what Washington believes to be the proper norms and objectives of their behavior, domestic and international. However, the need to look to budget savings provides an opportunity to reconsider “universality” from the ground up.
Why be abroad?
In truth, in most places around the world, little exists of direct interest to the US beyond those votes in international organizations. What does directly affect US interests can be sifted out through skimming the world's media. The actual effects of negative events in far distant places travels slower than the electronic media will carry word out of potential problems.
This is not an augment for isolationism, least of all for the US, the world's chief status quo power. The world is increasingly an interconnected whole and threats to international peace and security can easily become problems at “home.” The US economy rests on imports and exports. The well-being and life-style of the average American depends on both foreign workers and customers. Also, as the world becomes more violent from ethnic, tribal, racial, religious, economic and ideological strife, it becomes more unsafe for everyone, Americans too. There is no sure way to keep violence from anyone's shores. Prudence dictates making some effort to minimize violence and causes of violence and to assist less developed regions attain at least a moderate rate of economic growth and prosperity. This requires a foreign policy that goes beyond immediate security and commercial interests.
The real reason to looking afresh at how and where America conducts it foreign relations is more mundane: It must be asked whether Americans can do foreign policy well enough? Simply because it would be prudent to have foreign policy does not mean that the US is capable of doing it. George Kennan long ago noted the pernicious – and apparently unavoidable – effects of domestic politics on America's ability to formulate and carry out effective and consistent foreign policy. The relationship between American foreign policy and its domestic politics is inescapable. The result is that often the US acts abroad as if it were ignorant of the dreams, hopes, problems and realities of anybody except itself and its friends.
America often seems unable to conceive of the world as others see it and therefore to balance its own capabilities and objectives against what others may want and be able to do. Too often, the US insists on acting either unilaterally or as the leader of “coalitions” of those willing to do things its way. America seems unable to act in the international community as part of that community. Washington's ability to influence events beyond its own borders has waned as the rest of the world has grown increasingly tired of America acting as arrogant preacher and ill-informed bully.
Given the perhaps inescapable inability of the US to do foreign policy well, it is not at all clear who benefits from US representation everywhere. Rather than increase the understanding between peoples, America's overseas diplomatic presence – however “brilliant” the reporting may be – seems merely to ensure that it rubs in the face of the locals Washington's own ignorance and inattention to their interests.
The question for the US then becomes how does it most effectively interact in furtherance of its own interest in peace, stability, open commerce and economic growth with the rest of the world? More practically, what sort of overseas presence – if any – is most effective in furthering these interests and what are the alternatives to the present system of embassies and staffs in the entire “universe” of countries? Having an embassy in some far distant, otherwise forgotten place may do little good for anyone. It is also, increasingly, not always safe.
The US may not in every case be giving or getting sufficient value to merit the costs of being abroad. Therefore, the case for an American presence may best be made case-by-case. Alternatives to handling bi-lateral and multi-lateral relations through a universal network of embassies and ambassadors exist.
Is there another way?
Americans travel and do business across almost the entire globe. They expect protection and help. Also, it remains necessary to work with foreign governments on the various forms of trans-border challenges including terrorism and crime. Thus some American diplomatic, consular and other officials will remain abroad to render emergency services to Americans, give visas, assist American business and businesspeople, enlist local assistance in combating terrorism and international criminal activity and realize specific, targeted objectives of US developmental assistance. These should be the core objectives of American missions abroad and if the local situation does not require such involvement – or allow it to be successful or secure – than the US should adjust its representation accordingly. Where a US presence does not meet these requirements, it should be withdrawn or downsized.
Relations with some powers – America's nearest neighbors, closest allies and chief trading partners – still merit a full diplomatic presence. US interests are too vital and varied for it to be absent and Washington may require more insight into local politics and economics than other sources can regularly supply. But on close examination, these places may be few.
There are alternative venues for carrying out the traditional requirements of relations between states. The UN is a "congress" of sovereign states from around the globe. Many smaller states already co-credit their ambassador to the UN also to the US. The UN General Assembly offers a natural forum for US participation in world affairs. The US could use a somewhat enlarged Mission to the UN to conduct bilateral relations with as many countries as did not merit ambassadorial relations in their capitals. The US could also look to increased use of regional centers with ambassadors or other diplomatic representatives accredited to various countries to be visited as useful. Where the US has vital economic or commercial interests, or in places of significant or frequent American presence, a consulate or consular agency might suffice. In some places, a regional or roving consular/commercial officer might be enough. But State too should zero-base its overseas presence and present a results-based proposal for where it stations staff abroad and for what purposes. It would seem a priori that such a proposal would not need to embrace universal presence.
The Foreign Service
The Foreign Service should be considered the front-line force of America's non-military capability abroad. The comparative advantage of the FSO is readiness to serve abroad and the expertise and knowledge gained over time that enables him or her to provide information and insight not available through other means. As a limited resource, they should be deployed as and where necessary. Foreign Service officers should expect to serve most of their careers abroad leaving the great majority of domestic positions to subject-matter experts at headquarters. Only the commitment to continued service abroad justifies the special allowances and emoluments they should receive in compensation for living far from home and in often difficult circumstances. To develop the in-depth expertise and knowledge necessary to be most effective, the foreign service officer should spend most of his or her career – up to the threshold of the senior service – working in a particular region and a particular functional area. At the mid-level, some of the best might also be assigned to quick-reaction teams to respond to immediate requirements for special diplomatic missions or to supplement field presences facing unexpected demands. State should restructure training and assignment procedures to focus on a smaller, better equipped cadre of FSOs dedicated to becoming subject matter experts serving abroad.
America retains the great preponderance of the world's hard power through its imposing military and economy. The US also possesses untapped resources of soft power in that it speaks the world language, prints the world's money and defines the 21st Century lifestyle of prosperity and freedom the majority of the world desires. The effort to reinvigorate US foreign policy through restructuring at home and concentrating its presence abroad offers an opportunity to reduce costs while improving how American interests are served abroad. The US – and the world – needs a lean and focused State Department providing leadership and expertise to make American hard and soft power smarter.