The State Department's Structure Puts It at Odds with the WhiteHouse


The State Department's Structure Puts It at Odds with the WhiteHouse

September 22, 1988 18 min read Download Report
Peter Ferrara
Distinguished Fellow in China Policy
(Archived document, may contain errors)

673 September 22,1988 THE STATE DEPARTMENTS STRUCTURE PUTS IT AT ODDS WITH THE WHITE HOUSE INTRODUCTION Every President seems to have problems with the State Department. Typically, it seems the Departments career officials known as Foreign Service Officers or FSOs, resist White Ho use leadership, pursuing instead a personal agenda that often has little in common with the mandate given to the President by voters or even, at times, with the national interest.

An important cause of this is that FSOs, as experts in foreign countries and issues, often become so immersed in understanding the foreign countries for which they are responsible that they begin to view these countries as clients, whose interests must be explained defended, and advanced in Washington. At times, this comes (albei t unintentionally) at the cost of American interests. This problem has been called clientitis.

Another reason for discordance between the White House and FSOs is that a main goal of most career diplomats is to achieve warm relations and conclude agreements with foreign governments. This often inhibits FSOs from acting tough, even if that would be more in the interest of the United States Watering Down Policy. Another problem is the FSOs regional parochialism. Officials who work day after day on the problem s of a particular geographic area can acquire an exag gerated sense of the importance of that area and its problems FSOs become advocates of geographic areas, causing conflict within the State Department on policy issues that cut across bureau lines. The r e sult often is the watering down of policy positions or proposals to accommodate the concerns of regional bureaus or country offices. This produces policy recommendations lacking clarity, firmness, and decisiveness. The policy-making officials of This is t h e fifth in a series by the Heritage Foundation State Department Assessment Project. Upcoming studies will address such issues as how the State Department manages U.S.-Soviet relations, the Departments approach to Soviet espionage, and an analysis of the r ole of Foreign Service Oficers. government, at the White House and within the State Department, need better guidance than they often receive now from the State Departments bureaucracy.

Possible solutions include the appointment of more policy-level officia ls who are dedicated to the Presidents agenda, making FSOs more accountable to the nations political leadership, reducing the size of the Foreign Service, encouraging the assignment of FSOs outside the service, and redirecting the energies and abilities o f FSOs. A serious effort to reform the present system along these lines could bring this career bureaucracy and U.S. foreign policy, under the effective control of the President and the American people. c AN INSTITUTIONAL PROBLEM Every President since Fran k lin Roosevelt has criticized the State Department, expressing dissatisfaction and even exasperation with the advice and recommendations emanating from Foggy Bottom, the low-lying area of Washington where the State Department is located. This pervasive dis trust of the State Department is partly the reflection of an institutional problem and partly the redt of the attitude and agenda of FSOs, who dominate the staff both at the State Department in Washington and at Foreign Service posts abroad.

The institutio nal problem is common to professional diplomats everywhere. The foreign offices of most countries pursue friendly relations with other governments. Too often this means seeking negotiations and agreements between states as-ends in themselves. Their busine ss is to avoid confrontation and unfriendly relations. Thus, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (called the Malvinas by the Argentines the British Foreign Office advised Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to use diplomacy instead of self-defense.

Sh e rejected the advice, her Foreign Secretary resigned, and she fought and won the Falklands war. The proclivity to accommodation shown in that instance by the British Foreign Office is an institutional characteristic of most foreign services THE FOREIGN S E RVICE AGENDA In addition to such institutional leanings, the U.S. Foreign Service has its.own agenda Often it differs considerably from that of the President. On the typical FSO agenda is a preference To emphasize the interests of the. country or area he o r she is assigned to, or is working on To pursue negotiations and accommodation as the preferred way of solving international problems To protect the Foreign Service as an institution 2 I To improve career status by obtaining an important title, good assi gnments, frequent promotions, and annual bonuses.

Carrying out the wishes of the President inevitably becomes secondary to these more specific concerns, which serve the best interests of the FSO and his peers in the Foreign Ser vice If the personal or Foreign Service interests conflict with the Administrations interests, the Foreign Service agenda nearly always takes precedence.

