When former Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote of “the Eclipse of the State Department” in a 1971 article for Foreign Affairs, he could not have been more prescient towards the position of the Department in 2009. Dwarfed by the Department of Defense in terms of budget, personnel and capacity, State and the Agency for International Development (USAID) have atrophied nearly to the point of irretrievability. This paper describes the causes and effects of the lack of human capital and capacity at State and USAID and offers suggestions on how to rebuild these capacities.
Yet the world we live in is more complex than ever, and our engagement with the world more dependent on capturing what Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called the full strength of the American people. The American military is engaged in direct combat in two wars and yet finds itself repeatedly tasked with conducting soft-power activities best suited to civilian executive agencies. This situation is wasteful, reduces America’s foreign policy efficacy, and leaves us open to complaints of militarism.
The eclipse that Secretary Acheson wrote about has been a long slow decline. Through the last half of the 20th century, the Department of Defense maintained its stature in terms of budget and authorities while the State Department remained in a kind of stasis. The Agency for International Development has dodged many silver bullets from Congress, but gradually lost 75% of its staffing. The U.S. Information Agency wasn’t so lucky and disappeared, most of its programs and people subsumed into the Department of State.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq highlighted the weaknesses of the Department of State and USAI D. When State couldn’t fill 350 civilian positions in Iraq and 300 positions in Afghanistan, Defense filled the gaps. In lower profile missions, particularly strategic counter-terrorism operations in Africa, Defense has again been asked to step into the breach because of structural weaknesses on the civilian side of the enterprise.
Across the Sahel and Maghreb soldiers are conducting development and public diplomacy tasks because there simply aren’t enough civilians. Yet, the soldiers often lack the specific knowledge necessary to properly accomplish the tasks. As one exasperated officer queried, “How do I, as a military professional, know what’s best for the development of this country? USAID is trained for that.” But there is no USAID mission in that country.
In the midst of a flailing reconstruction mission in Iraq, the Bush administration dramatically reversed field from its early position of avoiding the distractions of state building to call for the creation of a U.S. government coordinator of stabilization and reconstruction operations. The Pentagon, keenly aware of the need for integrated diplomatic and development actions to complement its kinetic operations, issued a directive placing these activities on equal footing with combat operations and instructed the service chiefs to create capacity within the services for reviving private sector economic activity and developing representative government institutions.
The Congress granted Defense authorities and funding to conduct stabilization operations, including activities which under the moribund 1961 Foreign Assistance Act were reserved for State and USAI D. These authorities and funding streams further weakened the civilian agencies’ ability to conduct development and diplomacy. Further, this action placed the military at the forefront of foreign policy implementation to the point that Congressional reporting showed concern that foreign nations would believe the military implemented U.S. foreign policy.
But things have begun to improve. A sheaf of recent commentaries and in-depth reports on the problem laid out specific needs. The Bush administration put in place programs and policies to begin to repair the capabilities of the civilian foreign affairs enterprise. The State Department now hosts the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stability which oversees the Civilian Reserve Corps. The CRC is a planned 4,250-strong band of civilian experts ready to deploy alongside the military. Only a few dozen of the civilian responders are actually on staff and trained, though. Congress needs to fully fund this program and to create a civilian National Security University to train the civilian expeditionary force.
However, hiring and training the civilian responders won’t address the enormous personnel shortages at State and USAID. The CRC is an expeditionary force created for the most part out of existing capacity. Congress needs to increase the size of State and USAID by hiring nearly 5,000 Foreign Service Officers. Once the personnel are in place and trained, Congress can then return the authorities and funding for development and security assistance activities to the Department of State. Until that time, Congress should allow DoD to maintain limited authorities in these areas, but should continue to deny requests to make these authorities permanent.
Department of Defense personnel on long-term assignment to U.S. embassies should be assigned under the authority of the chief of mission rather than the regional combatant commander. In most countries, specifically those in which there is not a massive U.S. combat deployment, DoD should limit its activities to direct military-to-military engagement. This will reduce the chance that DoD will use its civil affairs operations as cover for intelligence operations, a practice that should stop.
Managing whole-of-government actions like major stabilization and reconstruction operations will require unheard of and, sadly, unlikely levels of inter-agency cooperation. The fledgling Interagency Management System is untested and, we believe, unlikely to prove successful in its current form. Inter-agency squabbling and turf battles have erupted in the development process of the IMS. Getting this right will require executive oversight above the cabinet level — at the National Security Council or, perhaps, within the Office of the Vice President.
A root cause of the problems outlined in this report is a lack of trust among Congress, the Pentagon and the Foreign Service. Congress, having underfunded the civilian parts of the enterprise for generations, lacks confidence in civilian capacity to get the job done. The Pentagon, USAID and the Department of State must earn each others’ trust through better communication and exchanges — of both ideas and of personnel. Trust and patience are often in short supply in Washington. Both are necessary if America’s foreign policy enterprise is to reach its full strength.
Download the full report.