Streamline, Don't Swell, Our Foreign Affairs Machine

12/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Experts say Obama must beef up the State Department, giving it more money and more people. They note that the better-funded Pentagon has been usurping functions that belong in or under State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Certainly the State Department and USAID need more money. They do not need more people. One wonders if some of those who urge growth see themselves among new Under and Assistant Secretaries overseeing a more complex structure.

It is already too complex. I wrote over two decades ago in the Christian Science Monitor that the State Department had twice as many Under and Assistant Secretaries as it needed. There are more, now, although the basic tasks of the Department, USAID, and our posts abroad have changed little.

Experts argue that since the world grows ever more complex, we must have a larger State Department to deal with it. Take, for example, the ever grimmer question of climate change. Doesn't State need more people to deal with this?

No. To each her own, as the saying goes. Diplomats don't need to become climatologists and climatologists don't need to join embassies. Our embassies' task is to (1) report to Washington what broadly transpires in Country X on, say, climate change -- and its relationship to politics, government, and public opinion -- that may be a matter for action by our own government and/or the world community; and (2) convey to the leaders and opinion makers of Country X the views of our own government on the subject. Embassies, and the State Department, do not need a staff of PhDs for this; they need people who can talk to experts and authorities and report succinctly what they say. If an expert in Boulder wants details from a colleague in Dhaka he will ask him directly.

The problem in our foreign-affairs apparatus goes beyond the argument on complexity, the bureaucratic proliferation of top jobs in the State Department in Washington, or Defense getting into State business.

Over recent decades, almost every Federal agency has claimed a share in conducting foreign relations. These claims have almost without exception been met or, more often, simply ignored by the only person who can rule on such matters -- the President.

The most visible result has been the growth in the size of our embassies abroad, which have filled with attachés from many agencies. Our embassy in Baghdad, the largest embassy of any country in any other country, was designed for a staff of a thousand and many of our Baghdad staff come from outside State ranks. In the 1980s, when I was the deputy chief of mission at our embassy in Rome, it already sheltered officers who came from twenty Federal agencies. By the dawn of the present century this number had grown to thirty.

That is not the way other countries do it. For example, while the November 2008 Rome diplomatic list, published by the Italian foreign ministry, lists 119 officers in the American embassy in Rome, there are only 23 officers in the British embassy, 38 in the German, 47 in the Chinese, and 66 in the Russian. As to the Italians, while they may be known for bureaucracy their Washington embassy today totals just 37 officers. One might argue that it is natural for the Italian embassy here to be smaller than our embassy in Rome, since the United States remains far larger than Italy in GDP, military power, population, etc. But should the Italians not then have the larger of the two embassies, in order to deal with the larger power?

We will soon have a President who does not see his job as restricted to making speeches while the economy crumbles, hurricanes crush cities, and society divides. Among the problems Obama faces is our need for more efficient human organization -- a problem that all recent presidents have ignored. Bureaucracy plagues all of America, not just government. General Motors has far more senior managers than Toyota, yet produces fewer vehicles. The Army has one-third more generals per hundred thousand soldiers than it did a quarter-century ago. Universities have proliferated provosts and deans.

In foreign affairs, Obama needs to make the State Department what it was once: our government's efficient arm for dealing with the world in situations short of war. Send home half or more of all those embassy attachés from elsewhere, and then simplify the organization of the State Department (and not just State), so that negotiation again means dealing with other governments and not endless meetings inside and between agencies.

It took Senator Jesse Helms to bring the U.S. Information Agency back inside State. Should not Obama bring our aid and trade-promotion programs back to State? USIA veterans still wonder if State puts enough weight on public diplomacy; would it do so if aid and trade were also in State's hands?

Foreign aid will no doubt remain a relatively small item, except when we respond to disasters. It is no secret -- except to most American voters -- that our developmental aid is the smallest, as a percentage of GDP, of any developed country. Even so it languors in the care of a separate, bureaucratized agency.

We badly need to beef up trade promotion, at a time when we suffer colossal trade deficits. Three decades ago Commerce took over trade promotion from State; Commerce wanted it and Carter's Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, didn't care. Since then Commerce has accomplished little. Efficiency requires putting trade promotion back under State, while ensuring that State does care. (How much America can really hope to export is a different question.)

These are problems that only a President can fix. No one at a lower level, not even a Vice President, can resolve inter-agency rivalries and streamline, with the support of Congress, the Executive Branch.

What of Intelligence? George W. Bush met the charges of "intelligence failure" after 9/11 by adding one more bureaucratic layer, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, that with its staff of fifteen hundred has become an additional player in Washington's bureaucratic games. In the intelligence field, as generally in foreign affairs, we need streamlining. We need to keep things in perspective, as well. Our intelligence services produce vital information, but it is the people of the Foreign Service who produce an estimated two-thirds of the reporting on the foreign world that is the basis for our government's actions in areas outside actual war.

Not least of our problems in foreign affairs is that of political appointees. We are the only advanced country that maintains a diplomatic spoils system. Every president in recent decades, Democratic or Republican, has appointed around a third of our ambassadors from outside the career service, although the Foreign Service Act of 1980 states specifically that such appointments "should normally be accorded to career members of the Service."

In the State Department itself, career officers get a crack at some top jobs, but I do not forget the 32-year-old Assistant Secretary who had political backing but no qualification for the job beyond a year he had spent abroad when twenty. There are comparable cases among recent political ambassadors, although some others have been well qualified and have done well. In my time I served under two of the latter, Joseph Farland in Panama and Maxwell Rabb in Rome.

There is no use for good organization without good people. Obama needs to reward some of his big contributors, but let him do so in fields outside diplomacy. We have no political generals; we need to get away from having political ambassadors. As Jimmy Carter said on his way to the White House -- but he never followed through -- why not the best?

Some argue that the Foreign Service does not produce people qualified for top jobs. Nonsense. Almost without exception, the best American ambassadors since 1945 have come from the career service. But they can only be discouraged by having to oversee such swollen embassies. They are not given the authority to streamline their own staffs. Perhaps Obama will help them.

Peter Bridges retired from the Foreign Service after serving in three Federal agencies and in embassies on three continents. He was deputy executive secretary of the State Department, executive secretary of the Treasury Department, and American ambassador to Somalia.