After all, Administrations come and go; the career officer remains He therefore wants to please his s uperiors in the service and not the non-career presidential appointees, who cannot determine whether he is promoted, receives a bonus, is forced to leave the service early, or in many cases where and to what duties he is assigned. Those decisions are made either by boards of peers or by senior career officers who constitute an informal but close knit and highly effective old boy network Thus, to advance his career the FSOmust satisfy his peers rather than the political appointees of a transitory Administra t ion LACK OF PRESIDENTIAL CONFIDENCE IN STATE Because of lack of confidence in the State Department, Franklin Roosevelt relied on special assistant Harry Hopkins and used the Navy communications system to deal directly with foreign leaders. Harry Truman, a c cording to his daughter Margaret, never stopped wishing that someone would shake up the State Department.2 Dwight Eisenhower relied on Secretary of State John Foster Dulles personally to formulate and to a large extent conduct foreign policy, while keepin g the bulk of the State Department at arms length.

Reflecting a continuing concern about the effects of overstaffing, Dulles asked why the State Department needed more than 25 or 30 people. John Kenned3 also was annoyed at what he called the State Departme nts elephantiasis, and said State was like a bowl full of jello. Richard Nixon was concerned about the State Departments softness and di~loyaltjr and gave Henry Kissinger unparalleled authority to formulate and conduct major foreign policy activities with little or no participation by the Department No Survivors. Every memoir of Presidents and the Presidents men contains critical references to the State Department. Even liberal former Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith observed in a letter to Presi d ent Kennedy If the State Department drives you crazy you might calm yourself by contemplating its effect on me. The other night I woke with a blissful feeling and discovered I had been dreaming that the whole Gogdam place had burned down I dozed off again hoping for a headline saying no survivors.

Congress,.too, has found cause to be critical of the State Department, demonstrating its concern by assigning numerous foreign affairs functions to other departments and agencies J.E. Trent, Survey of Previous Re ports on Organizational Reform in the Foreign Affairs Community, 1974.

Margaret Truman, Harry S Truman (New York W. Morrow, 1973).

J.K. Galbraith,htbassadors Journal (New York Houghton Miflin, 1%9).

John Ehrlichman, Mfness to Power (New York Simon Schuster, 1982).

Galbraith, op. ck, p. 163 3 Today, over 61 government agencies are involved in one way or another in the conduct of foreign affairs and nearly 50 have at least some personnel assigned abroad WHY THE STATE DEPARTMENT IS A PROBLEM FOR PRESIDENTS Control of Information Since the State Department controls the cables and reports from overseas posts and the rest of the global network of information on which the larger foreign affairs community must rely, it usually can control responses to events. I t can interpret, delay, mold, and even thwart the stated policy positions of the nations political leadership. The Foreign Service has been accused, by Democrats and Republicans alike, of doing all of these things at various times. Through strong President s and weak, the Department of State-has retained impressive bureaucratic strength, which quickly emerges when the opportunity arises Placing Priority on Institutional Self-Interest While the State Department has about 25,000 employees in Washington and abr o ad, the system is dominated by the corps of fewer than 4,000 FSOs. Within this exclusive club is an even more exclusive group of some 800 senior officers, the members of the Senior Foreign Service. They dominate and control the Foreign Service, the State D epartment and sometimes, U.S. foreign policy. About 100 of them are ambassadors; dozens more serve in many of the top policy-making jobs in Washington. Their loyalty to the Foreign Service as an institution is fierce, born of a belief that their understan ding of world affairs-is unique unassailable, and indispensable to the President, his senior advisers, and the Congress.

Foreign Service Officers consider themselves professionals with special knowledge of world affairs that is unmatched elsewhere and whic h should be accepted without question by political leaders. Few professional groups, other than medical doctors, lay claim to such exclusivity Ignoring American Interests The Foreign Service Officers detailed knowledge of foreign places, cultures, politic a l systems, and foreign policy problems, gained in many cases through years.ofon.the-scene experience, gives him an ability to understand and explain the actions and interests of other countries. This background, however, does not aid in understanding the U.S. or its interests.

In fact, deep immersion in foreign cultures can make an FSO a stranger in his own land or even alienate him from Americas policies and values.

Nothing in Foreign Service work or training replenishes the knowledge of American interes ts which the young Foreign Service Officer may have brought with him into the service. As experience is acquired in foreign languages, cultures, and societies, whatever he knew about U.S. attitudes and politics fades. In this system, rewards accrue to tho s e who demonstrate knowledge of international not domestic issues 4 The Problem of Clientitis This orientation of FSOs toward international issues leads to the clientitis predisposition to identify closely with a country or region and to sympathize with th e problems or concerns of that area. Example: After years of intensive immersion in the language, culture, and morals of an Arabic society, it should not be surprising for an FSO to become more sensitive to Arabic views and values than to American.

It is n atural that when political leaders propose a policy change or action likely to have an impact beyond Americas borders, the FSO will think first of the reaction of other countries. All the training and experience an FSO undergoes during his career relates t o events in other countries. Even on assignment in Washington, his working hours deal not with issues of concern to Americans, but those of concern to foreign countries or areas Exasperated by Americans Reactions. His performance is judged by his superior s on the basis of his knowledge, understanding, and interpretation of such issues. His recommendation often will be to modify an Administration proposal to mollify or accommodate foreign reaction. That the reaction of Americans, in the White House or other government agencies, in the Congress, or in the country at large, might be different, is likely to be viewed more with exasperation than understanding.

A recent example was the vote by Congress to close the United Nations observer office in New York of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO an acknowledged terrorist organization. The legislation passed the House by an overwhelming 365-

47. Yet the State Department bitterly fought the closing because it was opposed by the U.N. Secretariat and most foreign countries, and complicated States plans to deal with the PLO.

Indeed, the FSO is likely to consider the elected officials attitude nai ve and the.result of inadequate information. As Truman wrote in his memoirs many career officials regard themselves as the men who really make policy and look upon elected officials as just temporary occupants. And, this has happened at State.

The Quest f or Warm Relations By definition, a successful FSO builds good will and maintains good relationswit.h-the country to which he is assigned or for which he is responsible. The officer who takes a tough position toward a foreign government, if not specificall y ordered to do so, may well be graded poorly in his performance ratings, no matter how anti-American or otherwise objectionable the foreign government may have behaved. It is not diplomatic to show toughness towards foreign governments.

The danger of maki ng warm relations the top priority becomes clear, for example in economic issues. These often involve direct and obvious U.S. business and financial interests, that conflict with interests of other countries. Resolving such issues as the trade 6 Harry Tru man, Years of Ttid and Hope (New York Doubleday, 1956 5 imbalance with Japan, for example, to the satisfaction of U.S. interests while maintaining warm relations with Japan is very difficult.

Debt issues typically bring out the innate conflict between prud ent economic policies and the propensity of the State Department to maintain warm relations. Insisting that countries pay their debts or reschedule them in a financially acceptable way almost always requires pressure on the debtor country to do things its government would rather avoid. In such matters FSOs tend to suggest that the U.S. interest should yield Because of this attitude, many State Department responsibilities have been given to other departments. The Department of Agriculture has its own mini-f o reign service. Most foreign commercial functions have been transferred from State to the Department of Commerce the Special Trade Representative has been put in charge of international trade negotiations, and attaches from the Treasury Department perform t he most challenging economic and financial duties at. key embassies. This transfer of functions and responsibilities from the State Department to other government departments is likely to continue, leading to a further fracturing of U.S. foreign policy, u n less the State Department can become more responsive to the policy goals of the Administration in office The Promotion Process Promotes Conformity The pursuit of personal advancement may be more vigorous in the Foreign Service than in any other personnel s ystem. The performance of Foreign Service Officers is judged in agonizing detail every year. Panels of peers are convened annually to review the qualifications for advancement. Word of the promotions quickly is circulated to anxious hopefuls at posts arou nd the world. The numbers promoted are small, from among a corps of professionals of whom virtually all aspire to the top ranks of the service.

The fanfare accompanying the process and the public release of the results makes the desire to be one of the cho sen all the stronger. Promotion worthiness is based almost entirely on the record of an officers past performance, as written by his superior. The enormous influence of a single supervisor on the success or failure of the entire career of an FSO creates a strong tendency to conform; obsequiousness is common. It also compels the officer to pursue the services own unwritten agenda Regional Parochialism Distorts Analysis The State Department in Washington and many American embassies and missions abroad have s t affs far too large for effective operations. This confines the scope of most jobs to narrow areas of responsibility and an exaggerated emphasis on events occurring in a specific country. Most FSOs must focus their energies on narrow national or regional i s sues in a world where few international problems are so limited. The conduct of a global strategy runs contrary to the geographic orientation of most State Department officials. Rivalry for advancement compels the FSO to show his superiors that he will fi g ht to support the interests of his country or area of responsibility, defending his area any time it is touched by a.broader policy action or initiative. It is difficult for the State Department to establish global or even cross-regional policies or initi a tives because of the intense geographic orientation of many FSOs, who see things only in the context of their area 6 I This regional parochialism is one of the reasons the State Department rarely develops clear recommendations and dislikes following stron g policy positions. A firm posture in any part of the world is likely to have effects, however insignificant, in other parts. When regional specialists, protecting the interests of their region, insist on changes in policies global in scope or in policies i ntended primarily for a different region, the result can weaken the overall U.S. position Bureaucracy Encourages a Watering Down Process The vigorous defense of the accepted approach to issues in each area inevitably leads to policy compromises, unclear r ecommendations, and weak policy positions. This is the result of a system where every office and bureau claims veto power over anything related to activities in its area of responsibility. Issues are brokered out by the Executive.

Secretariat to assure tha t the peculiar viewpoint of each geographic unit involved in any way is addressed and somehow accohodated, as though each was of equal importance. The country officer for Yemen, for example, will fight fiercely to revise a long cable even if the cable onl y mentions his country in passing. This tendency to water down policy issues often produces State Department positions lacking clarity and decisiveness.

These jurisdictional battles are hard fought, and often are far more difficult than negotiating with fo reign governments. Theoretically, if units within the Department find themselves at loggerheads, the issue is supposed to be sent upstairs to a level beyond geographic distinctions. This is rarely done, however, because of time and workload constraints. T h e issue usually is worked out, with policy concessions by the weaker office or offices. Once a position is decided within the Department through this process, there is a predictable reluctance to review or reconsider it, even when there is a different vie w at the White House or in Congress. The result sometimes is a State Department pursuing its own policies, which may be different from those of the President or the rest of the Administration Overstaffing Provides Time to Meddle in Policy For years the Sta t e Department has suffered from overstaffing. Many well qualified officers are working at levels below their ability. This leads to make-work, nitpicking, and a tendency to revise cables or papers that are generated elsewhere. Within the State Department t h e illusion is created of understaffing and of FSOs who are greatly overworked. The apparent heavy workload is the result of excessive bureaucratic quibbling over minor issues, the wording of letters and cables, and even very routine matters. The workload i s also the direct result of too many people whose work is divided into too many jurisdictions, which frequently overlap Conventional Wisdom. Idle senior officers have the opportunity, given the requirement for a dozen or more clearances on most telegrams o r policy papers, to interject the views of their office into the Departments communications. Such views usually represent the conventional wisdom the office has been following for years, even though it may contradict or undermine policies of the Administr a tion in office 7 The result is a State Department approach to issues that often appears to be stagnant unimaginative, accommodating to foreign governments, relatively soft on adversaries of the United States, and supportive of the status quo. It is unlike l y that this can change unless excess FSOs are cut or assigned outside the State Department and those remaining are given more significant duties and responsibilities REQUIREMENTS FOR STATE DEPARTMENT REFORM Efforts to reform the State Department have met with only limited success, if any. But it may be that these efforts failed because they proceeded from a wrong premise: that by adjusting the boxes of an organization chart the relationships could be altered to produce a new and better product.

Another app roach has been to create new ways of motivating Foreign Service Officers to higher levels of production. This has included improved training programs,. revisions in the grade structure, or increasing titles to enhance the influence of the FSO within the W ashington bureaucracy. The main consequence of these attempts has been to increase fringe benefits and allowances. Needed reform has been avoided.

The State Department bureaucratic culture must be changed to encourage FSOs to put the success of the policie s of the elected President above their personal interests and bureaucratic imperatives. This can be done by appointing to the Departments senior policy-making positions more individuals committed to the Presidents policies and willing to fight for them. A t the same time, the size of the Departments career bureaucracy should be reduced; more FSOs should be detailed to other federal agencies, state and local governments, and private businesses to increase an FSOs understanding of American interests; and the P residents policy-level appointees should assume greater authority over the benefits that motivate career officers Appoint Policy-Oriented Officials The first step is the appointment of senior officials at the State Department who are fully committed to ca r rying out the policies of the President. This means very few career FSOs should hold such policy jobs as Under Secretary and Assistant Secretary. It makes more sense to appoint senior career officers as ambassadors abroad, where their long overseasf exper ience, knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, and contacts with foreign political leaders can be used most effectively.

The senior policy positions in Washington should be filled by appointees of the President who share his vision and goals, as shoul d more State Department jobs below the level of Assistant Secretary. Each senior level presidential appointee should have at least one deputy, one special assistant, and one staff assistant designated by the White House, in addition to the career staff, t o assure that the Administrations policies are being carried out in the detailed decisions that are made in the day-to-day work of the Department a Make Careerists Accountable to the Political Leadership The most essential organizational change is the redu ction of the State Department to a manageable size in terms of policy development and execution. Those careerists responsible for directing and carrying out the conduct of international relations must be directly accountable to political leadership.

This m eans that personal career interests, including promotions, assignments, bonuses and even retention in the service, must be more directly related to the success or failure of the policies and goals of the President and his senior appointees. At present, th e re is almost no direct relationship between the success of these policies and the career success of FSOs responsible for advancing them. The root of this problem is the peer review concept whereby FSOs are judged for promotions, bonuses, and retention by boards of peers rather than by appointees of the Administration.

Perhaps the easiest improvement would be to correct the system of executive bonuses established during the Carter Administration by the Foreign Service Act of 19

80. Under this, bonuses for senior career executives are set by annual boards composed mainly of FSOs. Thus, the management of the Department cannot select the recipients of bonuses even for the top officers in the Foreign Service. The result: many of the same members of the old boy network receive bonuses year after year that range up to $10,000 and periodically may go as high as $20,0

00. A change that would allow management to award executive bonuses is essential for the system of incentives to work as it should to reward those who most help the President carry out his foreign policy Encourage Outside Assignments Reducing the number of those involve& the conduct of foreign relations could go a long way toward establishing a more direct relationship betw e en policy goals and performance. A smaller professional staff would have to concern itself with larger issues and would have less time or inclination to engage in petty disputes based on the defense of narrow geographic interests or bureaucratic turf. Few e r reports to write and read, fewer papers circulating within the Department, and fewer meetings would contribute to a more focused and objective operation The staff could be reduced without mass firings by assigning large numbers, perhaps hundreds, of FSO s for two or three years to fill vacancies or meet requirements in other government agencies in the U.S. and abroad. Working for other federal agencies, and for state and local governments, could help Americanize FSOs who may be succumbing to clientitis, w h ile providing useful foreign perspectives on domestic issues Changing States Unique Perspective. In the past, there has been strong resistance within the Foreign Service to assignments outside the State Department, except for university training. The oppo s ition stems from the belief that time spent outside the Departments Foreign Service network harms career prospects. A former senior Department official has said that there is concern that FSOs on duty outside the Department will lose the unique 9 perspect ive that is shared by officers in the Department. Yet it is precisely the State Departments unique view of the world that needs to be changed.

The reluctance of FSOs to accept outside assignments could be met in part by having those assigned outside the St ate Department judged by a separate promotion panel authorized to promote a certain percentage of eligibles that is at least equal to the percentage promoted by the regular panels CONCLUSION Imposing drastic change on a wary bureaucracy is never easy. Sta t e has proved particularly adept at deflecting reorganization proposals. To be successful, a reform plan needs to be carefully designed and must have the support of the President and Secretayof State. The Directors of the Office of Management and Budget an d the Office of Personnel Management should oversee the reform pr ect, erhaps coordinating the effort through a reconstituted Board of the Foreign Service. The appropriate congressional committees should be given a blueprint of the proposed reforms and the n be consulted closely on the reform effort Qip Creating a New Path. Reforms should be welcomed by the many FSOs frustrated by the present system. Reforms would not threaten the Foreign Service as a career. Instead they would create a new path that gives g r eater emphasis to American affairs and interests, an emphasis that should please Congress and the American people gain experience working in the U.S. This should make it easier for FSOs to retire in their fifties and start second careers do their colleagu e s in the military. The results: greater control of foreign policy by the President and his appointees, a leaner and more efficient State Department, and an improved career pattern for FSOs The FSO would have new opportunities to expand his knowledge of do m estic affairs and Prepared for The Heritage Foundation by John Krizay 7 The Board of the Foreign Service is supposed to oversee activities that affect the ForeignServicepin coordinate such matters among the agencies that employ Foreign Service Officers. P rior to 1985, the law required the Chairman of the Board to be a career FSO, appointed by and reporting to the Secretary of State.

In 1985, Congress passed legislation making the Chairman a presidential appointee and removing the prior requirement that he be a career FSO, in an effort to give the board greater oversight authority. However, the incumbent Chairman, career FSO George Vest, who also serves as Director General of the Foreign Service, was retained in the job by the Reagan Administration. This ha s frustrated the efforts of Congress to create a body with an independent Chairman that could provide effective oversight of the Foreign Service John Krizay served as a Foreign Service Officer from 1954 to 1976 10


Peter Ferrara

Distinguished Fellow in China Policy